The Arts and Human Development

Framing a National Research Agenda for the Arts, Lifelong Learning, and Individual Well-Being

NEA Office of Research & Analysis with the National Center for Creative Aging

December 2011, 38 pages. National Endowment for the Arts, 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20506, (202) 682-5400,


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Human development describes a complex web of factors affecting the health and well-being of individuals across the lifespan. Together, these factors yield cognitive and behavioral outcomes that can shape the social and economic circumstances of individuals, their levels of creativity and productivity, and overall quality of life.

Increasingly in the 21st century, U.S. policy leaders in health and education have recognized a need for strategies and interventions to address “the whole person.” They have urged a more integrated approach to policy development—one that can reach Americans at various stages of their lives, across generations, and in multiple learning contexts.

The arts are ideally suited to promote this integrated approach. In study after study, arts participation and arts education have been associated with improved cognitive, social, and behavioral outcomes in individuals across the lifespan: in early childhood, in adolescence and young adulthood, and in later years. The studies include:

  • Neuroscience research showing strong connections between arts learning and improved cognitive development;
  • Small comparison group studies revealing the arts’ contributions to school-readiness in early childhood;
  • Longitudinal data analyses demonstrating positive academic and social outcomes for at-risk teenagers who receive arts education; and
  • Several studies reporting improvements in cognitive function and self-reported quality of life for older adults who engage in the arts and creative activities, compared to those who do not.

This emerging body of evidence appears to support a need for greater integration of arts activities into health and educational programs for children, youth, and older adults. Yet further research is necessary so that policy-makers and practitioners can understand the pathways and processes by which the arts affect human development, thereby enhancing the efficacy of arts-based practices in optimizing health and educational outcomes for Americans of all ages.

NEA-HHS Collaboration

On March 14, 2011, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) hosted a convening in Washington, DC to showcase some of the nation’s most compelling studies and evidence-based programs that have identified cognitive, social, and behavioral outcomes from arts interventions.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman gave keynote speeches, followed by senior officials representing the HHS Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and Administration on Aging (AoA). Representatives from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) also participated. The NEA Office of Research & Analysis organized the event.

Secretary Sebelius declared a mutual goal for the convening agencies: “We hope this meeting leads to deeper collaboration in research and in identifying new ways to engage the arts to improve people’s lives.” Similarly, Chairman Landesman asked: “How do the arts help build us as a people and as individuals?” The NEA and HHS, he said, “share a fundamental mission—how to improve the quality of life.”

The resulting white paper proposes a framework for long-term collaboration among the NEA, HHS, and other federal agencies to build capacity for future research and evidence-sharing about the arts’ role in human development. A worthy aim of that collaboration is to foster data-driven models for including the arts in policies and programs that seek to improve the well-being of Americans at different stages of their lives.

Key Research Findings

Studies reported at the convening and elsewhere have measured cognitive, social, and behavioral development among arts participants and arts learners. The research applies to three pivotal sections of the lifespan:

Early Childhood

  • Three- to five-year-olds from low socioeconomic status (SES) families demonstrated significant gains in nonverbal IQ, numeracy, and spatial cognition after they had received music training and attention training in a small-class setting—compared to a regular Head Start control group (Neville, et al. 2008).
  • Students from low-income backgrounds who attended an “arts enrichment” preschool improved in school-readiness skills, more so after two years than after one year of program attendance. Children from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds benefited equally. In a related study by the same research team, students attending the arts enrichment preschool showed higher levels of language development (measured by “receptive vocabulary”) than did students who attended a comparison preschool (Brown, Benedett, & Armistead 2010).
  • Children attending a preschool that used an arts integration model made greater developmental strides in multiple domains, including initiative, social relations, creative representation, music and movement, language, literacy, and logic and mathematics, compared to children in a regular Head Start program (Social Dynamics, LLC 2005).

