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Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, MD Headshot

The Arts and Our Kids: An Essential Element for Success

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Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, MD Headshot

The Arts and Our Kids: An Essential Element for Success

Posted: Updated:

Watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Some moments in our kids' lives become epic in their impact on them and their ability to refocus us, as their parents. In my 18 year old daughter's life, one of those moments occurred when she was in second grade. She had big plans for her life back then. "I'm going to be a dolphin trainer, singer, archeologist", she would tell us. We pictured her going on great adventures, digging up ancient ruins while performing one one continent, while swimming with the dolphins and training them on others, or while hunting for undersea treasures, whichever happened to work out for her.

One day, though, she hit a hitch. A told a friend about a plan and the friend innocently said to her she couldn't be all three. She'd have to pick eventually. This bothered my daughter greatly, so much so she asked her teacher for advice.

Approaching her teacher quite concerned she said: "Ms. M, I have a big problem."

Her teacher replied: "Tell me about it. Perhaps we can find a solution together."

"Well", my daughter began. "I just found out I can't be a dolphin trainer, singer and archeologist when I'm a grownup. I have to pick only one. What am I going to do?"

Without skipping a beat, Ms. M replied: "Don't believe everything you hear, C. You can be whatever you want to be when you grow up, even a singing, dolphin training archeologist. It's your life."

My daughter was thrilled with this answer! And, as kids are want to do, reported back to her friend that she was wrong -- she can, indeed, be all three professions because Ms. M said so. That sparked an interesting discussion about future dreams that included things like winning American Idol and becoming the first woman president of the United States, being an astronaut and an olympic athlete (sport not chosen!) and other dreams that 2nd graders concoct.

While my daughter learned that year the importance to be creative and to dream, it was the arts that provided the glue that bound those essential ideas into her and gave her the canvas to develop upon as the years marched on. Without the arts in her life and having a place to flex her imagination muscles, I don't think she would have done nearly as well in school in any area. It was the arts that grounded her, gave her a sense of passion and purpose and fueled her dreams for the future, as well as gave her motivation to do well in her true academic subjects.

So, I was struck by Janet Echelman's art and her story. Had Janet not followed her passion to create and need to flex her imagination muscles, she never would have explored the world of fabrics and begun the journey to create some of the most fascinating and awe-inspiring art of our time. Hers is a true story of commitment to a passion and what happens when the school of life takes over where a brick and mortar school ends, or isn't available as was her case.

We need to remember Janet's story because in today's culture much too much emphasis is placed on traditional education. While it has its value and its place for many kids, for some that type of education won't be valuable. And, for most, as Sir Ken Robinson noted in his TEDTalk, it actually educates away the best parts of our kids: their creativity.

Robinson's concerns are not theoretical. To keep arts in our kids' lives is a yearly battle in most school districts. We're lucky where we live -- the fine arts department hasn't been completely decimated as it has in other communities. But, its a figment of what it was when we moved to town a decade ago or when I grew up in the same town.

If we want a world of amazing technological achievements as well as phenomenal, unexpected, beautiful art like the type that Echelman creates, we have to change up the education system so art gets the same priority as academics in every school system for every child. In fact, given the over emphasis in today's academic culture on grades and test scores its surprising that the arts are not given higher priority as studies confirm their possitive correlation to academic success.

So, it's time we reclaim the arts for our kids. The benefits are just too great to ignore and it's a true win-win for everyone: the academics will have their high test scores, parents will be able to be proud over the concrete achievements of their kids, and our kids will feel more grounded, empowered and successful. Tell me, where's the downside?

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