Dance, Drama, and Drawing: How to Support a Teen’s Interests in the Arts

In the year 2021, teens looking for ways to spend their spare time have virtually unlimited options. Instant connectivity – a result of the computer revolution – allows them to go online and connect with peers who share their same interests at any time they choose. Teens can connect with teens halfway around the world, teens in their hometown, or teens in their school they’ve never met before.

They can text, videochat, share memes, and generally have fun being teens.

They can use video apps like YouTube, Snapchat, or TikTok to watch educational content or zone out on completely mindless entertainment.

Another thing modern technology allows teens to do is create.

They can make and share visual art, they can choreograph dance performances, and they can write, direct, and perform short films or videos. Then they can share their art far and wide, with anyone who might be interested.

Let’s back up, though, and think about this. If the internet connects teens around the world and allows them to share their art, that’s amazing – but how do they learn to create art in the first place?

Some teens are natural born dancers, visual artists, or actors, who demonstrate proficiency right away, with very little formal training. Others, however, may be every bit as passionate as the natural born artists, but need to take classes to get the basics down.

Once they get the basics, the sky is literally the limit.

And the great thing about arts is that training in the basics helps everyone: whether you’re the next Picasso of the paint or our next great female poet like Mary Oliver or Maya Angelou, a firm grounding in the fundamentals can open up worlds of possibility that last a lifetime.

First Things First: Practical Considerations

Before we talk about how you can support your teen’s interest in dance, drama, or drawing (visual art), we’ll address a question we hear often hear from parents who are skeptical of the value of arts in education:

Isn’t that all just a waste of time?

We understand this point of view. Parents want their kids to grow up to be successful adults. And we don’t mean all parents want their teens to be millionaires: most parents simply want their kids to get a good education, find a job that sustains them, and live a comfortable life. In most cases, this means parents want their kids to get good grades in high school and then go to college. Spending time on dance, drama, or drawing instead of math, science, and history seems counterintuitive – and maybe even counterproductive.

Evidence tells a different story, though. A large-scale meta-analysis published in 2009 by the National Endowment for the Arts called The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies shows the value of arts in education. Researcher used data from four national studies followed students over several years:

To describe the data they collected with regards to arts participation, they divided the school experience into two categories:

  • High arts: students actively participated in arts programs in school
  • Low arts: students reported low level of engagement in arts programs in school

Here’s what they learned.

We’ll start with the impact of arts education in kindergarten through seventh grade, using data on science and writing scores from students in 8th grade.

8th Graders: Science and Writing

  • Average Science Test Scores (0-100):
    • High Arts K-7: 84
    • Low Arts K-7: 72
  • Average Writing Test Scores (0-5):
    • High Arts K-7: 3
    • Low Arts K-7: 2.6

Now we’ll look at the impact of education in high school, using data on various academic metrics for high school students.

High School Students: Calculus, Grade Point Average (GPA), College Plans

  • Completed a calculus course:
    • High Arts: 44%
    • Low Arts: 23%
  • Mean GPA (0-4):
    • High Arts: 2.94
    • Low Arts: 2.55
  • Mean Math GPA (0-4):
    • High Arts: 2.63
    • Low Arts: 2.48
  • Plan to Earn Bachelor’s Degree (12th graders)
    • High Arts: 67%
    • Low Arts: 42%

Next, we’ll look at the results that skeptical parents really need to see: data on the impact of arts education on college attendance.

High School Art Participation and College Outcomes

  • Ever attended any college:
    • High Arts: 71%
    • Low Arts: 48%
  • Ever attended 4-year college:
    • High Arts: 39%
    • Low Arts: 17%
  • If attended college:
    • Earned associate’s degree:
      • High Arts: 24%
      • Low Arts: 10%
    • Earned bachelor’s degree:
      • High Arts: 18%
      • Low Arts: 6%
    • Earned graduate/professional degree:
      • High Arts: 1%
      • Low Arts: 0%

The director of the National Endowment for the Arts,  describes the findings this way:

“Students who have arts-rich experiences in school do better across-the-board academically, and they also become more active and engaged citizens, voting, volunteering, and generally participating at higher rates than their peers.”

We did not share the data on civic participation, but the study shows that among the 26-year-olds, those who reported high arts engagement during high school reported they read the newspaper more often, volunteered more often, and voted with greater frequency than those who reported low arts engagement during high school.

That’s the practical case for supporting your teen’s interest in the arts: not only is arts participation associated with higher grades and college attendance, it’s also associated with higher rates of civic engagement and participation.

Now let’s take a look at how you can support your teen in their artistic pursuits.

Classes, Clubs, and Connection: Teens and the Arts

We’ll start with three fundamental things for parents to think about when their teens pursue artistic interests:

  1. In the beginning, only be positive. This is critical: if your teen is new to the arts, then be patient, and no matter what they produce, be supportive. It’s their teacher’s job to offer critical feedback. It’s your job to be in their corner and help them explore new hobbies and pastimes.
  2. It doesn’t matter if they’re any good at it: it only matters that they enjoy themselves.
  3. (See #1 and #2).

