Why Should We Care About the Arts? (or Let’s Create “Both/And” Schools)

I have been thinking about education–both in early childhood and beyond, both in school and out of school–for most of my career. Most recently I have been doing a lot of thinking about what we are, and are not, teaching in early childhood school settings and beyond.

It seems that we live in what I call an “either/or” world of education. Phonics or whole language? STEM or STEAM? Project-based or scripted curriculum? We sway back and forth from year to year on what we are focused on and what we believe is important. At the moment the arts (and sometimes the humanities) often seem to be getting lost in the shuffle. They aren’t part of the common core of what we have decided children need to learn in school. They are often viewed as things that children should pursue out of school, in private lessons, or on their own time. But what if we stopped the “either /or” conversations and started to talk more about how we can create “both/and” schools for children of all ages and all socioeconomic levels?

I spent the morning at the White House today talking about the importance of the arts and listening to youth tell their stories–stories of how writing gave them someone to talk to when nobody seemed to care, how poetry kept them from a life of incarcerations, how dance awakened a passion that they didn’t know they had. Don’t get me wrong, I love STEM—I used to be the COO of a large science museum– and I absolutely believe in the importance of providing a strong STEM curriculum to all children, in all schools. But I don’t think it should come at the expense of the arts. While it is important to have children memorize the times tables, it may be just as important to give them the opportunity to memorize lines for a play. While it is important to learn the composition of the solar system, it is just as important to learn the composition of a great piece of art. While it is vital to learn to decode the letters and words on a piece of paper, it may be just as important to learn to look carefully at a piece of art, a sculpture, or an artifact from history and decode its’ story.

Education should create a passion for learning that lasts a lifetime. For some, STEM evokes that passion. But for others there is a human passion awakened only though the arts, a passion that we often forget about in education. And many of us love, and need, both in our lives. I write to work through things that I am struggling with, but I also love the beauty and concreteness of doing math. I am fascinated by the stories of science, but I want to be exposed to the stories of the great artists as well. Good writing touches me in a way that is different from the way solving a tough math problem does. I cried when I saw Michelangelo’s statue of David for the first time because the absolute beauty of it moved me in a way that is different from the way the beauty of the solar system moves me. Other people have the exact opposite reactions to these very same things and that is exactly my point—we need education systems that support and nurture both/and. These kinds of schools will have a much higher possibility of engaging all children, not just some.

Perhaps the arts are often ignored because they are not seen to be something that teaches “content” that will make you successful in life. But the arts teach you communication when you try to write your thoughts so someone else can connect to them. They teach you perspective taking when you create a painting to look like reality or when you imagine what the artist was thinking. They teach you to take on a challenge as you write and rewrite, create and recreate, or practice a dance until you get it right. They teach you focus and self-control as you work to complete something you started and care deeply about finishing. Perhaps most importantly, they can be the thing that best encourages self-directed and engaged learning for those children who are not engaged by the more traditional “school subjects”. Better yet, what if the arts can be used to engage children in these more traditional subjects?

At SEEC last year our four-year-olds learned about light, invisibility and the electromagnetic spectrum while exploring the adventures of The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. Another class explored concepts of gravity and its effects on your muscles at the Hirshhorn museum using a piece by artist Ernesto Neto titled, The Dangerous Logic of Wooing and old panty hose full of rice.


A class of our three-year-olds talked about inventing while studying the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the artists they were named after. When they studied the turtle “Leo”, they studied the artist Leonardo da Vinci and visited the National Air and Space Museum to see da Vinci’s Flying Man, followed by the students coming up with their own inventions using blocks, magnet tiles and other materials from their classroom. A class of two-year-olds began and ended a six week study of bugs by visiting Louise Bourgeois’  Maman spider sculpture at the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden, as well as by examining real collections of various bugs from the National Museum of Natural History’s collection.

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Our weekend workshops for preschool children and their families studied the movement of the sun by looking at the sun and the sky on their walk to the National Gallery where they then looked carefully at Monet’s Rouen Cathedral, West Faҫade and Rouen Cathedral, West Faҫade, Sunlight to see the difference in the sun and the light on the landscape.

We clearly take a “both/and” approach here at SEEC and we believe our children are better for it. I hope that our conversations around education in this country can move in this direction so we can engage more children, more often and in more ways. After all, isn’t that the point?

It’s a bittersweet time of year…..

