Unlocking Art

Appreciating fine art makes your kid smarter—and avoids museum meltdown. Here’s how to do it.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY SMEETA MAHANTI

What parent hasn’t watched their kid come alive during a single joyful session of finger painting on butcher paper? Enjoyment-wise, it’s a no brainer, plus art participation boosts a child’s development in terms of visual communication, creativity, and self-expression.

But not so many parents get excited about bringing their kid to the galleries of fine art museums. Facing a kid who melts down at the drop of a hat because he’s bored (or hungry, or tired, or insert adjective here), touring wall after wall of paintings might not seem like the most exciting activity for a family with little ones. But avoiding art museums is a mistake: For young children, approaching art as an observer has powerful developmental payoffs.

In the first large-scale investigation of the effects of touring an art museum, researchers from the University of Arkansas and the Kinder Institute of Rice University surveyed nearly 11,000 3rd- through 12th-grade students one month after they took a one-hour school field trip to the newly opened Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Arkansas.

Following their visits, the students displayed markedly stronger critical thinking skills, higher levels of historical empathy and social tolerance, and a taste for visiting cultural institutions again in the future.

In short, it made them smarter.

But having a great museum experience relies on a few important factors. Make sure your kids have full bellies, for one. And tailor your visit to the developmental stage of your child—young children possess short attention spans, so plan brief sessions and adjust your personal expectation of seeing all the most important works in a given museum in favor of a chosen few.

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Good timing—kids have full tummies and a good night’s sleep—will help you make the most of your next museum visit. Photographed in Keith Haring: The Political Line at the de Young.

In early childhood, art will also come alive through hands-on experiences and self-directed explorations. Often, this means incorporating you child’s natural desires to draw, be physical, and explore their personal interests as they relate to artworks on display.

“We don’t care if they leave with any factual information of the object, because in the end that’s not what’s going to stick with them,” says HollyOlive Turney, a teaching artist and museum educator for family programs at the de Young museum in San Francisco, where kids age 5 through 12 are the museum’s educational bread and butter. “What’s going to stick is the idea of ‘I went into a museum and made meaning on my own, and explored, and I was really excited.’”

For parents who skew more Koons than kid’s museum, we collected some tried and true methods that our favorite cultural institutions use to unlock art for little ones. Here, our top five takeaways:

Use sketchbooks
Saturdays at the de Young museum in San Francisco, families can pick up a free I Heart Art activity guide (a companion to the I Heart Art book, which is always available in the shop). The pamphlet pairs images of artworks from the permanent collections with drawing- and story-based activities for small children. It might offer the outline of a large sculpture, then ask them to fill in the interior with something they see in the real version, or something from their imagination. “The most popular one is Edward Hick’s The Peaceable Kingdom, because it has tons of animals,” Turney says. This practice is easy to recreate for your own family by bringing paper and pencils of your own and seeking out specific works. Says Turney, “We know when kids are connecting with the pieces of art, because they’re looking and searching and recording what they’re doing.”

Design experiences where the kids are in charge
At London’s Westminster Abbey, somber religious altars and the flagstone tombs of deceased British royalty come alive for kids, thanks to the Tudor Trail activity map. Through a step-wise tour studded with counting games, activity prompts and trivia, the trail turns history into a call-and-response exploration of the entire abbey—one that kids can direct on their own. “When we took our kids there, a docent handed us the maps, and the kids just took off,” says Sproutling photographer Smeeta Mahanti, whose kids were 3, 6 and 8 at the time. “They kept running back to tell us where King Henry’s wives were buried or why this relief had so many shields carved into it.” Her family spent more than three hours in the abbey—a lifetime in child-museum years. And the key was letting the kids take charge of exploring the space on their own.

Make it a hunt
This is the low-hanging fruit of great museum activities for kids, and tons of institutions offer scavenger hunts grouped by age, gallery type, or interest. The goal-oriented activity appeals to children, plus they can get multiple hunts going simultaneously if their interest in one begins to wane. At the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., for example, little ones can go on a farm-themed hunt to check off every cow, egg and barn in the Luce Foundation Center, or older kids can find artworks that help them answer questions that apply to Aesop’s Fables. There are hunts for colors of the rainbow, Hispanic heritage, presidential trivia and food among the galleries. Completed hunts earn prizes at the end of the visit.

This is also an easy activity to recreate on your own as a family, by searching for specific items or counting up repeating images, colors or numbers. Take the next step by asking why there might be so many items of a single theme among an artist’s work, and you’re on your way to building your kid’s artistic perspective.

Find something that your kid connects to—a recurring number, color, or figure (Mickey Mouse will do in a pinch)—and hunt for them throughout the galleries. Photographed in Keith Haring: The Political Line at the de Young museum.

Find something that your kid connects to—a recurring number, color, or figure (Mickey Mouse will do in a pinch)—and hunt for them throughout the galleries.

Bridge the gap between studio and gallery
Simply put, there’s power in combining both the doing and viewing. “We see the process of working with materials and interpreting works of art as a balanced entity,“ says Emily Jennings, the manager of school and teacher programs for the art museums of San Francisco. At the de Young, that means that teaching artists like Turney will take small groups of kids and parents on a gallery search for repeating colors, shapes or figures. The group then heads into the museum studio to create their own artwork around the concepts they explored. A search for textures in the collection’s Teotihuacan animal mural from Mexico, for example, culminated in drawing large- and small-scale animal skin patterns with oil pastels.

The importance of this exercise is on the exploration and creative manipulation of materials— not on having a finished product. “We’re giving them language and practices for ways to engage with the art,” Turney says. “You can do that at home afterwards, or come back on your own to try it again and see what changes.”

See less
It’s hard to fight your desire to see all the works that made a museum famous—especially if you’re visiting from far away. But kids have a limited attention span before they need to eat, visit the bathroom, start a new activity or just not be in the same place anymore. So focus on the few favorite pieces that you really want to see, and settle for less time in one institution, but more energy for open-ended exploration. Turney likens the museum-viewing experience to that of actually being an artist, and would encourage parents to draw similarities between the two as well. Says Turney, “On tours, we never have enough time, we’re really just starting projects—and that’s ok. As an artist, a project might never be finished, either. We don’t put too much pressure on getting anything done, because as artists, you practice.”

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