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Background of Start with the Arts

Background of Start with the Arts and Research in Early Education

Early childhood has become a national priority. Each year, nearly all five year olds and two thirds of all four year olds in the U.S. leave the security of their homes to attend some form of school (Day, 1988). With bright faces and unlimited enthusiasm for learning, these children embark upon the beginning of a long term relationship with formal schooling and learning. Parents' and educators' hopes are high, and they should be. The message from experts is clear: Good early education has life-long benefits for children (Schweinhart, Weikart, & Larner, 1986).

Today's early childhood programs are grounded in research that verifies the efficacy of early intervention, particularly for low-income children (Kagan, 1989; Stallings & Stipek, 1986). For young children with physical and mental disabilities, early intervention offers the potential for reducing the amount of special services required later (Gallagher, 1989; MacMillan, Keogh, & Jones, 1986). Early intervention also promotes inclusion by providing the child with a "jump start" to learning. Young children with developmental delays and those at risk for developmental delays, benefit from high quality early intervention and preschool programs. The U.S. Congress, seeing the benefits of early education, has strengthened this focus by passing Public Law 99-457, which makes available funding for special education services for children aged 3-5.

Current thinking in the field of early childhood education has given educators a direction in which to move forward, one which promotes a developmental approach to curriculum and instruction (Bredekamp, 1987; Bryant, Clifford, & Peisner, 1991; Elkind, 1989; National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1991; National Association of State Boards of Education, 1988). The major educational approaches or program components advanced in the literature and research promote educational programs which are matched to the child's total and individual needs. The goal of these approaches is to provide children, both with and without disabilities, with meaningful learning experiences in integrated settings, while simultaneously engaging the family in supporting the child's growth. A program which reflects these goals for early learning is VSA arts' Start with the Arts.

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Educational Approach

Start with the Arts is an instructional resource that enables educators and parents to create meaningful learning experiences for young children utilizing all of the arts - visual arts, creative movement, creative drama, and music. Designed to be implemented in mainstreamed settings, Start with the Arts assists young children, including those with disabilities, in exploring thematic topics commonly taught in early childhood programs through the arts. Start with the Arts capitalizes on the inherently motivating nature of arts activities to engage young children in exploring, creating meaning, and expressing their ideas about topics under study. Using Start with the Arts instructional materials, teachers can achieve the following objectives:

  • encourage the use of the arts and creative play as important learning strategies for young children;
  • promote the utilization of developmentally appropriate arts experiences for all children, including those with special learning needs;
  • provide learning experiences that promote literacy in young children - particularly the development of oral language skills, vocabulary and concept development, and beginning reading and writing skills;
  • promote the inclusion of children with special needs into mainstreamed learning situations by providing early childhood educators with strategies and activities that utilize the arts.

To accomplish these objectives, Start with the Arts builds upon the existing classroom curriculum offering arts activities that focus on common thematic units found in early childhood programs. There are five thematic areas in Start with the Arts. The topics addressed in these units focus on self-awareness, transportation, weather, ecology, and nutrition. Each unit contains developmentally sound art experiences that are structured to incorporate the thematic content. When used in this way, the arts provide children with opportunities to think about and react to the theme concepts and topics, to use related vocabulary, and communicate thoughts and feelings about the theme concepts, while exploring and developing skills in the art areas. In this way, Start with the Arts enhances the curriculum by providing the teacher with a rich selection of learning experiences from which to draw to meaningfully involve young children in the process of learning and creating.

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Dr. Ernest Boyer has said in Ready to Learn that language is the key to learning. "Children who fail to develop adequate speech and language skills in the first years of life are up to six times more likely to experience reading problems in school than those who receive adequate stimulation." He notes further that "literacy in the richest, fullest sense means learning to communicate not just verbally but non-verbally as well, since little children, even before becoming fluent in the symbol system of language, respond powerfully to music, dance, and the visual arts."

Becoming literate at a young age entails creating meaning in one's world and communicating that meaning. The arts are an excellent vehicle for engaging young children in learning, sharing learning experiences, and thinking about what has been learned. Through interacting with the art forms, children are provided with opportunities to create and communicate new knowledge in a meaningful context. Using experiences in the arts as the common base, teachers can build a language-rich and meaningful environment for children by stimulating discussion, responding to children's natural curiosity, encouraging and modeling language use, and fostering the development of inquiry skills. Through carefully constructed learning experiences in the classroom and at-home, Start with the Arts engages young children in developing important expressive and receptive verbal and nonverbal communication skills through the arts.

