Child Development and the Arts

Developmental Milestones for Children

Research in early childhood development has defined milestones as indicators for growth and development, many of which can be observed and encouraged during arts participation. The arts authentically provide experiences for sensory stimulation and motor development necessary for growth and development. Children naturally, sing, draw, dance and dramatize stories as they learn about themselves and the world around them.  Arts engagement develops fine and gross motor skills while engaging all of the senses.


A summary of the developmental realms as they relate to arts engagement is provided below. For complete lists of developmental indicators, please refer to early childhood research on the topic.


Observing student performance of these indicators informs teachers of student strengths as well as areas that need reinforcement or strategies to compensate for challenges.  This is discussed further in the section on physical development.


Developmental Milestones as Indicators of the Effects of Stress or Trauma

Developmental milestones can be applied in two ways; to observe a child's development as they grow and to observe the effects of stress or trauma in young people and adults.  Often stress interferes with the ability to perform activities typically performed with ease, such as when people forget words, or stutter when talking to a crowd. Observing a student's response to stress improves a teacher's ability to help the student achieve.


For example, if a child's eyes cannot track across the page for reading, the child will benefit from stress free opportunities for visual tracking which can be provided while drawing on paper or in the air with their hand. While drawing, the hand-eye coordination and the rest of the body can relax for optimal performance. This relaxed ability can then be incrementally applied to tracking for reading.


Additional information is available in the report Child Development and Arts Education prepared by the College Board for the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards. Click on the link below to download a PDF file of the report "Child Development and Arts Education: A review of Current Research and Best Practices."



Child Development and Arts Education: A Review of Current Research and Best Practices

Developmental Realms


The physical realm of development refers to the ability of the brain and body to engage in life and learning, which involve activating the senses and refining fine and gross motor skills. The activities in this section reinforce developmental skills essential to learning through potentially pleasurable physical activities, including dancing, singing, acting, and drawing. Teachers can use these activities with the whole class in a relaxed and mindful way, reducing stress and improving learning readiness for every student. By observing students’ performance in these activities, teachers can identify challenges and strengths, mastery of developmental indicators, emotional regulation, and the effects of stress or trauma. Developmental indicators of physical ability include:

  • Gross motor skills are large muscle movements such as walking, running, jumping, skipping, balancing, hopping, and other whole-body activities.
  • Fine motor skills involve intricate muscle coordination, including holding a pencil, cutting with scissors, threading beads, or gluing small items together.
  • Body conditioning includes developing endurance, flexibility, strength, agility, mobility, and posture.
  • Auditory capability involves hearing, listening, responding, and speaking.
  • Visual perception is evidenced by vision, eye tracking, eye convergence, perspective, and perception.
  • Self-regulation is necessary for holding still, sitting at a desk, paying attention, and extending focus. The capacity for self-regulation increases with physical growth. Healthy self-regulation is related to the capacity to tolerate the sensations of distress accompanying an unmet need. The attuned, responsive teacher helps the child build in the capacity to allow a moment between an impulsive reaction and a choice-based response. A child who learns to tolerate some anxiety will be much less reactive and impulsive, allowing himself the time necessary to think, plan, and respond appropriately to the current challenge (summarized from Dr. Bruce Perry, Scholastic Teachers).



The language and communication realm refers to students' readiness to attend to language-dependent learning tasks and to communicate with others verbally and nonverbally. Measuring a student’s ability to speak, whisper, articulate sounds, listen, pay attention, echo sounds, process information, communicate nonverbally, comprehend text, and write can help teachers evaluate language and communication skills in their classrooms. Students’ body language and vocal expression are powerful aspects of instruction for teachers. Vocal expression, auditory discrimination, and written communication are supported through arts activities. More information about language indicators and learning readiness follows:

  • Speak clearly and intelligibly, using voice and language appropriately. Voice is the sound of speech used to express language. Muscle actions of the tongue, lips, jaw, and vocal tract interact to produce recognizable sounds. Language consists of shared vocabulary and syntactic structures that enable people to express themselves in meaningful ways. In addition to verbal expression, language may be represented in writing, singing, or gestures.
  • Read and understand body language and facial expressions. The research of Dr. Albert Mehrabian demonstrates that 93% of all daily communication is nonverbal: while 7% of any message is conveyed through words, 38% is communicated through vocal elements like tone or inflection, and 55% is manifested through nonverbal components including facial expressions, gestures, and posture. Students’ body language and vocal expression are powerful aspects of instruction for teachers.


