The value of the performing arts in early childhood education

Independent studies of the Wolf Trap Institute model, research from the arts education and early childhood fields, and Wolf Trap’s more than 30 years of experience affirm that the infusion of arts-integration strategies into curriculum content enhances early childhood development.

This includes language and literacy, social/emotional growth, STEM skills (science, technology, engineering, and math), and “21
st Century skills”—critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity.

The arts also provide teachers with resources that can help bridge education gaps that may be caused by economic disadvantages and foster children’s health and wellness, altogether a holistic approach designed to promote children’s success.

“The value of the performing arts in early childhood education is well documented. It’s how effectively and extensively we integrate the arts into classrooms across the country that will determine whether we reap their full potential to benefit our children in the 21st century.”

—Akua Kouyate-Tate, Senior Director, Wolf Trap Education

Developing skills for success as students, professionals, and citizens of the world

  • In 2010 the Partnership for 21st Century Skills noted that the “arts are among society’s most compelling and effective paths for developing 21st century skills in our students.” 
  • A May 2011 report from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities states: “To succeed today and in the future, America’s children will need to be inventive, resourceful, and imaginative. The best way to foster that creativity is through arts education.” 
  • “Champions of Change” editor Edward Fiske and his research team argued that the arts improve educational programming in several key ways, including transforming the learning environment by integrating disciplines, connecting learning experiences and the real world, and promoting complexity in the learning experience. (Fiske, 1999)
  • Preschool curricula that emphasize active engagement with children, promote positive interaction between classmates and with the teacher(s), and are motivating and challenging for children, are more likely to be successful in closing the achievement gap. (Klein & Knitzer, 2007)

Supporting STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) 

  • A recent independent study1—funded by the US Department of Education and conducted in the Wolf Trap Institute in Fairfax County, VA schools—found significant learning improvements, particularly in math, in children who participated in a Wolf Trap Institute classroom residency. STEM learning is a local, state, and national priority.
  • The arts and sciences share sequential learning and habits of mind that mutually support creative problem-solving, imaginative thinking, and transference of skills and knowledge to new experiences. (Siegler, n.d.)
  • STEM education must start with our youngest learners so that they develop interest and confidence in STEM subjects that build the pipeline of skilled workers prepared for the 21st century workforce. Foundational qualities necessary for these jobs are curiosity, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking which are key concepts that are best learned through the performing arts disciplines. (Chesloff, March 5, 2013)

Supporting language and literacy development

  • A 2006 independent study showed that preschool children who participated in a Wolf Trap Institute’s arts-integrated residency program, Fairfax Pages, scored significantly higher on standardized tests measuring 6 key areas: initiative, social relations, creative representation, language and literacy, logic and mathematics, and movement and music. Children were assessed before and after implementation of Wolf Trap’s program using the standardized, nationally validated Child Observation Record (COR), an observational assessment tool designed by High/Scope Educational Research Foundation and implemented in Fairfax County Public Schools and early childhood programs administered by the Fairfax County Office for Children. (Klayman, 2006) 
  • Research shows that instructional strategies integrating drama enhanced communication and academic achievement in low-income kindergartners. Although recent studies link arts-integrated learning activities to literacy and language development, their direct effect on learning has been difficult to demonstrate scientifically. Statistical analyses indicated that compared to children in control schools, children in the experimental schools showed significantly greater improvement in grammar development and in quantitative and qualitative measures of writing during their kindergarten year. Further, these students showed increases in report card grades and standardized test scores in 2 subsequent years of schooling without further intervention. Students classified as having special needs showed an even greater benefit from the project over time. (Kruger, n.d.)

Supporting health and wellness

  • Music is one activity where the mind-body connection is very strong, so it is a great way to promote both thinking and moving skills in young children. Research shows that very young babies adapt their movements based on what they hear. Babies will often show quick, rhythmic movements—bouncing or wiggling arms and legs—in response to lively songs. When hearing slower songs, they are more likely to vocalize and gesture. (Trawick-Smith & DeLapp, n.d.) 
  • Musical experiences have been found to stimulate important parts of the brain, even in very young infants. It is not surprising, then, that musical abilities in the early years are related to later academic skills, such as reading. (Trawick-Smith & DeLapp, n.d.) 
  • Research shows that active play provides many benefits to children’s social and emotional development: experiencing positive emotions, learning to express and identify emotions, gaining feelings of confidence and control, and forming strong relationships. (Trawick-Smith & DeLapp, n.d.)
  • Children who are competent in motor skills possess greater knowledge of various emotions than do children who are delayed in their motor abilities. (Trawick-Smith & DeLapp, n.d.)
  • The Dana Foundation convened a consortium in 2008 to investigate learning, arts, and the brain and stated: “There is growing evidence that learning of the arts—whether it be music, dance, drama, painting—has a positive impact on cognitive life.” (Galinsky, 2010)

