The word is out: when it comes to equipping young people for success, creative expression matters. Arts education may once have been dismissed as extra-curricular and frivolous–but experts now see it as a potent tool to foster broader academic achievement. Arts programming, research now demonstrates, boosts standardized test scores, improves general classroom engagement, and both increases long-term memory and sharpens spatio-temporal reasoning in children. In short, it packs quite the cognitive developmental punch!

But for all the talk about how the arts can help students excel at other subjects, we at Sing for Hope also celebrate what we see the arts doing year-round for students’ deeper personal and social growth.

Each day, we witness the transformative power of the arts in our young participants, as our Youth Chorus members find their voices in song, a child discovers the joy of music at a Sing for Hope Piano, and a classroom come alive with creative energy during a Volunteer Artist visit. Since it can be hard to qualify these moments in concrete terms, we set out to distill the crucial lessons that the arts are uniquely fit to bring to young people.

Students gather around a Volunteer Artist at a recent arts outreach visit in partnership with the YMCA.

One of the most important values of the arts in education is very simple–the ability to deeply engage students of all learning abilities and styles. Innately participatory, the arts use both body and mind, empowering students to connect with the learning process in a more intuitive way. Educators have learned that children have varying learning styles: some children learn best kinetically, by moving their bodies, while others learn through reading, and still others through listening, hands-on activities, or by participating in groups. And research has shown that a disconnect with the learning method not only inhibits students’ ability to comprehend the material, but also leads to a negative cycle of poor behavior, inattentiveness, and lack of engagement. Because learning in and through the arts allows students to engage with the subject material in many different ways, students of all different learning styles are able to find ways to better connect with what they are learning, positively affecting their persistence, self-efficacy, and classroom behavior.

Furthermore, the arts open up new doors for how to both teach and learn. By promoting imagination and originality, the arts encourage students to innovate new solutions, question the status quo, and manage problems with multiple components–all skills that are indispensable to a growing creative marketplace. For teachers, introducing arts education into the classroom can expand their perspective on their students and their material, instilling more empathy and creativity into their teaching style.

Finally, in what we see as one of the most essential lessons offered by arts education, infusing creativity into the classroom teaches young people emotional maturity and confidence. These social skills not only help them navigate the ,real world and become self-sufficient, but are also crucial to the learning process itself. When students learn to see themselves as competent leaders and innovators, they are more willing and able to confront new challenges in and out of the classroom.

Sing for Hope Youth Chorus members take on leadership roles in conducting arts activities with younger children.

To capture how the research plays out in real life, we talked to our intern Christian, a high school senior who credits community theater and music education with pulling her out of her shell. ,I appreciate music education spaces, she recounts, ,because nobody judges me based on what I looked like; it is about what I create or how I sing and act. As a sophomore, Christian had a music teacher who had her perform for tests, a ,nerve-wracking challenge, but one she says “pushed me to open up and allowed me to have a voice. Meanwhile, through theater, she became a better communicator: ,getting to be on stage, she says, ,let me learn to communicate with others. By creating a space that was safe and challenging at the same time, the arts empowered Christian to find and trust her own voice, helping her to become more assertive and engaged in all her studies and activities.

Christian (second from left) sings with the Sing for Hope Youth Chorus at a recent concert.As an aspiring music teacher, Christian knows all too well that schools are offering too little of what she credits with teaching her confidence. While the arts classes she had were integral in shaping her education, she says the schools she attended most of her life had minimal arts programs. In fact, the lack of arts education she saw in her schools and others is part of what has fueled her desire to become a music teacher herself. ,I want kids in public schools to feel like they have other outlets, says Christian, adding that ,in music there is no wrong answer, and if kids who have trouble focusing or who misbehave in other classes are able to express themselves through the arts, they can learn how to engage and focus.

Sing for Hope’s Youth Arts program strives to fill the arts gap in New York City’s public schools by empowering students from under-resourced areas, where arts programs are often cut first, to experience all the benefits of arts education. Through our partnership with the YMCA, and with the help of our fantastic Volunteer Artists, we’ve been able to reach hundreds of students this semester with programs tailored to each campus’ need. As SFH Youth Arts director Stephanie Martinez reports, teachers and children alike are eager for more: with the creative spark lit, schools are taking the initiative to continue activities introduced during our arts sessions on their own. Art is an endlessly renewable resource, and our students’ creative potential, if fully nurtured, will influence the world around us for years to come.

In addition to arts outreach programs in NYC public schools and community centers, Sing for Hope hosts several Youth Arts programs in-house. Our Youth Chorus offers musical training in a supportive environment to high school students from across the city for, while our monthly Saturday Series and annual Summer Arts Intensive give students the opportunity to explore diverse art forms under the tutelage of established creative professionals. Click here to find out more about our Youth Arts Program.