The social and emotional realm refers to the social abilities and emotional capacities that students need to learn effectively: all learning is a social and emotional experience, and competence in these areas is essential for success. Observing students’ capacity for relating to others, feeling and expressing empathy, identifying and regulating emotions, managing stress, taking turns, making eye contact, working in a group, or communicating their needs can cue teachers into social and emotional readiness for learning. Additionally, students demonstrate readiness in five related areas: 

  • Self-awareness: Students can learn to accurately assess and develop ownership of their own feelings, interests, values, and strengths, working to create and maintain a healthy self-confidence.
  • Self-management: Ideally, students will regulate their emotions to handle stress, control impulses, and persevere in overcoming obstacles. The skill of self-management improves over time, and includes students setting personal and academic goals and monitoring their own progress. Expressing emotions appropriately is another aspect of proper self-management. 
  • Social awareness: Learners can practice empathy by considering conditions and events from the perspective of others. A critical aspect of empathy work includes recognizing and appreciating individual and group similarities and differences. To grow these skills, students should be able to access family, school, and community resources.
  • Relationship skills: Students should learn to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships based on cooperation. Resisting inappropriate social pressure is an important building block of shaping/establishing healthy relationships and self-confidence. Learners work together to prevent, manage, and resolve interpersonal conflict.
  • Responsible decision making: Teachers can teach and model the principle of the power of the pause, or remembering to take a breath, find a moment of stillness, and pause impulsive actions. Pausing can limit reactive behavior and help students practice responsive behavior instead. Considering ethical standards, safety concerns, appropriate social norms, respect for others, and likely consequences of various actions will help learners create a solid foundation for responsible decision making. Applying students’ decision-making  skills to personal, academic, and social situations will contribute to feelings of self-confidence and the well-being of their school and community.



The cognitive realm refers to the development of the brain and the ability of the mind to engage in learning. Neuroscience studies the formation, structure, and function of the brain. Psychology focuses on a child's skills in perceiving, processing, expressing, and conceptualizing information that is both taught and experienced. Teachers can identify when students are cognitively prepared to learn by considering students’ capacities for decision making, attentiveness, focus, reflecting, analyzing, following instructions, or staying on topic. Arts education intrinsically contributes to cognitive development because art making involves problem solving, creativity, imagination, and higher-order thinking. Observing the cognitive ability of students during art making helps teachers evaluate and strengthen students’ cognitive skills. 

Piaget's four stages of cognitive development provides a helpful sequence to organize teachers’ observation and assessment of learners’ cognitive progression. These four stages include the sensorimotor stage (birth to 2 years), preoperational stage (2-7 years), concrete operational stage (7-11 years), and formal operational stage (12 and up).  

As they mature, students develop capacities in the following cognitive areas of strength:

  • Reasoning: Teachers can observe that students begin to sort, group, and classify objects and attributes; solve problems; and understand causes and effects as they perform various tasks (information courtesy of LDA America). 
  • Memory: Watch for evidence that learners can encode, store, retain and subsequently recall information gained by study and experience. (Summarized information provided by 
  • Creativity: An author and renowned psychologist, Dr. Robert E. Franken’s research focuses on understanding curiosity and exploratory behavior. According to his book Human Motivation, teachers can inspire curiosity and creativity by encouraging students to recognize and generate ideas, alternatives, or products that may contribute to solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining themselves and others.
  • Perception: Teachers can be instrumental in guiding students to recognize and interpret sensory information by providing opportunities for meaningful thought, communication exercises, and creative products.
  • Attention: As students mature, teachers can create opportunities for students to develop focus by implementing regular classroom routines and providing a dedicated and organized workspace for specific tasks. Arts activities are an excellent way for students to notice nuance, practice concentration, and gain the unique satisfaction that comes from completing an artwork, project, or creative assignment. Sometimes, students can benefit from learning how to intentionally practice letting go of a tight focus. 
  • Mindfulness Practice: Experiencing mindfulness through arts activities like blind contour drawing can help students concentrate, pay attention to physical and emotional sensations, and develop focus. Many current social trends encourage constant chatter and mental distractions. Teachers can use arts activities to support students’ learning to pay attention, focus on a task, and appreciate stillness.

How Do Developmental Milestones Relate to Arts Activities?

These indicators, taken from the Utah School Board of Education website in 2013, include five categories to monitor a child’s development: cognitive, physical, language, social, and emotional. The arts are often seen as essential to early childhood education because they invite the application of these indicators in playful, low-stress activities.
Readiness for learning can be observed through various developmental indicators that consider instincts, sensory processes, large motor skills, fine motor skills, visual and auditory acuity, emotional literacy, empathy, social development, gender differences, and sexual development. In an arts environment, where students are allowed to explore concepts through independent choices, students adapt according to their own developmental level; teachers, who know how to read developmental signals, can offer support as appropriate.

2 month milestones

Four month milestones

Six month milestones

Nine month milestones

One year milestones

18 month milestones

Three year milestones

Three year milestones


Five year milestones