Start with the Arts also promotes literacy through children's literature. To meet this objective, a Literature Enhancement section is found in each activity of this program to further extend young children's literacy skills. Over 600 titles of quality children's literature, that relate to the topics under study and reflect our pluralistic society, are listed. The intent is to immerse young children in a "print-rich" environment in which the best of children's literature is read aloud and discussed with children. The suggested literature titles are also included in the parent involvement component of this program. The purpose is to substantiate the importance of parents reading aloud and discussing books with their children as a way of enriching their vocabularies, expanding their concepts, and reinforcing the importance of reading for information and enjoyment.

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Developmental Appropriateness

Photo of a child at a table with craft supplies

The National Association for Education of Young Children advocates that the concept of developmental appropriateness be paramount when developing curricula for young children. A developmentally sound and appropriate curriculum takes into account dimensions of age appropriateness and individual appropriateness. Human development research indicates that there are universal, predictable milestones of growth and change that occur in children. These predictable changes are evident in all domains of development - physical, emotional, social and cognitive. In addition, each child is a unique person with an individual pattern of growth, as well as an individual personality, learning style, and family background (Varnon, 1990).

Accordingly, it is important that curriculum present learning opportunities that are geared to the level at which the child is functioning. Curriculum that meets the individual needs of young children does not ask children to undertake tasks that are above their level of ability. Instead, the curriculum is viewed as fitting the child, not the child being fit to the curriculum.

Start with the Arts is intended to meet criteria of developmental appropriateness in the following ways. The learning experiences are designed to address the physical, emotional, social, and intellectual needs of young children. The content is tailored to the interests of four to six year olds. The art experiences on which it is based are carefully designed to be age appropriate. Finally, the resource recognizes and seeks to accommodate individual learning differences by incorporating adaptive teaching strategies as an integral part of it.

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Parent Involvement

Home-school relationships are important for any school program, but particularly so in programs for young children. Forming partnerships with parents and primary caretakers means supporting them in their role as parents and involving them in their child's educational program in meaningful ways.

Frequent and regular communication with parents can advance the child's learning. Teachers should share with parents the classroom goals that have been planned with the child, and invite their input. Creating good rapport with a child's family not only helps families and children, it also provides teachers with insights that are essential to responding to each child's individual needs.

Because parents exert a major influence on their children, parents are treated as partners when using Start with the Arts. Parents are invited to extend their child's learning in the home through discussion and home-based activities that utilize the arts. They are also provided with relevant and age appropriate children's literature suggestions to read aloud and discuss with their child to further develop their child's literacy skills.

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Boyer, E. (1991). Ready to Learn: a mandate for the nation. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Lawrenceville, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Bredekamp, S. (1987). Developmentally appropriate practice. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Bryant, D.M., Clifford, R.M., & Peisner, E.S. (1991). Best practices for beginners: Developmental appropriateness in the kindergarten. American Educational Research Journal, 28(4), 783-803.

Day, B.D. (1988a). What's happening in early childhood programs across the United States. In C. Warger (Ed.), A resource guide to public school early childhood programs. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Day, B.D. (1988b). Early childhood education: Creative learning activities, 3rd Edition, New York: MacMillan.

Elkind, D. (1989). Developmentally appropriate practice: Philosophical and practical implications. Phi Delta Kappan, 71(2), 113-117.

Gallagher, J.J. (1989). The impact of policies for handicapped children on future early childhood education policy. Phi Delta Kappan, 71(2), 121-124.

Kagan, S.L. (1989). Early care and education: Reflecting on options and opportunities. Phi Delta Kappan, 71(2), 104-106.

MacMillan, D.L., Keogh, B.K., & Jones, R.L. (1986). Special education research on mildly handicapped learners. In M.C. Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Teaching (3rd Edition). New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.

National Association for the Education of Young Children (1991). Guidelines for appropriate content and assessment in programs serving children ages 3-8. Young Children, 46(3), pp. 21-38.

National Association of State Boards of Education (1988). Right From the Start: The Report of the NASBE Task Force on Early Childhood Education. Alexandria, VA: author.

Schweinhart, L.J., Weikart, D.P., & Larner, M.B. (1986). Consequences of three preschool curriculum models through age 15. Early Childhood Research, Quarterly, 1, 15-45.

Stallings, J.A., & Stipek, D. (1986). Research on early childhood and elementary school teaching programs. In M.C. Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Teaching (3rd Edition). New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.

Varnon, D. (1990). The principal's guide to ensuring quality kindergarden programs. Ann Arbor, MI: Exceptional Innovations, Inc., pp. 3-4, 7.