By Hannah Grannemann

In this blog post, I’ll discuss the Opportunity Task Force’s
Strategy E: Support parents and caregivers as a child’s first teacher in promoting positive early brain development, social emotional health and early literacy beginning at birth. There are connections to other, related strategies, such as mental health (Strategy R).

At a CMS magnet school fair when looking at options for my son, I had a memorable conversation with a teacher. She taught at an elementary school that was a part-magnet for learning immersion and talent development for “advanced learners” with a “rigorous curriculum” and part-neighborhood school. I asked why the school didn’t include the neighborhood kids in the magnet program, since they were all starting at kindergarten. With sadness, she said, “the kids from the neighborhood just wouldn’t be able to keep up.” I thought, they haven’t even started kindergarten and we know that they will do less well than their peers?

I shared her sadness. It wasn’t news to me that many kids from low income households arrive at kindergarten already behind – but it is rare that it is stated so plainly. I’m reminded of this story as I read the Opportunity Task Force report’s recommendations on early childhood.

Let me focus on the Task Force’s recommendation on parenting and caregivers in early childhood and ask the question:

How can the arts be used by parents and caregivers at home to ensure children are developing well during this crucial period of early childhood?

As I said in my earlier blog post, we are not starting from scratch. In fact, the arts are so well integrated into daycare and preschool classrooms as teaching tools, we don’t even think of them as something separate. That’s because the arts are a natural fit with the developmental needs of birth to age 5 that lead right into kindergarten readiness.

The Opportunity Task Force strategy focuses on the rapid brain development during this time of life. As they note, “sound ‘brain architecture’ lays the foundation for later emotional, physical, intellectual and social development.” [Side note: I recall hearing Task Force Co-Chair Ophelia Garmon-Brown saying at an event that the Task Force had read about how learning music helps young brains develop – fantastic to hear that was part of their learning.]

While a parent can’t see a brain actually developing, this development can be witnessed in real life in the developmental stages a child goes through, so these outer manifestations can be what a parent can focus on.

Here are some simple examples of how the arts are used to teach the most fundamental skills of early childhood:

Language and Literacy: How did you learn your ABC’s? By singing the Alphabet song! That’s music integration. What do you read before words? Pictures of course – that’s visual art: drawing, painting, collage, photography.*

Fine Motor Skills: Playdoh and clay, painting, drawing in all media, stringing beads, making crafts all practice fine motor skills that are used in writing, eating, and everyday life.

Gross Motor Skills: Dancing, of course! Dramatic play as well. When you’re pretending to be a firefighter (for example), you’re using your whole body to act out the story in a very precise way.

Writing: Drawing is a pre-writing skill. For example, coloring within the lines helps kids learn how to space letters when writing*. Holding a marker or crayon to draw is practice for holding a pencil to write.

Social skills: Dramatic play (which starts as early as when you play “peek a boo” at around 5 months old) helps kids figure out different ways of interacting and social norms and boundaries of different people.

Emotional development: The arts are a primary way that people (including children) express themselves and explore their thoughts, points of view, emotions and relationships. Preschool teachers know that each drawing has a story. It may look like scribbles, but if you stop and ask a child, it may be the stars and a rocket flying into space*. Or a child starts playing with the baby dolls when she never has before. Why? There’s a new baby coming soon to her home and she’s trying to process how her life will change.

Preschool teachers know how the arts help them accomplish their teaching goals. The preschool classroom may look like just play, but it’s a complex learning environment. Teachers develop curriculum and lesson plans to develop specific developmental skills both cognitive and social-emotional. Preschool teachers have expertise – many have associates, Bachelor’s or even Master’s degrees in Early Childhood Education – not to mention years and decades of teaching experience.

Keys to Dissemination

Let’s get more of this knowledge about using the arts out to parents and caregivers to use at home for their youngest children. But how?

