Getting Kids Excited About Visiting an Art Museum
by Debra Ross
Did you know that museum administrators classify their patrons as being one of three types?
- Studiers take their time in a museum; they have a specific purpose for being there, and they spend time at each exhibit item to study it.
- Strollers are there more for the experience of being there. They browse casually around the exhibits, stopping for a closer look when something strikes their fancy.
- Streakers tend to race through a museum quickly, stopping at a display only when they find their attention caught by something startling (or when their teacher makes them). Many are there more to have had the experience of being at a museum because they think that's what an educated person should do. Streakers are often compelled to be there by parents, teachers, or friends rather than from out of any innate desire to experience and learn.
Kids are, by nature, streakers, and no experience brings out this tendency more than art museums. We want them to like painting, drawing, photography, sculpture, and the other visual arts. We want them to be eager about seeing great art. But more often than not, when we take our kids with us to an art museum that is not specifically designed for kids, we find ourselves dealing with small people who just want to get out of the whole experience. This article provides some concrete tips for helping your kids--preschoolers through teens--make the most of a trip to an art museum or gallery.
Before You Go
I believe that a parent's main job is to be a tour guide for their children on this great adventure called life. To do this successfully, a parent is constantly drawing connections for their kids, connections between what the child knows now and the new thing they're encountering. Learning is taking those connections that have been drawn for you, and making them your own. The key, therefore, is to get your kids, somehow, to own the experience of a trip to the art museum.
So before even heading out, there are several things you can do:
1) Enjoy art yourself!
Throughout your kids' childhood, display artwork around your home, whether professional or homemade, and talk (frequently!) about your own connections to the art. Convey that each person experiences art differently and appreciates different things. Help your kids realize implicitly that as they grow, art will be important to their experience of life.
Maybe you say you don't enjoy art. Okay, so even if visual art is not your cup of tea, everyone responds to some kind of art. Search your soul and find what makes your heart sing, and then share it with your kids. Or fake it until it becomes true.
2) Place art in history.
When my kids were younger, they loved the Little House series. So Laura Ingalls Wilder became our historical benchmark for everything. We would say that something happened either before Laura Ingalls' time, after she had died, or while she was alive (1867-1957). When we encountered a particular work of art, we'd do the same thing: Was this around when Laura was alive? Could she have seen it in a museum? Yes, it's a small connector, but a real one. Find your own benchmark and use it frequently!
3) Prepare for the specific artwork.
When planning a trip to a museum, spend a few minutes at the museum's web site to discover what artwork will be on display. Choose several pieces to discuss with your child ahead of time. Print out photos of these items, and read out loud about what they're about and why they are meaningful. This helps connect your child to the work ahead of time. When you get to the museum, this tiny connection is dramatically strengthened--naturally, almost magically--when your child encounters the work in person.
Magic Tips for the Museum
Remember, your job as the parent tour guide is to help your child draw connections. This continues when you're actually at the museum. And to do that, a child must focus. Yikes! How do you get kids to focus on ART? Most of it doesn't flash. There are no joysticks. It's not even usually touchable. Here are the best magic tips that I've discovered through the years.
4) Life should imitate art.
I mean this literally: See if you can have your kids imitate the artwork, and take their picture (non-flash, probably, depending on museum rules) while they're doing it. If necessary, you may have to do this yourself a few times to get them into the spirit. To the right, you can see Ella as a Degas ballerina.
Below, we have Bobby and Ella in front of Emmanuel Leutze's famous Washington Crossing the Delaware. Bobby is George Washington and Ella is James Monroe, holding the flag behind Washington.
5) Hunger for art is great. Hunger for food is not.
There's nothing that causes a kid to streak for the exit quite like hunger. So stock up, folks. Find some way to fuel your young art appreciators. We promised a trip to the Met's beautifully-stocked cafeteria. (It was pricier than your average cafeteria, but that's Manhattan for you.) And we whisked them there at the first sign of blood sugar dropping.
Trust me on this one, folks.
6) Find your friends in the art!
This magic tip comes to us courtesy of Ella right from our day at the Met. When we were looking at a painting from the late Renaissance, Ella suddenly said, "Hey, that's Angela!" She pointed at one of the elegant ladies in the painting. Well, darned if she wasn't right: The lady's face looked remarkably like her friend Angela's!
Well, after that, it became an exercise for all of the kids to find people they knew in the portraits. They found their friends Ian and Pavel. And they even found one of their teachers, Mrs. Irwin.
I've never seen anything quite like it for getting kids to look, really look, at art. It was magic.
Try it yourself and see.
7) Let your kids take their own pictures.
Photography is an art. So--assuming photography is permitted in your museum--let your kids be artists themselves while gazing on great art. Encourage them to look through the lens, to "frame" their photos deliberately, to find just the right angle. It will make it theirs, and continue their connections well after the trip.
I love this photo below possibly even more than the rest of those we took of the kids on this trip. Here, the kids are in front of Frederick Church's painting Heart of the Andes. They sat here for quite some time, but not because their feet were tired. I love this photo because I caught the moment when Bethany spontaneously decided to snap this image for herself, to take home, on her iPhone. That, to me, says it all. Heart of the Andes somehow captured Bethany's heart. And then... it became hers to take home with her. Forever.
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Debra Ross is publisher of KidsOutAndAbout.com.