Art viewing for toddlers and preschoolers? Alright, I'll be the first one to admit that after working as an art teacher in a museum I'm somewhat (more like really, really) biased when it comes to incorporating art viewing experiences into kids' art activities. As an art history major, there wasn't much I could do with my degree. So, why not spend another few years in school, get a grad degree in child development, and combine my two very different degrees by teaching tiny tykes about art?
While I enjoy a good kiddo craft as much as the next mom, I also truly believe that art isn't only about "making stuff." I know that taking a young child into the sterile-looking museum setting is scary for many parents. I was used to taking kids en mass into the museum's galleries, making it no big deal when I brought my then-young son to see "real" art. But, many of my friends shy away from the art museum, thinking that their little one's will surely reach out and touch the uber-valuable art. Yes, it's true that young children do struggle with the hands-off policy. I've had to call the conservation department more than once to tell them that a 3-, 4- or 5-year old just put his sticky hands on one of the works. That said, viewing real art in a real museum (or gallery) has real benefits for children. It can improve their critical thinking skills, build their spatial reasoning abilities and amp up their creativity.
Before you take your preschooler on the most boring tour of his life, standing him in front of paintings and rambling off names and dates, try some of these kid-tested tips and tricks to inspire positive art viewing experiences:
- Review the rules beforehand. The rules should include: Do not touch anything, use your inside voice and use your walking -- not running -- feet. Your older preschooler (or grade school-aged child) can help you to create a rule list, instead of you dictating it to her. Ask her what she thinks the rules should be and why. this will help her to think critically about what a museum is and why it's important to act respectfully (and carefully) around the art.
- Play a game. Instead of saying, "Ohhhh, look at the little girl in that painting!" try, "I spy a little girl. Can you point to the painting where she lives?"
- Bring a piece of string along. It sounds silly, put a magical piece of yarn can make the difference between your child touching a priceless piece of art and staying back a reasonable distance. Place the yarn on the floor at least two feet back from the painting or sculpture that you're looking at. While other patrons may look at you like your crazy the "magic" of the string can put up an invisible barrier between your child and the art.
- Ask your child, "What can you find?". This open-ended question encourages young children to really look at the art and take notice. You can follow this up with, "What do you think is going on?". This helps your child to turn art viewing into a literacy lesson, coming up with stories or a sequence of events from one static image.
- Focus on the basics. Don't overload your child with information. She doesn't need to know Vincent Van Gogh's entire bio (especially not the ear-cutting-off part). Tell her the artist's name or stick with simple parts of the artwork such as shapes and colors.
- Give your child a few new vocabulary words. Again, stay basic. Name shapes, new colors (such as magenta or violet) or point out that the horizon line is where the ground and the sky meet.
- Bring a "feely bag" with you. I've taken a class of toddlers (yes, 2-year-olds) into the museum's galleries. I can tell you that they definitely want to touch everything. After all, hands-on learning is essential for the young child to explore and make her own discoveries. Even though your child can't touch the art, she can touch other objects that mimic the art. Take a look at the museum's website before your day out and pic a few artworks from their online catalog or "what's on view" section. Put together a lunch-sized paper bag of items that match up with some of the artworks, giving your child something (other than the art) to touch. For example, if you're planning on looking at a painting that features animals, bring along a swatch of craft fur for your child to pet. Ask her if she thinks that the animals in the art feel like the fur.