Youth and Adolescence

  • Arts-engaged low-income students were more likely than their non-arts-engaged peers to attend and do well in college, obtain employment, volunteer in their communities, and participate in the political process by voting. Study findings suggest that arts-engaged low-income students performed similarly to average higher-income students (Catterall 2009).
  • Student behavior, measured by numbers of suspensions and discipline referrals, improved in schools involved in an arts integration initiative, as did student attendance. Student academic achievement also improved: seventh-grade students in treatment schools significantly outperformed control-group students on state standardized tests in reading and math (Pittsburgh Public Schools ca. 2008).
  • Students involved in after-school activities at arts organizations demonstrated greater use of complex language than did their peers. Students who were involved in arts education for at least nine hours a week were four times more likely than their peers nationally to have won school-wide recognition for their academic achievement and three times more likely to have won an award for school attendance (Heath 1999).

Older Adults

  • Older adults participating in a chorale program reported higher overall physical health, fewer doctor visits, less medication use, fewer instances of falls, and fewer health problems when compared to a control group. The chorale group also displayed evidence of higher morale and less loneliness than did the control group (Cohen, et al. 2006).
  • Older adults participating in a structured theatrical intervention over four weeks significantly improved, compared to two control groups (a singing group and a no-treatment control group) in four cognitive measures: immediate word recall, problem-solving, verbal fluency, and delayed recall (Noice & Noice 2009).
  • Older adults with Alzheimer’s disease and those with related dementias who participated in a creative storytelling intervention became more engaged and more alert than those in a control group. There were more frequent staff-resident interactions, peer social interactions, and social engagement in facilities using the creative storytelling intervention than in controlgroup facilities (Fritsch, et al. 2009).

Challenges and Opportunities

Although these findings are promising, convening participants agreed that a collective leap forward is necessary to a) replicate, extend, and bring such studies to scale and b) share the results with researchers, practitioners, and the general public. In particular, the following challenges remain:

  • A lack of coordination among federal agency departments and investigators and practitioners from various disciplines (e.g., arts education, child development, medicine, nursing, educational psychology, cognitive neuroscience, the behavioral and social sciences) in pursuing a vigorous research agenda to understand the role of arts and arts education in human development.
  • The small size of study populations participating in research on the arts and human development currently limits generalizability of the results. So far, the majority of reported studies rely on correlational data, rather than results from well-controlled trials. Another limiting factor is the dearth of longitudinal studies.
  • Low visibility of research findings, program evaluation data, and evidence-based models integrating the arts in health and educational programs provided at various segments of the lifespan.

These needs have acquired greater currency in light of recent demographic trends and domestic policy priorities. With a rising cohort of highly active baby-boomers facing retirement, opportunities for creative engagement and lifelong learning in the arts are likely to prove critical for improved health and well-being. Educators and communities, confronted with large percentages of Americans failing to finish high school, are seeking innovative and effective strategies to engage students and boost their achievement levels. In this climate, a stronger role for arts education should be investigated.

Finally, the high-order critical thinking and creativity skills that have been linked to arts training are deemed increasingly vital to today’s workforce, the U.S. economy, and our nation’s overall competitiveness. At the convening, Mary Wright, a program director with the Conference Board, asserted: “Creativity and innovation are going to increase in importance.”

Wright based her conclusion on recent industry surveys of employers’ hiring needs. The results are clear: U.S. companies stand to gain from the knowledge and skills that an arts education can provide. High demand among employers for creativity, innovation, and critical thinking will translate into positive social and economic outcomes for workers who possess those skills, thus contributing more broadly to their human development.


The moment is ripe for federal leadership in the design, conduct, and dissemination of rigorous research and evidence-based practices documenting the arts’ contributions to human development—from early childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood to middle-aged and older adults.

To support this leadership role, the following actions are recommended:

1. Establish a federal interagency task force to promote the regular sharing of research and information about the arts and human development.

