Visiting an art museum with kids
Whenever we take a family outing to St. Louis, I always yearn to visit the St. Louis Art Museum, but it never ends up happening. The reason? Precisely because it’s a family outing. I’m afraid that looking at art will make the kids bored and whiny, and nothing torpedoes a family outing like bored and whiny kids.
Must this be the case? Have children gotten too used to the visual stimulation of television and video games and the physical stimulation of hands-on children’s activities to enjoy the experience of simply looking at fine art? I’d like to think not. I believe the creation and appreciation of art is a vital component of humanity. I also believe that art is for everyone, regardless of age, ability or socioeconomic status. So how can a parent foster an enjoyment of art in children, creatures with naturally short attention spans and powerful, innate desires to put their grubby hands on everything they see?
I posed this question to my colleagues in the Education Department of the Illinois State Museum. Elizabeth Bazan and Sarah Davis are both educators who specialize in fostering public engagement with museums. They had wonderful tips and resources to share. What I learned turned everything I thought I knew about visiting an art museum on its head, but ultimately made me feel like a family trip to an art museum just might be feasible – and fun – after all:
• To begin with, ditch the notion that visiting an art museum is a rainy-day activity. This implies that the museum is a last choice, something to pass the time when you’d rather be doing something else. Instead, make the trip to the museum a positive choice, a desirable destination.
• Explain the rules in advance. Children are tactile creatures; make sure they know that they mustn’t touch the artwork. More importantly, help them to understand why: because the art they are seeing is very special and often very fragile, and we want it to be around when their children’s children’s children come to the museum 100 years from now.
• At the museum, visit the “children’s area” last. If you begin there, you’ll have a hard time enticing your kids to leave. It’s much easier to transition from “no touching” to “hands on” than the other way around.
• Let your child choose what to look at. Your inclination might be to march your child through the museum and point out all the most significant works of art in chronological order from ancient Greece to Banksy. Try to check this impulse. Your goal is simply to introduce your child to the joy of looking at art. Follow where he leads, and notice what catches his eye, and allow him to stop in front of whatever speaks to him.
• Share your impressions of the artwork – how it makes you feel, a memory or dream it stirs within you, something that intrigues you about it.
• However, don’t go overboard with your sharing or explaining. Allow your child the space and silence to explore his own reactions to the art.
• Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” if your child has questions you can’t answer. Ask a docent or plan to research the answer together.
• For children of all ages, ask them how the artwork makes them feel and what they like or dislike about it.
• For children up to age 7 or so, ask them to tell you a story about what’s going on in a painting. Ask them to mime the poses in paintings or sculpture. Get down on their level and try to see how the painting looks from their height.
• For children ages 8 to 10, encourage them to read the labels to discover information. Engage them in conversation about the artist’s technique – children in this age group are developing curiosity about the materials and methods behind great art.
• For children ages 11 to13, share what you know about the artist’s history and personality. Point out art that shows up in modern advertising. Explore and explain symbolism and “hidden meanings” in art.
• Finally, forget about trying to get your money’s worth by seeing every single piece of art. Asking a child to be quiet and attentive is only realistic for so long; when they’ve had enough, it’s time to go.
Remember, you don’t have to drive for hours to give your kids access to great art. The Springfield Art Association, Illinois State Museum and the University of Illinois Springfield Visual Arts Gallery all have rotating exhibits of high-quality fine art that are free or very low cost to see.
For more tips on encouraging an appreciation of art in children, Elizabeth and Sarah recommend How to Talk to Your Children About Art by Francoise Barbe-Gall.
Erika Holst is the assistant curator of decorative arts and history at the Illinois State Museum, a mom and an appreciator of art.