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Scientific Proof That Exposing Kids To Art Really Matters

11,000 Arkansas students never lived near an art museum before. The opening of Walmart heiress Alice Walton’s new collection provided a unique opportunity to test how kids responded.

Scientific Proof That Exposing Kids To Art Really Matters
[Image: Artistan via Shutterstock]

Ask the average 9-year-old what she likes about field trips to art museums, and the first answer might have more to do with escaping the classroom than the art itself. So maybe it’s not surprising that when test-obsessed schools slash budgets, they’ve started to cancel more and more class trips, which can seem like dispensable extras. But researchers say there are now scientifically proven reasons to go on tours, beyond valid but vague notions of cultural enrichment: Art makes you smart.

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As the researchers write in the New York Times, it was time for some hard proof of the benefits of viewing art:

For many education advocates, the arts are a panacea: They supposedly increase test scores, generate social responsibility and turn around failing schools. Most of the supporting evidence, though, does little more than establish correlations between exposure to the arts and certain outcomes. Research that demonstrates a causal relationship has been virtually nonexistent.

Over the last year, the researchers studied 11,000 students on field trips. The study had the perfect set-up: Alice Walton, heiress to a large chunk of the Walmart fortune, had just helped fund a new art museum in Bentonville, Arkansas–a place that had never had a major museum before. The new museum also offered free tours to school groups, so every school in the area wanted to come, but only some could attend. The study split up students into random groups–some students went to the museum, while others went on trips to amusement parks or bowling alleys.

After only an hour-long tour of the museum, students scored better than their peers on essays evaluating artwork, and also had higher scores for tolerance and empathy. The differences were even greater for rural, low-income, or minority students, many of whom had never visited a museum before. Everyone who went on the tour was more likely to come back to the museum–all 11,000 students later got free tickets, but surprisingly, the students who didn’t have the chance to originally attend were less likely to ever come.

It would be interesting to see the studies go further. If visiting an art museum improves later essays about art, could it also improve less-related activities like creative writing or even math? And how does visiting an art museum affect adults? If we go see the latest show at the Museum of Modern Art, is it possible we could also become not just better informed or inspired, but a little bit smarter too?

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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