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First Breath: Arts engagement from birth, lifetime membership at Europe’s largest cultural institution

In this guest blog, clinical psychologist Kat Taylor takes a closer look at how the arts can aid emotional, social, cognitive and linguistic growth, as well as strengthening parent-child bonds and building self-confidence.

Sometimes overlooked when thinking about vital elements of a child’s development, art and cultural experiences provide a range of benefits that are fundamental to future health and wellbeing. First Breath – an extraordinary project celebrating new life in Greater Manchester – is tackling this head on. As well as a light installation illuminating the Factory International site in January 2023, the project connects with families throughout Greater Manchester to support early years development and introduce art and culture to everyday life from a young age. 

As The Factory launches, I take a closer look at how arts engagement can aid emotional, social, cognitive and linguistic growth, as well as strengthen parent-infant bonds and build self-confidence.

Studies show that exposure to music, literature and arts have profound impacts on the development of vocabulary and emotional literacy – how they communicate verbally and express emotions. Children who are not given these opportunities may be at a disadvantage in later life.

Critical thinking and problem solving

Creative activity involves experimentation: testing out ideas, working through challenges, making decisions and processes of discovery. Trying out new ideas on the safety of the page or in performance can translate into the confidence to try new things elsewhere.

The natural curiosity of children is well-supported through creative activity, which can encourage imaginative play, the development of critical thinking skills and promote self-esteem.

Also remember that the arts are vital industry which contributes £10.7 billion per year to the UK economy. Book publishing, performing arts and artistic creation are the three largest categories of activity.

An impression of a handprint in blue paint on white card

Social and emotional skills 

Have you ever felt moved by a song, a performance or a book? Exchanges of feelings and expression using art lays the foundation for understanding and regulating emotions.

Concentration and motivation 

Creative exploration offers the potential to engage for lengthy periods of time, improving attention and concentration. The quality of what children see and feel encourages this, so use the best materials you can get hold of.

So what kind of activities should parents use to encourage early exposure to the arts?

It’s good to remember that the outcome, and even the method, is not important. Art-making contains a range of processes and interactions that all matter more than what is actually produced. It might also be helpful to remember that many artists, for example, Van Gogh, were not recognised for their talents during their lifetime! Art is very much matter of taste and there is never a right or wrong – another useful concept for the developing, unique minds of our children to grasp.

So – try to avoid directing your child towards what they are making, instead commenting on how and why they are doing so. Describe what you see and ask questions – and don’t worry about the final creation. If you can remember that art-making can support a surprising range of developmental tasks, you can simply enjoy the journey!

Art-making is ancient, universal and vital to our species – in fact, we are the only species who make art. Art is not the icing on the cake, but rather a key ingredient baked in to us all since prehistoric times.

From singing round a campfire and passing on wisdom through song, to watching movies to relax – we may be beginning to conduct the research to better understand their impact now, but the value of culture and the arts has always been hiding in plain sight.


Find out more about First Breath here.

You can read more about First Breath on the BBC.

I'm a British clinical psychologist with a research background. I manage the Greater Manchester i-THRIVE Arts, Culture and Mental Health Programme, part of the national transformation of children's services. I also have an NHS clinical role in Lancaster and Morecambe working with children, young people and families (CAMHS). I began this blog in 2017 to record a WCMT Travelling Fellowship, from a research role at Arts for Health, Manchester Metropolitan University. I began clinical psychology training (DCLinPsy, Lancaster) in 2010, and studied the role of creativity in bipolar disorder, because of the known links, and partly due to my own experiences of creatively managing extremes of mood in adolescence and throughout my 20s. I have worked in several university psychology research departments including Manchester University in suicide prevention, the Spectrum Centre for Mental Health Research at Lancaster University (notable for service user expertise), and on the Dementia & Imagination research programme.

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