Arts and Cultural Participation among Children and Young People

Insights from the Growing Up in Ireland Study

Emer Smyth

Capsule Review: Growing Up in Ireland

By Katie Ingersoll on April 10, 2017 on Createquity
Topics: cultural engagement, television watching, cultural engagement in children, wellbeing, disparities of access, arts education
Methods: Longitudinal study, survey, participant interviews, descriptive analysis, multivariate analysis

What it says

The report from ESRI and the Arts Council of Ireland analyzes data from “Growing up in Ireland – the National Longitudinal Study of Children (GUI),” in order to address three research topics: 1) the likelihood of different groups of children to engage in cultural activities, 2) the influence of different schools’ emphasis on cultural activities on children’s cultural engagement out of school, and 3) the relationship between participation in cultural activities and other outcomes including academic skills and socio-emotional wellbeing.

The GUI is a longitudinal study performed on two cohorts of children. The first cohort of 11,134 were recruited at nine months, and then surveyed in two subsequent waves at 3 and 5 years of age (the report focuses on data from the second of the two waves). The second cohort of 8,568 children was recruited at 9 years old, with a follow-up study at 13 years old. At each time point, the study consisted of surveys and interviews with the children’s caregivers, tests of cognitive abilities and wellbeing, and surveys completed by the children’s school principals and teachers for the older cohorts. Data from all of the cohorts was re-weighted to ensure that is was representative of the population of children in Ireland.

The researchers analyzed a broad range of types of cultural engagement, including: being read to and self-directed reading, participation in drawing, painting, singing, and rhymes, participation in organized cultural activities such as drama or music, being taken to cultural events or on educational visits, and television watching and computer games. When researchers analyzed the distribution of cultural engagement among different groups, they found higher rates of engagement among children from more advantaged social backgrounds, and with higher levels of educational attainment by the mothers, to varying degrees. Children from highly educated and middle class families watched less television and had less screen time overall. The researchers also note the strong influence of gender on cultural engagement, with girls in multiple age groups participating at higher rates. In a couple of cases – including participation in singing, painting or drawing by three-year-olds and independent reading among nine-year-olds – gender had a greater influence on cultural participation than social background.

Researchers also analyzed the relationship between cultural participation and other outcomes for children. The researchers measured two sets of outcomes: cognitive development as measured by standardized tests and wellbeing as measured by the prevalence of socioeconomic difficulties. The analysis controlled for individual and family characteristics, the type of childcare at age 3, and whether the child had started school at 5, but there was no way to control for individual personalities or other characteristics of the children. However, the second set of data collected for each cohort (at 5 years and 13 years respectively) was analyzed in terms of change from the first set of measurements, which makes that data a more reliable estimate of the actual effects of cultural engagement. The most noticeable relationships between changes in various outcomes over time and cultural engagement were:

  • Being read to frequently between the ages of 3 and 5 and having more access to books contributes to improved vocabulary at age five.
  • Watching higher amounts of television between ages three and five is related to improved vocabulary but also greater socio-emotional difficulties at age five.
  • Reading, painting and drawing, attending cultural events, and going on frequent educational visits are all related to decreases in socio-emotional difficulties.
  • There is moderate improvement in tests on identifying picture similarities for children who are read to, who paint or draw, and who attend cultural events frequently at the age of five.
  • Among older children, self-directed reading and taking part in structured cultural activities outside school time contribute to cognitive development (in terms of both verbal and numeric skills) as well as to academic self-confidence.
  • Self-directed reading also contributes to socio-emotional wellbeing.
  • Similar to patterns observed in the early years, watching higher amounts of television between the ages of 9 and 13 is related to improved verbal skills but at the expense of greater emotional difficulties.

The researchers also looked at data provided by the children’s school principals and teachers to assess the role of school-based cultural activities. The researchers found that, taking account of social background and other family characteristics, children attending schools with a strong cultural emphasis – measured as a combination of the relative importance of cultural activities to the school’s ethos and the amount of cultural extracurricular activities provided – were significantly more likely to be involved in structured cultural activities and frequent reading. They were also less likely to spend a lot of time watching television. Researchers also looked at differences across types of schools. Notably, Urban DEIS (or disadvantaged) schools were more likely to employ creative activities and play for younger children, and to provide music/dance and arts/crafts activities at the primary level – as well as musical instruments and dance at the second level because of programs and interventions aimed at those specific schools, designed to promote retention and school engagement. However, children at these schools are less likely to read for pleasure or take music and drama lessons and are more likely to spend lots of time watching television or playing computer games, meaning that these interventions are not enough to overcome the disparities of access to cultural activities observed based on social class.

What I think about it:

The report makes excellent use of data from a larger study on child outcomes, which seems to have been collected with some study of cultural engagement in mind. While the role of some potential confounding variables like personality factors can’t be determined from the study design, the longitudinal nature of the study is a valuable companion to existing experimental studies that typically focus on the short-term effects of arts engagement. The analysis of participation data alongside individual and familial characteristics allows the researchers to identify disparities of access to cultural opportunities in the early years of life that are replicated across the lifespan. Finally, the school-based data points to the viability of one of the most common interventions to promote arts access and participation: arts education in schools.

The report showcases the importance of including cultural information within large-scale studies of this nature. It also points out interesting connections between cultural activities as traditionally defined and popular-culture diversions such as television watching, revealing the research benefits of considering cultural activities holistically among audiences of all ages.

What it all means

Within this study, reading unsurprisingly wins the day in terms of generating strong positive outcomes for children, but other forms of cultural participation also generate positive results. This study’s longitudinal design allows us to observe how incremental arts benefits add up throughout the actual lives of children over time. While not always dramatic or universal to every arts discipline, the long-term benefits measured in the study are quite apparent, especially in relation to social and emotional development in younger children and cognitive benefits in older children.

Interestingly, both reading and television watching are found to contribute to vocabulary-skills development for children. Yet watching high amounts of television (and spending high amounts of screen time) are associated with higher levels of socio-emotional difficulties. At the same time, arts activities including painting and drawing, attending cultural events, and educational visits correlate with fewer socio-emotional difficulties, which could point to arts engagement as a viable way to counteract negative socio-emotional effects from television watching for young children.

The analysis on disparities of access largely confirms trends researchers have observed in adults. The differences in engagement observed between genders raise interesting questions about how young boys might become more fully engaged in the arts. Finally, the data on schools is both encouraging and not. The study does suggest that emphasis on cultural activities at school can effect cultural engagement outside of school time. However, many programs designed to ensure that arts education activities are provided at disadvantaged schools in Ireland have not effectively overcome disparities of access to cultural activities (besides television). What is not clear from the report is whether disadvantaged schools with these programs promote higher levels of cultural engagement in their students than schools without the programs would. The author also makes note of widespread use of libraries by families with young children, and wonders if they may be a fruitful site for cultural engagement programs.

All of this together suggests that, in Ireland, the arts do indeed benefit children, though not more than reading does. And arts education in schools has a role to play in encouraging higher levels of arts engagement. Questions remain as to whether in-school arts education alone can level disparities of arts access based on socioeconomic status. The larger patterns revealed here are likely to be similar in other comparable societies, but further longitudinal studies in different locations would help to shed light on the long-terms benefits of the arts on individuals within a given society, and the benefits of interventions on the ground.

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