Many remember being excited to enter art class or finally pick up that flute and learn to play.

Enrichment programs (or what some call ‘specials’) in education are designed to give students a variety of options and allow them to explore learning in a whole new way than the typical classroom offers. These programs can include everything from sports, to music to art to coding. Many kids look forward to the change in their academic day and thrive during these activities, many of which they may not ever stumble upon if they weren’t offered in school.

While some of these enrichment programs are taught in a classroom setting and are graded, some aren’t. When my youngest son, who isn’t a fan of school at all, decided to take a coding class as an ungraded elective I saw an engagement in him I’d never witnessed before.

This is supported by many studies. For instance, a study by researchers at the University of British Columbia published in the Journal of Educational Psychology indicated that students who participated in music averaged higher scores in math, science and English at both the middle school and high school level. Another study by Dr. Frank WIlson, an assistant clinical professor neurology at the University School of Medicine in San Francisco, indicated that music can enhance coordination, concentration, and memory as well as improve hearing and eyesight.

According to “Critical Evidence: How the Arts Benefit Student Achievement,” a publication by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies and the Arts Education Partnership, students who participate in the arts do better in school academically and socially. Importantly, according to the publication, the benefits of the arts go beyond the arts themselves, helping kids to better master literacy, mathematics and more. “Certain types of music instruction help develop the capacity for spatial temporal reasoning, which is integral to the acquisition of important mathematics skills,” Critical Evidence says.

Moreover, dramatic readings of stories can help kids better understand what they are reading and dance can help open up creative thinking for kids, according to Critical Evidence.

In the classroom, Maine teachers see the benefits of arts learning in action.

“It promotes problem solving skills, critical thinking and they improve students’ ability to concentrate, be more focused, and build relationships,” said Sarah Helgesen, a Special Education Teacher at Thornton Academy in Saco. Enrichment activities are fun so children don’t realize they are learning, she said.

Kelsey Boucher, a K-6 Visual Arts Educator at Connors Elementary School in Lewiston, agrees, saying children are like sponges and will absorb everything in. “The earlier they are exposed to the arts and languages, the more confident they are in these areas as they grow older,” Boucher said.

Exposure to arts, music and languages early also helps with motor skills and speech and language skills, Boucher said. Plus, she believes, those subjects can open up “pathways for students to learn.”

“I will never forget the time I asked an entire sixth grade class what symmetry was. Not one student could raise their hand and tell me. I got a bit nervous because the lesson I was introducing was not only revolved around symmetry (hoping they already knew what it was), it revolved around radial symmetry,” Boucher said. “I pushed on through the project and every student was able to show me the answer to my question, even though they weren’t able to express it with words. We, as arts/enrichment educators, strive to connect our programs to their every day learning to help support the students and be successful everywhere.”

Helgesen has witnessed nonverbal students “enunciate sounds to music and play instruments to the beat while having the best time,” and said that’s when she feels enrichment programs have proven to be the most successful, adding value to every student.

And while students will experience and benefit from enrichment programs in different ways, they can help children of all abilities to succeed. Music and art are designed to let kids get a bit more creative, for instance, even though no one is going to sing or draw alike, according to Helgesen. “It’s not as much of a competition. All students engage and excel differently,” Helgesen said.

Helgesen also said that when students are involved in different activities during the school day, such as art or music, it gives them more confidence and they are more likely to sign up for other programs beyond the school day.

“It’s never too early to introduce children to enrichment opportunities. I believe that there are many social and academic benefits and the earlier the introduction, the better,” Helgesen said.

Katie Smith, Bangor Metro