We’re serious about these points. During high school, the point of the arts is process, not product. Teens learn, grow, and become well-rounded humans when they participate in arts programs. Sure, there are prodigies out there who may produce art that’s marketable, and almost every artistic process aims toward a specific product – a play, a choreographed dance, a poem – as the goal, but that product is secondary to the lessons teens learn along the way.

Now let’s look at the three types of art we mention in the title of this article – dance, drama, and drawing – and learn how you can best help your teen pursue each one.

Dance

  1. Choose a style.
    • There are all kinds of dance out there. For instance, teens can learn:
      • Ballet
      • Modern
      • Jazz
      • Tap
      • Hip-hop
      • Ballroom
      • Tango
  2. Find a school.
    • Once you and your teen decides what kind of dance they want to pursue, get online and find a local school that specializes in that style
  3. Find a club, audition for a dance company, or audition for the dance team at school.
    • While performing live may not be the ultimate objective, it is incredibly fun. The entire performance experience helps teens. Rehearsals teach them the meaning of commitment and work, and the performance itself teaches them that commitment and work can lead to something thrilling: a live dance performance.
  4. Check out this excellent resource from the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS): PBS Learning Media – Dance

Drama

  1. Choose a role.
    • When we say role here, what we mean is this: do they want to act, direct, or be behind the scenes? Roles – as in parts in a play – come later. At first, you can simply help them decide how they want to participate.
  2. Join the drama club at school.
    • A high school drama club is one of the greatest places on earth.
        • Everyone is welcome
        • Everyone has a place
    • You may think we’re exaggerating, but we’re not: drama clubs at high schools want people. They need people. Drama kids and drama teachers will welcome your teen with open arms. Whether they want to paint sets, direct a comedy skit, or audition for a leading role in the big spring show, the people in the drama club will find a way for your teen to participate.
  3. Find a private school.
    • If your teen gets serious about acting, most cities have theaters that offer teen classes, or private teachers who offer teen classes
  4. Find auditions.
    • If your teen wants to take the next step, then they can audition for plays at local theaters. The best way to get into a local theater scene is by starting with holiday plays: every year, there are casting calls for themed shows that run during the December holidays. These are a great way to get a feel for a real pro acting experience with less pressure – and more fun – than a typical, midseason play.
  5. Check out this excellent resource from the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS): PBS Learning Media – Drama

Drawing/Visual Art

  1. Choose a form.
    • Like dance and drama, your teen has options:
      • Painting
      • Drawing
      • Sculpture
      • Animation
  1. Find learning resources.
    • Compared to drama and dance, which, in most cases, are group activities, visual art lends itself to self-teaching and self-learning. Online art courses and books on drawing and painting are easy to find, and available for almost any style or medium your teen chooses or shows an interest in.
    • In-person teachers are always best. Your teen can:
      • Take an art class at school
      • Take an art class in the community
  1. Get supplies. Depending on what form of visual art your teen pursues, they may need:
    • Sketchbooks
    • Colored pencils
    • Colored pens
    • Good erasers
    • Paint, brushes, and an easel
    • Animation software
  2. Give them time and space to explore.
    • Allow your teen to spend hours in their room drawing and doodling
      • This is when they really learn their craft
    • Praise everything they show you.
      • Let their teachers be the critics: you be the cheerleader
    • Art supplies can be expensive, but they’re worth it.
      • A good set of colored drawing pencils can help a teen draw what they imagine, in all the colors they see in their mind’s eye
      • Computer animation software and drawing tools can help a teen learn, create, store, and share their art: if your teen is passionate about art, software is a good investment
  1. Check out this excellent resource from the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS): PBS Learning Media – Visual Art

Process Over Product

In closing, we want to reiterate two things: one we didn’t mention explicitly, and one we did.

The thing we didn’t mention – that’s actually most important – is that in order to support your teen’s interest in the arts is access. We could also call this opportunity: if your teen is interested in the arts, the first step is letting them try: that’s access and opportunity. Those two things are implied in the list above, but we want to make sure we get that message across: they’ll never know if they love dance, drama, or drawing unless they try.

Next, to support their budding interest, be one hundred percent supportive.

Your role is to give them the unconditional love and praise that makes them feel good about themselves and encourages them to continue. At this point in their lives – unless they have plans to become a professional dancer, actor/director, or visual artist – pursuing the arts is more about learning and growing as a person than it is about creating art they can sell or art that someone might call good.

Finally, you can rest assured that spending time, energy – and sometimes money – on the arts is valuable. Your teen can learn something they love, connect with like-minded peers, and – as the evidence shows – increase their likelihood of getting good grades and going to college.