Bridging the economic achievement gap and providing children living in disadvantaged communities better access to quality education

The National Center for Children of Poverty has described an achievement gap between preschool children from economically disadvantaged communities and their peers from other socioeconomic groups, as well as the role that professional development for teachers can play in closing the preparation gap. (Klein & Knitzer, 2007)

Quality arts-integrated professional development engages teachers and supports cross-curriculum integration.

  • The National Academy of Sciences’ study, Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers, notes that the professional development of teachers is correlated with the quality of early childhood programs, and that program quality predicts developmental outcomes for children—yet schools continue to lose funds for professional development. By emphasizing professional development of early childhood educators, Wolf Trap can expand its impact exponentially, as these teachers use Institute models and strategies throughout their careers. (Bowman, Donovan, & Burns, 2000)
  • American Institutes for Research recently published an Implementation Report on Wolf Trap’s Early Childhood STEM Learning Through the Arts project, examining the quality and fidelity of Wolf Trap’s professional development model. To measure the quality of professional development, the research team examined how the model compared to 6 features of quality professional development: form, duration, collective participation, content, active learning, and coherence. (Ludwig, M., & Goff, R., 2014)
  • A quote from one of Wolf Trap’s long standing community partners, Carol Basham, Loudoun County Head Start Administrative Coordinator, best articulates how intentional quality professional development can make a great impact on teacher’s practice: “As valuable as your work is for children, it is your support of our teachers which has had the most lasting impact on education here in Loudoun County. I have long been a proponent of your proven method of working with the teachers in their own classrooms, where they can see the direct effect of your methods and can experiment with new techniques under the guidance of a trained Wolf Trap teaching artist.”

Bowman, B. T., Donovan, M. S., & Burns, M. S. (Eds.). (2000). Eager to learn: Educating our preschooler. Washington, DC: The National Academies. Retrieved from

Chesloff, JD. (March 5, 2013). Why STEM education must start in early childhood. Education Week.

Fiske, E. B. (Ed.). (1999). Champions of change: The impact of the arts on learning. Washington, D.C.: The Arts Education Partnership and the President’s Commission on Arts and Humanities.

Galinsky, E. (2010). Mind in the making: The seven essential life skills every child needs. New York, NY: HarpersCollins.

Klayman, D. (2006). Executive summary of the final evaluation report for Fairfax pages professional development project: An effective strategy for improving school readiness. Potomac, MD: Social Dynamics.

Klein, L., & Knitzer, J. (2007). Promoting effective early learning: What every policymaker and educator should know. New York, NY: National Center for Children in Poverty.

Kruger, A. C. (n.d.). Building early literacy through drama. Atlanta, GA: Georgia State University

Ludwig, M., & Goff, R. (2014). The implementation of the wolf trap early childhood STEM learning through the arts AEMDD grant project. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research.

National Research Council. (2009). Mathematics learning in early childhood: Paths toward excellence and equity. Committee on early childhood mathematics, Cross, C. T., Woods, T. A., Schweingruber, H. (Eds.). Center for education, division of behavioral and social sciences and education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2010). 21st Century Skills Tools Map. Retrieved February 7, 2014, from

President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. (May, 2011). Reinvesting in arts education: Winning America’s future through creative schools. Washington, DC.

Siegler, R. (n.d.). Modern learning theories and mathematics education [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved March 9, 2010 from

Trawick-Smith, J. & DeLapp, J. (n.d.). Lullabies, leaping, and learning: Supporting thinking in infants and toddlers through active music and play experiences. Center for Early Childhood Education at Eastern Connecticut State University for Head Start Body Start. Retrieved February 7, 2014, from

Trawick-Smith, J. & DeLapp, J. (n.d.). Moving with feeling: Nurturing preschool children’s emotional health through active play. Center for Early Childhood Education at Eastern Connecticut State University for Head Start Body Start. Retrieved February 7, 2014, from

1 “Findings from the Evaluation of the Wolf Trap Arts in Education Model Development and Dissemination Grant,” Drs. Ludwig, M. & Song, M., American Institutes for Research.