Granted, when I have a group of 10 preschoolers or 20 third graders, I can’t tailor each question to each child. But, if I’m walking around a gallery with my own child – I can. This doesn’t just apply to eye-rolling teens (like my son), but to every child of every age. While starting with basics or general questions is a great jumping-off point, building the discussion around the child’s specific interests is key.
So, what does this look like in real life?
I’m going to suggest beginning with these basics:
1.What’s going on in this picture, painting, sculpture or (insert any other type of artwork that you’re looking at here)?
-Why ask this? It gets your child thinking. It’s the #1 question we always asked students visiting the museum. As a museum teacher I used a method -- Visual Thinking Strategies -- that facilitated discussion by starting off in this way. We always followed this question with:
2. What do you see (in this picture) that makes you say that?
-Why ask this? It makes your child think even more. Think of this like a science exploration. Your child makes a hypothesis and then observes carefully to tell you why she thinks her prediction is correct. It’s an evidence-gathering activity. You can prompt your child to go deeper by asking what else she can find.
For many kids, these few questions can really get them talking. For others, not so much. My own son has always been one of these not-so-much kind of kids. Well before he was too cool to go to the museum with mom (i.e., before the tween/teen years), he was only marginally interested in art. That’s ok. Not every kid is an art-lover. But, I did want to expose him to more of the world than Thomas the Train had to offer (he was very much a train-lover). I tried fun little scavenger hunt approaches to art viewing after my typical open-ended questions failed to interest him. These worked out ok, but not great.
Fast-forward to several years later and we are walking through the art museum together as my son rolls his eyes yet again and says, “Are we ready to leave yet?” No, we aren’t. I’m a notorious embarrassing picture taker. I always, always make my son pose for photo ops. I spy Alberto Giacometti’s “Walking Man” and beg my son to pose like the walking sculpture so I can snap a picture. He eventually agrees.
As he’s standing next to the sculpture he says, “You know, we had to do this in school during art class.” I did not know that. He then proceeds to tell me what he thinks is a hilarious story about his friend posing like the “Walking Man.” Before I knew it, he had stop posing, was looking at the sculpture and was talking about it. He never talks about art- so why now? Because he started the story, with a connection to his own life.
We moved into the ‘ancient art’ gallery and looked at an Egyptian relief. Instead of asking what he saw, I started with his social studies class. I know that they extensively studied ancient civilizations. Allowing him to bring his own interests, stories and world into the art opened it up for him.
Your child doesn’t have to be a teen for this to work. I started thinking about some of the conversations that I’ve had with preschool-aged students at the museum. One of my favorite artworks is Monet’s “Water Lilies.” The kids do seem to enjoy viewing it, but some of the best conversations that we’ve had have revolved around their own interests or their own life stories. For example, I had a preschooler start talking about the lily pad pond at her grandparents’ house and how that painting reminded her of it. Another picked out his favorite colors in it, and then got more and more exuberant (that’s code for jumping up and down and drawing the attention of more than one of the museum’s security guards) as he pointed out the different hues.
How can you use this approach with your own child?
Pick an artwork that has something in it that you know will spark her interest, attention or memory. It can be a setting, story, character, color or anything else that you know will get her talking. For example, has she been non-stop talking about a recent snowstorm? Take a look at a snowy scene! Maybe you just got back from a trip to the beach? Look at an ocean-themed artwork. Did she help you out in the garden? Visit an artwork that shows plants and flowers. You can also pick artworks to look at that match books she has recently read or themes from school. For example, if her pre-k teacher is helping her to learn shapes, look for a geometric painting and let her pick out the squares or rectangles.
You don’t have to wait until you take a trip to the museum to look at art in this way. Use the basic open-ended questions, coupled with specific ones based on your child’s interests, when you’re looking at pictures in books or online. The key (at least for me) is connecting it to something that sparks your child’s attention. There’s no parenting rule that says your child has to view and discuss art by the great masters. If he’s totally into trains, pick a painting with a cool choo choo in it. If your child carries her new pet cat around 24-7, look for an artwork that features furry feline friends. Bring the conversation to him instead of directing it at him. After all, wouldn’t you rather talk about something that interests you?
Are you looking for art activities to go with your viewing discussions? Follow my famous artists Pinterest board for ideas!