Why the Arts are Good for Kids on the Periphery

It’s a challenge facing many parents: a child – more often than not, a son – who is more inclined to follow the pack rather than lead or chart his or her own course. If there is a circle of friends gathered, these kids are usually on the outside looking in. In the classroom, they’re less likely to volunteer to answers (or ask) questions. And even in an activity in which they excel, they’re less inclined to speak up or use their skills to behave like a leader.

These kids often are likable if reserved, quiet but not necessarily confident, and any real bursts of passion or extroversion are usually limited to familiar family gatherings, online gaming, or amongst a close group of like-minded kids.

In Hollywood-speak, we might not call these kids “the Outsiders” so much as “the Peripherals” or even “the Backgrounders.” Meaning, these aren’t necessarily kids who are bad or from troubled homes or otherwise up to no good. They’re simply shier and less likely to want to stand out.

Research demonstrates that these kids are more likely to struggle:

  • With schoolwork
  • Developing meaningful interpersonal relationships
  • Finding fulfilling jobs and careers

For one reason or another, these kids have never found their voice and, as such, are more likely to see life as something happening to them rather than a wondrous vehicle through which they can express themselves, their passions, and interests.

Using the Arts to Find Personal Expression

The good news: children who participate in the arts (music, theater, dance, painting) are far more likely to become confident, perform well in academics, and suffer from lower rates of anxiety and depression. Research also demonstrates that the younger the kids start, the stronger the results.

Additionally, cultural exploration – visiting museums, attending plays, listening to live music, etc. – can have a similarly positive impact on kids.

In a landmark study of Irish children released last year by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), researchers found that a child’s participation in the arts and/or cultural activities proved to be a powerful indicator of his or her subsequent feelings of confidence, wellbeing and happiness. The study “clearly demonstrates a strong correlation between participation in arts and cultural activities and a child’s wellbeing,” said Orlaith McBride, director of ESRI’s Arts Council.

Says 17-year-old Marie Lynch of her time with the Backstage Youth Theatre: “Not only have I gained so many friends who are like-minded and enjoy theatre like me, but I have also grown as a person. I’m not the same shy girl anymore. I’m now confident in my thoughts and opinions. I have learned how to express myself and share my ideas.”

Boys Are Under-Represented

Unfortunately for boys, many of the same cultural biases that once led parents and educators to unconsciously steer more boys than girls toward sports, plays out in precisely the opposite way when it comes to the arts, where even at a very young age girls are far more likely to be guided toward the arts.

“Striking gender and social background differences in cultural participation are evident among children as young as 3,” noted Dr. Emer Smyth, director of ESRI’s Social Research Division, adding that this illustrates “the importance of making cultural activities accessible to all groups of children and young people.”

Though not mentioned in the study, such gender imbalances could exacerbate the growing disparity between boys’ and girls’ educational accomplishments. Today, for example, females tend to perform better in school and are increasingly more likely to attend and graduate from universities.

One potential reason boys are less likely to participate in the arts: their language skills often lag those of their female counterparts. Additionally, many cultures (as noted above) mistakenly believe the arts are more ‘feminine’ pursuits. As a result of these and other issues, boys may be more shy about expressing themselves or putting themselves ‘out there’ for critical review.

But as Tom McEvilly, co-educational director of Wisconsin’s Children’s Theater, points out: “Theater is an interesting entity. When kids walk in the door they feel accepted, they feel welcomed, and the kids that have more experience help the kids that have less experience.”

And for the shy or self-conscious kids? “They are helped by the kids that are not so shy, and they feel that instant responsibility and bond of being kind to others that are trying to walk through this environment and they do really well,” says McEvilly.

So if your child is one of those ‘peripheral’ types, remember that the arts are a terrific way to help him or her bring forth that inner voice and discover for themselves that, introverted or extroverted, shy or confident, their voice matters as much as the next.


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