Worried About Closed Schools and Learning Loss? The Arts Can Help

child and parent drawing

Typically at this time of year, we start to hear and read news stories about the dreaded “summer brain drain” or “summer slide” for students. What exactly is sliding and where does it happen?

Studies show that most students lose skills in math without practice over the summer—up to 3 months of what they learned during the school year may fade from memory. Reading is a different story. Most middle and higher-income students tend to maintain or even grow their reading skills while schools are closed thanks to books at home and educational trips and experiences. But lower-income students typically lose skills in reading in addition to math. The most troubling part is that those losses in reading stack up year after year, making it difficult to ever catch up.

With most schools in the U.S. closing in March 2020 due to the pandemic, we may also have to contend with a “spring slide” as summer approaches this year. Though schools have tried their best to continue instruction through virtual or at-home lessons, widespread reports of overstressed parents and kids, insufficient tech and calls for major salary increases for teachers suggest that learning has likely been disrupted. In fact, researchers predict students will suffer serious setbacks from a prolonged school closure.

“Preliminary COVID slide estimates suggest students will return in fall 2020 with roughly 70% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year. However, in mathematics, students are likely to show much smaller learning gains, returning with less than 50% of the learning gains and in some grades, nearly a full year behind what we would observe in normal conditions.”NWEA

For many parents, the thought of more worksheets and virtual learning is almost as scary as the thought of sending kids back to school without the skills they need to succeed. Thankfully, the arts can help boost academic learning in fun and surprising ways.

How Art Helps Us Learn Better

From birth through adulthood, arts educational experiences can have remarkable impacts on students’ academic, social, and emotional outcomes. From the time we can grasp a crayon or smear paint on a page, creating art helps us to think critically, communicate and understand the world around us.

The arts’ benefits to the brain are real. Creating art, through sculpting, drawing or painting, helps to build fine motor skills. Combining movement and music through dance helps the brain build and strengthen neural connections. Even certain types of video games can help build executive functions like memory and self-control.

Nonverbal expressions of academic content like writing stories, drawing, and sculpting increase comprehension by embedding the learning in multiple areas of the brain. A recent study shows that drawing information can be a powerful memory booster, nearly doubling recall. Researchers found that drawing is more effective than reading or writing because it forces a person to process information in multiple ways, taking what they see or hear and translating it (semantic learning) into images (visual learning) using their hands (kinesthetic learning). For the same reason, drawing is also an effective way to learn complex scientific models.

Beyond drawing, the arts more broadly are effective tools for science learning. In a study conducted by Johns Hopkins researchers in the School of Education, basic-level readers remembered significantly more science content over the long term when demonstrating their learning through artistic methods like signing, rapping, sketching and making art vs. conventional methods like worksheets.

Similarly, dance offers learners new ways to process math concepts like patterning, sequencing and counting. Students can actually embody concepts like rotation, reflection and translation as they move in coordination with others in a group.

And finally, there is a reason those famous Shakespeare lines stick with you. Theater is a great tool for building literacy skills. Reading a text multiple times helps to build fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. And, bringing new stories to life helps students build the background knowledge that is often required to understand plots, settings and characters. Still, reading and performing plays is just one great way to make the most of this summer (and prevent a winter of our discontent).

How to Use the Arts to Boost Learning

The arts offer nearly endless possibilities for improving academic learning, from the tiniest learners to teenagers.

Visual Arts



Culinary Arts

Environmental Arts

Multiple Art Forms

This is article is a part of IAM Lab’s regularly updated COVID-19 NeuroArts Field Guide. Be sure to check the Guide for the latest, evidence-based tips on how the arts can support our wellbeing during the pandemic.

We would also like to hear from you: Are you, your loved ones or colleagues dealing with specific issues and want to learn more about art-based solutions? Are you already using the arts to help you cope?  

Please share your thoughts, ideas and concerns with us at covid19arts@artsandmindlab.org. Be well and stay safe.

Lead Image: Unsplash / Gabe Pierce

Art COVID-19 Dance Education Theater