Exposing children to art from a young age develops cognitive and verbal skills, arguably good things. But it may be daunting to enter a museum with kids: they may be easily bored, they probably won’t resist long, and you may not be sure what to do to help them approach the works. I have recently had the pleasure of talking about teaching art history with a colleague of mine in art education, and we have found that some of the tricks I use in my university classes are the same as those recommended for use in elementary and middle schools. The following are some ideas for approaching art with school-age children that apply also to adults. While classroom techniques are similar, the points below are designed with the museum setting in mind.
A note before we begin: Be aware that not all museums are very child friendly. In the USA, almost every museum, from smaller university art museums to the biggies like the Washington National Gallery, the HIGH in Atlanta, and the Art Institute of Chicago have family programmes that make art accessible. The National Museum in London is wonderful for this. In Italy, this is rarer. The Uffizi is crowded and has no signs specific to children, little place to sit down and rest, and no place to eat, drink, or pee until you get to the end. Oddly enough, the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale in Naples has really fun signs for kids! When travelling, it may be better to try one of the smaller private museums. [There will be a future post under "Museums" about child-friendly options in Florence.]
1) Watch your child! what is he/she interested in looking at? Rather than picking out the masterpiece of art history that you know everyone should learn about, follow your kid’s eyes. He or she may be more interested in another piece (or in some lint on the ground…). If the child is NOT looking at the art, now’s the time to try to direct his or her attention to the wall, leading perhaps to the pieces you wish to discuss.
2) Ask for a reaction: Depending on age, your child may have more or less sophisticated reactions to art, but from an early age should be able to express like and dislike. Ask questions such as: do you like this painting? is it scary? is that a pretty colour? Sometimes, childrens’ answers will naturally lead you to discuss the work: why do you like it? what makes it scary, is it because it’s dark?
3) Pick pieces with people in them – they are easier to discuss:
Representational art has two main benefits when it comes to interpretation. First, it can tell us about the culture that produced it – what those people wore, what their ideals were. Second, we can more easily relate to quasi-timeless aspects like body language, facial expression, and gesture.
The portrait of Maddalena Doni (left) by Raphael kicked off a really fun conversation in my Italian Renaissance art history class. Someone immediately commented that she looked unhappy. This is in fact a double portrait; to the left of Maddalena, in a separate frame, is her husband Agnolo, and this is a wedding commemoration. Not exactly a joyous bride! I asked “who would want to go on a two week cruise with these people?” – and there were not a lot of takers. I asked why we know she is unhappy, which lead to a discussion of facial expression and body language or pose. But I also asked what else we can know about this couple from this painting; what information the clothing and landscape convey about the couple’s social status and gender roles.
My colleague in art education, Carole, said she used a similar approach with grade school children by showing them a reproduction of Wood’s American Gothic, asking the kids who would want to go spend a week on their farm. One boy said that the man holding a pitchfork was a devil-worshipper, which could lead to a conversation with older students about the manner in which we interpret symbols.
4) Make it relevant: Often, ideas or things represented in art are still part of our life today. A toddler will recognize another toddler (real or painted), point, and say “baby”. Objects and people in Renaissance paintings are sometimes recognizable as objects in our own homes, making for good conversation – how is that bed different from yours? Look, that lady is sewing just like your grandma does!
Sculpture and architecture might seem less accessible, but if you can discuss the object’s contemporary function, you can ask your young student to play-act how people might have reacted to this work in the past. For example, take Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio (see post here). Ask the child what message the government is trying to project with this building! how do they know that?
Furthermore, the function of much art is not that different from the function of personal propoganda or advertising today. Teenage girls might respond favourably to comparisons between portraits of women in the Renaissance and current magazine ads, which present very different ideals of beauty and sexuality.
5) Talking about style… building comparisons: One of the goals of art history is to develop an ability to recognize stylistic differences between works, generally in order to place works into a chronology that demonstrates a sequence (not so much a progression!) of stylistic change. Young children probably don’t care about this at all. But you can attune them to subtle as well as obvious differences between pieces that will enhance their critical skills. Not all museums make it easy for you to develop comparisons between works in a single room, as it is traditional to group works from the same time period or artist together, and it is more difficult to compare these than to compare works that are more disparate. (An exception to this is the newly rennovated Art Gallery of Ontario, where I spent my early years, now arranged thematically!) Here are some types of works that are easily comparable:
- two objects that depict the same subject, like two images of a Madonna and Child, two portraits, etc.
- Two works by the same artist, early and late in the artist’s career. How has the artist evolved? what is the artist’s range of style and subject matter?
- two pieces that might have the same function, like two big altarpieces.
6) Buy postcards: I still have a book into which I pasted postcards purchased on every museum visit before the age of ten. It’s a pretty full book. My mother had me write down the artist and title of the work pictured. I also pasted in postcards received in the mail. An even more interactive idea is to go to the museum shop FIRST and allow your child to pick one card to buy, then look for it in the gallery. Watch out though – if you’re in Italy, chances are that will be the one work taken away for restoration, or on loan somewhere else.
Other online resources:
- There are podcasts on this website to listen to in the first three rooms of the Uffizi Museum in Florence. These are for children old enough to guide themselves with a digital music device (ipod).
- Fun art-related online games from the National Gallery of Art (Washington)
- The Come Look with Me Series introduces art thematically or by region.
- For travel in Italy, I own a copy of this fun, self-published activity book that keeps kids looking not only at art, but around town at people, streets, cars, gelato, and everything else. Great way to keep them busy while waiting for slow restaurant service. See: Kids Europe Italy Discovery Journal
- The Phaidon Art Book for Children is perfect for practising at home before you go to the museum, or for reinforcing concepts afterwards. The large illustrations are tempting while the text boxes prompt young minds (and give parents more ideas about how to approach art with your kids!).