Mini Monets and Mommies: Why Are Art Museums Important for Your Young Child?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Why Are Art Museums Important for Your Young Child?

I’ve loved art museums for… well, for as long as I can remember. I grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, and going to the Carnegie Museum of Art (where I would later work, as an adult) was a big deal when I was a child. After all, we had to go through a tunnel and over a bridge to get there, so it must be worth the trip into the “city”, right? Right!

Kids' Create
I vividly remember walking up the marble staircase to the art galleries – all the while wishing that the museum was my home. Fast-forward a few decades and I found myself teaching children’s programs at that same museum. I have to admit, even after sitting through teeth-grittingly horrendous morning rush hour traffic, I still felt like that giddy little kid when I walked into the museum. And, truthfully, walking into the museum in those pre-opening hours (when the only other people around where random security guards passing through) was almost like coming home.

That brings me to the actual art. Why take your young child to the art museum? There are benefits galore.  Early childhood, educational and human learning research provides answers (or at least qualified guesses) as to how and why art museums – and art viewing – helps young children developmentally. I don’t want to bore you with the stats and figures. Your child isn’t a number and truth be told she may not like visiting the art museum now – or ever. But, if she does, here are a few non-science reasons why art museums and the related viewing experiences are important for children.

It’s special. The park, the library, your backyard, preschool. What do all of these have in common? Your child probably goes to these places often. Not that they aren’t special in their own rites, but a museum is often a unique experience for a young child. Even if you only go to the museum once a year, that time will make a mark (and a memory) in your child’s mind.

It’s real. Even though I completely advocate for using books and reproductions to help kids interact with art, there’s nothing like the real deal. Monet’s Water Lilies is one of my all-time favorites. I feel fortunate to be able to take my students to the real painting (or at least, one of the paintings in the series). They can see the textures and layers of paint in a way that isn’t entirely possible in a book or on a poster.

It’s part of history. Imagine taking a group of 10 4- and 5-year-olds into a packed gallery that is filled with priceless works of art and artifacts. Yikes! And that’s putting it mildly. There was one day when an inquisitive 4-year-old put her tiny little hand out and reached to touch the Egyptian tablet fragment that was hung on the wall. The first thought that flashed through my head was, “Ohhhhhhh! That’s survived thousands of years, and it can’t survive a 4-year-old? Whether you’re looking at a 3,000 year old relic or an Andy Warhol silkscreen from decades ago, it’s a piece of history. Even though the young child can’t actually touch the art, she can imagine the artist who created it. She can think about the artist at the easel, and how his brush turned a blank canvas into what is now in front of her.

It’s able to create an impression. There’s a painting by the French artist George Rouault called “The Old King”. I really don’t believe that looking at it as a child necessarily made me smarter or gave my IQ a boost. But, it certainly made an impression on me. I couldn’t look away. Maybe in some way that opened my mind or sparked some creativity. I can’t say for sure, but I still love looking at it just as much today as I did then.

It’s universal. Art tells a story, minus the words. The language of a painting, sculpture or other type of artwork is symbolic – making it universal. The young child can take a trip around the world, and throughout time, without having to leave the museum’s walls.

Now that you know why museums and art art viewing are important for your child, here are a few tips on taking a toddler or preschooler into the hands-off environment. I wrote this article a few months ago while talking to some mommy friends and former co-workers. It seemed to fit well in this post, so here’s your bonus:

“Ooohhh! It’s a party!” Just as quickly as the words escaped from the 4-year-old’s lips, she was off and skipping towards the massive artwork. Maybe it was the seemingly super-size or the painting’s colorfully blank faced people, but there was just something about Maurice Prendergast’s “Picnic” that made every child under age six want to touch it.  It wasn’t the first, or even third or fourth, time that this exact same scenario had played out in my years of teaching young children. While most early childhood educators work in the safe (read as non-breakable) confines of a school or center, my classroom is a museum’s art gallery.