By Kim Kiehl, Executive Director of the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center

All across the country it is a bittersweet time of year…back to school time. This time of year inevitably brings transition. It doesn’t matter if you are bringing your child to a new classroom here at SEEC, sending your child off to Kindergarten, or sending him off to college, the rituals and the feelings are the same. Transitions are tough. Transitions mean change. Transitions bring emotions. As I watch the start of the new school year here at SEEC I often wonder who the transition is more difficult for…the parents or the children. Sure, the children are crying and calling for mommy and daddy as they move to a new room with new friends. But I promise you that the crying stops soon after you leave as they become involved in the wonder of learning and the excitement of first friends. But for us parents that feeling often lingers over our morning coffee, into that first meeting of the day and through that long team meeting after lunch. While my own children are adults, now 30 and 26, as I watch parents as they drop off here at SEEC I can still feel that pull of leaving your child and not being sure it will be OK.  Whether we are bringing our child to a new early childhood classroom or dropping them off at college it’s all the same. At both ends we have to give up our children in some way. we have to let them go the become who they are going to be…often without us.

Still, I love this time of year. I love the planning and the school supply shopping. I love the promise of the days being more organized and ordered. Don’t get me wrong…I totally love summer, but autumn is like the first day of the new year to me. It is a new start and a new beginning. I make resolutions in the the fall. I start new calendars and develop new ways of keeping things organized. I resolve to follow a schedule this year. I resolve to be slower and not to rush from thing to thing this year. These resolutions often last about five days and then reality sets in (although I am determined this year to make them stick!). So for me this is a magical time of year. To me there is nothing more exciting than the promise of learning new things, nothing more exciting than the opportunity to discover a new idea, test a new skill, and make a new friend.


At the same time, this time of transition can bring sadness. Where did the years go? How can they be this old? Where did the summer go, along with all my grand plans for how to spend it? What will they do without me all day…or maybe what will I do without them all day? But there is joy too…the crying stops (for both adults and children), the stories of the wonder of learning start to pile up, and we all become comfortable with the transition. We made it.

It’s a new year and a time of new beginnings. Savor every moment of learning with your child just like we do here at SEEC. Drown yourself in their questions and their wonder and start looking at the world through curious eyes again. It’s true that transitions can be tough, but they can also be filled with growth, wonder and joy. Savor every moment—the rough and the joyful— it is through transition that we grow.

Moments of Joy

When I looked out the window of my apartment this morning and saw that there was a torrential downpour occurring just as I was about to walk to the Metro I decided there were two ways I could approach the situation. Approach 1–I could leave feeling annoyed that I would have to walk in the rain and wishing that I could just stay home curled up on my couch.  Approach 2–I could leave with the excitement of a child in a rain storm. I chose approach 2 and decided to spend the walk being excited about the fact that I was getting to carry a “brella” (as the toddlers at my school call them) and to walk right through every big puddle in my rain boots rather than carefully walking around them. While this might sound crazy to you it actually made my walk much more fun. I found myself looking for puddles and I noticed the drips coming off the edge of the umbrella. I felt that same thrill of discovery that I remembered from being a kid when I turned the corner to walk down the small hill and saw a mini rushing river running along the curb and then I splashed my way right through it. I listened to the sound of the rain pounding on the top of the umbrella and noticed that the birds were all still singing right through the rain. Walking to the Metro became an adventure rather than a chore. Walking to the Metro became an experience rather than something to simply get over with.


The rain today has reminded me that as adults we too often get bogged down in the negativity of real life. This being an adult thing that looked so good to us as kids can, in reality, be draining and overwhelming. It is so easy to just slog through life and to see things like pouring rain as negatives rather than as experiences. It reminded me that the reason children delight in things like walking in the rain is that they see them as an experience and have no preconceived notions of what that experience will be like–it is just another of life’s adventures. It reminded me that attitude is everything–the experience becomes what you think it will be in so many cases.

Here at SEEC I get to watch teachers curate experiences that create life adventures for children every day. I see the joy at the little things all day long. I hear the exclamations of “It’s a parade!” from the twos class when they look at the window and see what in reality is just a huge group of middle school students coming to the museum. I have conversations like the one with three-year-old Charlie when he tells me “I REALLY love school.” I see the joy in watching the classroom caterpillars suddenly become butterflies and in seeing stalagmites at the gem hall and watching them grow on a video on the tablet. I see the kindness as four-year-olds identify and take photos of how their friends are really superheroes because of their kind acts toward others. I see the excitement as a classroom heads to a museum, yelling “GOODBYE!!” at the top of their lungs to me as they walk by my office. I live in moments of joy every day but that joy can be too easily forgotten in my own life.

At our school this year we are making a conscious effort to appreciate these little moments of joy. Every classroom and every admin office has a jar labeled “Moments of Joy” where we collect stories of those moments that make up a day for a child. I believe it helps keep us focused on the wonder. And I discover that when I am feeling stressed actively watching for a story to add to my jar gives my day a whole new focus. Life can be hard and overwhelming some days and it isn’t possible to always see the joy—some days just really stink. But if we all truly tried harder to say nice things to each other, to approach as many experiences as possible with a positive outlook, and to look for the joy and wonder in our days the world just might be less hard and overwhelming for all of us. Go walk in the rain and look for that mini river flowing along the curb to splash in.