The task force would include high-level officials from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Department of Education, and HHS agencies such as the Administration for Children and Families, the Administration on Aging, and the National Institutes of Health. The group would convene two to three times a year to review progress on the following tasks:

  • Host a series of webinars highlighting examples of compelling research and evidence-based practices that have integrated the arts in human development. The webinars will be available to the public, but aimed especially at researchers and providers of the arts, health, and education for various segments of the lifespan.
  • Coordinate the distribution of information about funding opportunities for researchers and providers of the arts, health, and education across the lifespan.
  • Conduct or commission an inventory and gap analysis of federally sponsored research on the arts and human development so that future research opportunities can be developed by and across agencies, departments, and the private sector.
  • Develop an online clearinghouse of research and evidence-based practices that examine or utilize the arts in health and educational programs across the lifespan.

2. Convene a series of technical workshops to help develop research proposals that represent robust and innovative study design methods to investigate the relationship between the arts and human development.

If the most competitive research proposals are to reach the appropriate funders, both public and private, then capacity-building through peer learning must occur. A series of workshops would help to improve the overall rigor of such studies, by recruiting outstanding scientists to tackle vexing and complex problems in pursuing this topic.

Because of formidable difficulties involved in mounting large-scale, longitudinal studies of the arts at work in human development—and because of the complexity of study design factors related to different age populations—it is important to bring together research methodologists and content experts in neuroscience, health, education, and the arts to advance discussion of key topics, including:

  • >What are appropriate outcomes (including quality-of life indicators) for studies comparing arts interventions with control groups in the provision of health and/or educational services?
  • How might successful randomization be achieved and comparison research designs developed for exploring the arts’ potential impact, particularly on children and older adults?
  • How can diversity in the study populations be promoted to ensure that findings about the arts and human development will apply toward and thus potentially benefit all groups (i.e., individuals from all ages and racial/ethnic backgrounds, including those with disabilities)?
  • How can artists and arts educators contribute fully to the planning and conduct of research? What protocols and criteria should guide the administration of arts content and delivery?

3. Bring the arts to national and international conversations about integrating the concept of well-being into policy development.

Even while new evidence is being gathered, the federal partnership should leverage growing national and international interest in using measures of subjective well-being as complementary and valuable tools to guide policy decisions. This discussion is highly consistent with the HHS strategic goal—“Advance the health, safety, and well-being of the American people.” At the same time, greater analysis of the arts in direct relationship to well-being will provide the NEA with an opportunity to realize one of its own strategic goals for the American people—“Promote public knowledge and understanding about the contributions of the arts.”

This recommendation also aligns with two National Institute on Aging-sponsored efforts to advance the measurement of subjective well-being for application to research on aging and health. Those efforts include:

  • Development of a National Research Council panel on “measuring subjective well-being in a policy-relevant framework.” This initiative, co-sponsored by the UK Economic and Social Research Council, was singled out by the White House in a May 25, 2011, joint fact sheet as having “the potential to generate new insights that will directly inform social and economic policies.”
  • A series of National Academies workshops that will conclude in September 2012 with recommendations on the “evaluation of measures of subjective wellbeing and development of OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) guidance for national statistical agencies on the measurement of well-being.” The workshops should be monitored for their potential applicability to future federal data collection about the arts’ role in human development.

Ultimately, it may surprise no one to discover that arts and arts education have strong positive effects on wellness and quality of life. Throughout human history, in virtually all cultures, the arts have been viewed as a hallmark of civilization—so why not of health and human development?

Yet one thing is certain: without vigorous and extensive research and evidence-sharing among government agencies, scientists, practitioners, and the general public, our nation will continue to lack effective, replicable models for using the arts to improve quality-of-life outcomes. The resulting deficiency represents a substantial loss for arts, health, and education providers serving Americans at all stages of life. The NEA-HHS partnership, through this white paper, endorses the timeliness and potential cost-effectiveness of the proposed collaborations and research endeavors.