Real Kids, Real Art

Often thought of as sterile spaces where hushed voices are a must and sticky-fingered teetering tots aren’t welcome, art museums actually offer benefits galore for the young child.  Former Education Director for the Columbia Art League and early childhood educator Patty Jaconetta-Groening notes, “From my perspective in terms of visual art, I think it is essential for children to see original works of art in person rather than just have exposure to visual imagery in reproductions in the form of classroom posters, digital media, or illustrations in children's books. The visual experiences of texture, material, scale and physical space aren’t paralleled when viewing reproductions or digital imagery. Developing visual literacy is essential in our highly visual world, and exposure to a variety of visual media is an important component of that. On another note, a sense of belonging in an arts institution can be another important contributor to a child's self-concept, feeling that a museum or other art org is a familiar and fun place to go that the child feels welcome.”

So, you’re not a teacher or art history expert. That doesn’t mean that you can’t take your tots to the museum. Sara S., mom to three young girls, regularly takes her children to art museums. Why? When speaking about her oldest child (who is now 13) in her early years of experiencing art she says, “It was a fun way to introduce Abigail to great works of art, help her to see the components of the pieces such as color and shapes. To talk about what she sees, and help her learn to express her reaction to great art.” Even though she doesn’t worry about her kids “getting it” when it comes to understanding all of the concepts behind the works, she does note how exciting it is when her children make connections between something that they’ve seen elsewhere and the real art in the museum.  “Her school actually prepared Abigail well for a trip to MOMA a couple years ago. She had been learning about Van Gogh in school and turned the corner at the Museum and saw Starry Night - it was like she saw a celebrity!”  

Tips and Tricks

Keep in mind that even the best-planned trip to the museum can still make you want to pull your hair out. Megan M. said, of an artsy adventure with her 2- and 4-year-olds, “We only tried to take them to the art museum once. They wanted to touch everything and we were afraid that that they would break something.”  This tricky issue is echoed by Ms. Jaconetta-Groening, “Concerns for parents and museum/gallery staff of course pertain to the disconnect between safety of the artworks, and young children's naturally and developmentally appropriate need to learn through their senses, including of course, touch, and through physical movement.”

If you just can’t corral the kiddos, consider one of these ideas for making the museum more manageable:

·        Prep beforehand with a game. Some museums, such as the Getty, offer online games that introduce children to the world of art through matching, creation builders and other artistic activities.

·        Sign up for a children’s program or tour. Some art museums offer gallery tours or classes that are specifically for young children. For example, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ Young @ Art program includes a family-friendly themed gallery tour and art-making activities for children 2 ½ to 5-years.

·        Map it. Before you head out the door, ask if the museum offers a family guide. Major museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, provide family maps that feature spots to hit with your kids.

·        Get hands-on. Call ahead and ask the museum’s security staff if you can bring drawing or sketching materials into the galleries. They may allow you to take a sketchbook and pencils or crayons with you during your visit. Keep the kids busy by sitting them down in front of bold and colorful or patterned works, and let them sketch.  Jaconneta-Groening suggests, “ Ideally, museums and galleries would have ample touchables on hand in the gallery or in some sort of family backpack that kids can use throughout their visit, rather than just in one, hands-on area completely separate from the rest of the museum gallery experience.”

Kids' art

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  1. These were great tips! It's easy to forget that galleries are awesome places to take kids too ...To INSPIRE them :-) We've never taken ours to a gallery! ...Needs to be done.

    1. Thanks! Art galleries can be so intimidating to parents with young children, but they really are such special places that it's usually easier than most people think. The kids really do get inspired, and they really pay attention to what they see!

  2. Very interesting and you are indeed very right. thank you for linking up your recipe with the #pinitparty

  3. I love this! Museums are great and important for kids to get to explore as well as adults!

  4. I enjoy museums, we haven't been to one here, yet. I'll have to see if South Carolina's museums live up to Chicago. Great tips! Thanks for sharing via Mommy Monday

  5. I hadn't thought about some of these points before! I'm finally finishing up some pinning from the Bloggers Brags Pinterest Party! Thanks so much for linking up!