  1. Get the knowledge and expertise about how to use the arts for early childhood development from the teachers to the parents. Three parts to this:
    a) Use the preschool teachers: develop ways for these knowledgeable preschool teachers to teach and support parents in how to use the arts at home to either reinforce what they’re learning at daycare or preschool, or (if they child is not attending a daycare or preschool) what skills are needed and how they can teach them.b) Use the arts teachers: connect the arts teachers in the K-12 CMS and private schools with ways to learn about the developmental needs of early childhood. Find ways and outlets for them to develop curriculum using their art forms in ways that can be used at home and in preschools and daycares. [Another idea: find rock star parents who are home schooling their children and want to share their creative ways of teaching with a broader audience.]c) Use the teaching artists: teaching artists in Charlotte working at arts organizations and community organizations (like the YMCA or JCC) are often familiar with K-12 curriculum because the organizations often need to or want to connect their curriculums to state education standards. Bring them into the early childhood sphere and the needs of infants/toddlers/preschoolers, expand their teaching knowledge and give them the means for creating teaching tools for parents and caregivers.
  2. Increase the number of arts programs for early childhood at community, faith and arts organizations so parents and caregivers can learn arts techniques for teaching and parenting in locations with which they’re already familiar. Arts and community organizations can combine forces with social services to bring, create or adapt programs for low income families that can grow from a developmental activity for the kids to also give parents ideas about how to use the arts at home. [This can also connect to Strategy L, increasing involvement of fathers in their child’s life, by creating opportunities for fathers or both parents to learn.] We don’t even need anything particularly new, probably. Already in Charlotte we have Music Together, Side-by-Side at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, PlayPlay! Theatre, Art Exploration at Community School of the Arts, Creative Movement at Charlotte Ballet, and more. Use the existing arts infrastructure in expanded ways.
  3. Make sure programs are designed with the families in mind. It’s an understatement to say that these families are busy and stressed with fundamental needs. Connect with the families to listen deeply about what would work for them: short videos that are mobile friendly? A booklet? A class? What’s the best location, length and time? What kind of message is going to be most effective – should it focus on future school success, behavior improvements, or family connectedness? [The arts has a positive impact on all these areas, but we might not know which will resonate most with families to get them interested in participating.] How will all this be different for a homeless family, a family in a house with multiple generations under one roof, or a family with experiences of trauma? Don’t generalize, be sure that programs are responsive to any specific needs.
  4. Leverage existing communications channels to maximize effectiveness. Why reinvent the wheel? Use the communication channels of preschools and daycares for families who use them. Depending on what they already use, these might include texting, email, phone calls, websites, notes sent home from school. Use faith and community organizations and their existing programs and communications that reach families, such as the music or dance ministries. Use social services and nonprofits and their existing touchpoints with low income families such as parenting classes, visits or appointments to share these educational arts resources. Use innovative communications methods that have been tried in other settings. For example, text messaging has been used to encourage parents to utilize prenatal care. Why not use it for improving parenting skills? Periodic texts saying something like, “Singing to your baby helps build their vocabulary and brings you closer” could be just the nudge needed to get a parent to do something helpful.

The Impact of Toxic Stress

Another way the arts may meet a need the Opportunity Task Force identified is by addressing the “toxic stress” experienced by children in poverty mentioned in the early childhood strategy. [See also Strategy R on mental health.] Of course, the best way to relieve the toxic stress is by alleviating the ways in which families are finding themselves in poverty in the first place, with job, financial, housing and food insecurity and all the other instabilities they experience.

Even as these areas are being addressed systemically and at the individual family level, the arts may be able to help. A 2016 study by the Society for Research in Child Development showed that intensive arts programming in a Philadelphia preschool with low income children reduced their cortisol (stress hormone) levels.  Chronically high levels of cortisol impede brain development in children.

Can the arts help reduce (or reduce the impact of) toxic stress at home, for parents and children? I don’t have the expertise to say; this would require further study as an offshoot of existing research on interventions on toxic stress. Perhaps integrating the arts into support mechanisms for parents could be effective when used in everyday life. Could parents and children use the arts – any of them – to process and better understand the stressors? For example, would we find that a good 5-minute parent-child dance break or singing along to a favorite song in the car reduces cortisol levels and builds familial bonds? Do one-on-one conversations where a caregiver invites a child to describe their drawing shows the child that they are valued and important, and slows down a busy, stressed parent to connect with and understand their child? It might only be brief – 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there that could be sustained over the long term – but it could contribute to family stability and resiliency.

Access to Quality Care

Finally, it must be said that access to high quality daycare and preschools (who, as I said earlier, already integrate the arts into their curricula), must be increased. This would be a major way to support parents and caregivers in getting access to knowledge and resources about proven ways for how the arts can positively impact early childhood development. The Opportunity Task Force mentions this need many times, calling on the public sector and private businesses to “make the necessary investments to ensure all children in Mecklenburg County from birth to age five have access to quality early care and education” and call for a “comprehensive funding strategy” to do so.

Giving parents and caregivers the tools to use the arts with their children during their early childhood would support all other educational, community and family efforts. It could be an “x-factor” that brings it all together to make a real difference, or it could be a primary means to move the needle.

Don’t miss Josh’s next blog post on supporting the early childhood workforce to create high quality daycares and preschools for low income children.

Thanks for reading and please add your thoughts and comments below, or visit Next Stage Consulting on Facebook and leave your comments there.

*My deep thanks to Connie Smith, Assistant Director of Providence Baptist Church Weekday School for these examples and talking with me about how arts are used in daycares, preschools and family life in preparation for writing this post.

HannahHannah Grannemann is an arts administrator based in Charlotte, NC. She has worked in theatre and the arts for 17 years, including with Yale Repertory Theatre, the Guthrie Theater, PlayMakers Repertory Company, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and as a fundraising and strategic planning consultant. She is a Board member of Arts NC, the statewide advocacy group and Theatre for Young Audiences/USA and serves on an advisory council for the Arts and Science Council of Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Hannah holds an MFA in Theater Management from Yale School of Drama and an MBA from Yale School of Management.