Connected to everything else: Visual and kinesthetic arts and their roles in education

By Morgan Appel, director of UC San Diego Extension's Education Department

Like music, the visual arts are hardwired into our genetic code. Dating back to our earliest selves, we have employed some form of visual arts or other to tell our stories to others. These interpretations range from the presence of animals for the hunt to abstract commentary of the state of today’s society. Our innate sense of empathy and love of the aesthetic also draws us to the visual arts as robust descriptors of the human condition.

As was the case with music, developmental exposure to and immersion in the visual arts demonstrate significant reciprocal impacts on the disciplines and on teaching and learning more generally. For example, according to Jensen (2001), the visual arts:

  • Represent a ‘sketchpad’ to accompany the spoken word

  • Promote improvement in creativity, critical thinking and reading (no easy answers!)

  • Can enhance awareness in cognitively and culturally diverse classrooms

  • Demonstrate improvement in vocabulary and writing skills, especially among English Learners

  • Demonstrate improvement in recall, identification of patterns and outliers

  • Provide students with ‘choice’ and greater levels of motivation (attendance, participation)

  • Show improved levels of task commitment and self-control; teamwork; and time management (especially relevant for twice-exceptional pupils)

So too do the kinesthetic arts (dramatic, industrial, dance, recreational) exhibit these types of connections. Imagine that dance is (and has) a language unto itself, associating movement with the spoken word and connections to storytelling. The digital arts advance the creative cause into cyberspace, empowering pupils to realize innovative projects that push the envelope of design. Again, Jensen (2001) is helpful in understanding these impacts. Research offers that the kinesthetic arts:

  • Enhance cognition, positive attitudes, confidence—may grow new brain cells

  • Enhance ongoing development of various neurobiological systems, including cognition, immune, circulatory and perpetual-motor

  • Provide unique challenges and environmental constraints that require the application of multiple tools/systems to manage (versus seatwork)

  • Compels making rapid decisions, keeping attention up, alertness for potential problems, scaffolding upon past experiences

  • Increases Emotional Intelligence (monitoring own emotions, reading those of others)

In our next installment, we will take a closer look at the dramatic arts and at a host of tools and strategies that not only advance the cause of arts integration but provide avenues for teachers to integrate the arts into classroom routine. Future editions will provide resources for schools and practitioners—including standards-based lessons and projects as well as links to arts providers with emphases on arts education.

For any questions about this article or our series on the arts in education, please contact Morgan Appel directly at

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