The Box
Oil on Linen
82 x 100


Science Says Art Will Make Your Kids Better Thinkers (and Nicer People)

A new study supports our hunch that kids who are exposed to the arts gain benefits beyond just being "more creative."

Those who would consider themselves part of the creative class would probably agree that art is an important part of primary school education. Since school boards concerned about the bottom line don't necessarily agree, a team of social scientists at the University of Arkansas is trying to scientifically prove the benefits of exposure to art. What they found, in a recent study published in the journals Education Next and Educational Researcher, is that students who are exposed to cultural institutions, like museums and performing arts centers, not only have higher levels of engagement with the arts but display greater tolerance, historical empathy, as well as better educational memory and critical thinking skills.

"The changes were measurable and significant," says Jay P. Greene, professor of education reform and a researcher on the study. In particular, a single museum tour was found to make "a definite impression on students." According to Greene, students on this tour remembered what they'd learned "even without an external reason for doing so—like a grade or a test."

Image: Flickr user Liz West


When the 50,000-square-foot Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened in Bentonville, Arkansas, two years ago, the museum offered 11,000 students free school tours. Each visiting group (chosen by lottery) viewed five paintings over the course of an hour. The tours were student-directed, which means curators did not lecture. Instead, they gave students minimal information about each painting and spent the majority of the time facilitating discussion.

Roughly three weeks later, students filled out a survey about their museum experience. In addition to recalling information about the paintings they'd seen, they were asked general questions about their tolerance toward others and whether they felt able to empathize with people from different historical periods. Finally, they were asked to write a short essay about a new painting—The Box by Bo Bartlet—which was not on display at the museum. Students who had entered the lottery but had not received group tours, formed the study's control group. They were also given a survey asking about empathy and tolerance and directed to write a short essay about The Box. Independent judges then coded all the essays based on a well-regarded critical-thinking-skills assessment program.

Image: Flickr user Silly Eagle Books


Greene’s team was surprised by how much "academic" information the test group had learned and remembered about the museum paintings. Students were able to recall that one painting dealt with price supports during the Great Depression and that another depicted abolitionists boycotting sugar.

"These historical details were not standard in the curator’s introduction," Greene explains. Which means that the discussion-based format compelled students to ask both important and relevant questions about the paintings. But something about the museum experience also enabled students to remember this information nearly a month later. That's remarkable, considering how quickly most kids forget knowledge they've learned for tests.

Further, when it came to analyzing the unfamiliar painting, Greene says there's "a big increase in how observant students were if they went to the art museum. They were much better at seeing details in the new painting than those who did not go." They were also better at relating the painting to their own experience, identifying subtext in the art, and allowing for multiple interpretations of the art. They were able to empathize with the people and scenarios depicted in a way that the control group did not.


"Before the study, a lot of people told us that the kids would just stare out the windows," says Greene. "Well, no, they don’t. They’re paying attention and absorbing information." Partly, this is linked to the non-lecture format of the experience. But Greene suspects the reason is also linked with removing students from their usual school environment and putting them in a culturally engaged setting.

Image: Flickr user John Lustig

"You can give students a high-quality reproduction of a painting but it's not the same," he says. "It’s the difference between watching a televangelist and going to church. It’s why museums and churches invest in architecture. The act of going gets people into a mindset to receive the experience."

It's not surprising that in Bentonville, a city with "a dearth of cultural experiences," according to Greene, the biggest discrepancy between the museum-goers and non-museum goers were students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Kids who were visiting the museum for the first time showed dramatic increases in critical thinking, empathy, and tolerance.

Of course, the school boards still want to know if the experience of visiting an art museum can help students improve their critical thinking skills in more traditional subjects. "We don’t know if art makes you better at critical thinking when solving a puzzle or a math problem," says Greene. "But we don’t have to translate math and reading into art to know they’re good. Why should we have to translate art into reading and math? Art is doing something on its own and that’s what we care about."

[Painting by Bo Bartlett]

Add New Comment


  • Karisa Keahey

    Children are hardwired for art. One of the tests for seeing if a child is ready for kindergarten is to have them draw a figure. All children draw, be it with a crayon on paper or a stick in the dirt, anywhere in the world, given the means to do so. They make the same kind of shapes and marks; dots, circles, lines, spirals, zigzags, angles and polygons. These are the basic marks that lead to the general geometric shapes. Art-making is very old. Remember the cave paintings, the oldest art that has survived to this day? It was not homo sapiens, but cro magnon that painted those. Our creativity is what helped us survive, it led to us forming civilizations, writing, math, architecture and science.

    I say this as a retired art teacher, "You want better scientists? Then help them be artists, muscians and dancers first."

  • Linda S Johnston

    I have never thought it was a good idea to cut or eliminate the arts from school curriulumn. Our family frequently goes to museums of all sorts, plays and concerts. We do not live in a big city! It expands our horizons and freshens our perspective.

  • Mary McGuirk

    Local AMATEUR ART and DRAMA are also very good...and often can be free if you are willing to help.

  • Matt Sealy

    creativity is key to self realisation the act of creating is so empowering and confidence boosting for children and adults . I believe art can help cure societies ills x

  • Daniel Faith

    I agree. It helps to expand the horizons. Many think that Arts is useless, but I am not one of them. It develops the creative side of you. I am not really good with drawing or other, but I am not bad when it comes to writing. So, I started attending Creative Writing (check http://essayonlinestore.com/ for examples) classes. They help a lot. I think that it is totally the same with Arts. Good article. Thanx a lot for it

  • Yeah i agree with you that art will make your kids better thinker. In kids art classes they create various artistic things and learn various techniques of self representation.

  • Janice Schacter Lintz

    Art is critical to all children including those with disabilities. Yet, far too many art museums are not accessible and brand new museums are being built without effective access for children with hearing loss.

    Children with hearing loss cannot succeed when artificial barriers are in place. All art museums need audible (induction loops), visual (captioning) and ASL available whenever there is sound either human or audio. When some art is not accessible it is similar to reading a book and some of the pages are missing.

    We hope museums that are reading this will follow leading art museums in New York City and add access for children with hearing loss.

    Janice Schacter Lintz, Chair, Hearing Access Program

  • John Naerr

    Its an amazing post. Thanks for sharing with us!! :) Art is a way where an artist can express emotions,feelings and love towards their viewers. Art helps a lot to enhance kids thinking process also. In art class they learn alot about self implementation,build ideas and think positively.

  • I like Jennifer's comment and would add that it also gives them/us the realization that we can create a difference, make a mark (pun intended) even if it is just in small circle to start.

  • SuperCool Art Kit

    This is the very reason that we started SuperCool Art. We wanted to help bridge the gap that is missing from our schools and foster creativity. Creating is vital to life. When a piece of art that a child created either hangs on the wall, or adorns the coffee table, or the Christmas tree, it instills a sense of pride that nothing else can. We are all co-creators of this world, we might as well make it as beautiful as possible!

  • julie

    Wish schools would embrace the concept of "Art History". Paintings of coronations, battles etc imprint "facts" while reminding us that history is written by the victor!