Do you love going to museums but hate listening to your child complain about it the whole time? Most kids run clear in the opposite direction at the mere mention of a museum. When was the last time you and your child went to an art museum? While most schools teach children to create their own artwork, it's rare to find a school that teaches art history and art appreciation to very young students as part of its curriculum.
But that doesn’t mean your child has to grow up in the dark about some great art masterpieces. Susan Piccoli, a high school art history teacher who teaches in Woodstock, Vermont, believes that by the time students get old enough to take art history classes in high school or college, they should not be strangers to the concept. “Introducing young children to art encourages their creativity and exposes them to a new way of viewing the world around them.” You might be downright surprised at the many things your child can learn by looking at art.
For the Youngest. Start very young children with art that is fun and colorful. Modern art is filled with primary colors and big, bold shapes to catch a child’s attention. Looking at art can reinforce what your child is learning about from everything from counting objects to learning colors. “A great way to engage children in learning about art,” says Piccoli, “is to look at a work of art in a book or online first and then visit the museum to see it in person.”
But don’t just pass the art by and say, “very nice.” Take the opportunity to talk with your child about what she sees. Ask questions about what colors and shapes are used in the picture. Name the pieces of fruit in the artwork or count the number of children playing in the scene. The art can be a great conversation-starter to get your child to express herself.
If your child is old enough to keep the conversation going, ask about the artistic process. Questions like, “Why do you think the artist decided to paint a soup can?” or “What do you think the artist wanted you to look at first in this picture?” can help to foster more contemplative thinking.
And don’t be afraid to pick and choose what you think would appeal to your child the most. Certainly skip the Renaissance exhibit and make a beeline for the colorful Picassos if you think that will keep her most interested. You can create your own museum experience! You may find that your child can easily recognize the unique style that Picasso used in his paintings. Talk about the work and then go on a museum hunt to find other works with a similar style, color, or subject matter to a painting you discussed together. But remind your child of the golden rule of museum visiting: Look, don’t touch!
For the 5 to 10 Year-Old. Once your child is old enough to understand and appreciate more about art, Piccoli recommends picture books that focus on art and artists, such as Linnea in Monet’s Garden by Christina Bjork and Leonardo’s Horse by Jean Fritz. These books introduce both the art and the artist to young children. With the help of books like this, your child can begin to imagine life during another time and understand the context from which the art was created.
This is where the history part of the art history lesson comes in to play. When looking at artwork with Elementary school kids, point out how the paintings depict people. Focus on children, the chores they did, and the clothing they wore in the paintings. The paintings can serve as mini history lessons. Talk about what life might have been like living 100 or 200 years ago (depending on that period of art you're looking at). Point out the similarities as well as the differences. Not all of the children worked on farms. Children today still learn to dance, just like the subjects of many Degas paintings of young ballet dancers. Simple connections like this can go a long way.
At this age, your child should be able to focus more on the subject of the artwork than on just its formal qualities, like colors and lines. Ask open-ended questions about the art, like how it makes your child feel or what she thinks is happening in the picture. Ask her what the artist is trying to make the viewer think or feel. By helping your child make connections to the art on an emotional as well as conceptual level - even in the simplest of ways - your child will explore a deeper side of art and exercise her critical thinking skills.
For the Older Child. As your child comes closer to the teenage years, she may be able to put the artwork into some perspective. Talk about when she thinks the art was created and how she can tell. Compare modern paintings to ones made hundreds of years ago. How are the figures depicted differently? How did artists influence each other? At this age, children can begin to put all the pieces together and develop a more holistic understanding and appreciation for art and art history.
Talk also about the subject of the paintings. Some paintings depict specific battles or events they may have learned about in history class. Others might depict religious icons they are familiar with.
After talking about what art has to offer, you might realize you want to start your child learning about art history as soon as possible, because it may take a lifetime to soak it all in!