My background is in art history, so when I had kids, I thought they would be little art historians — enthralled with the stories of the great masters and highly sensitive to the formal elements of art. They would certainly be able to have conversations with me about how line affects mood. And they would never giggle at naked bodies in art. Yeah, so anyway — I had kids and of course our relationship with art turned out not to be so tidy. BUT, I have discovered how to enjoy experiencing art with children and we (usually) love spending an afternoon in a museum together.
Here are some ideas that have made it all a bit more manageable.
1. Be prepared. Well, of course. It should go with out saying that kids should be well rested with full bellies. I have tried it otherwise and it was not worth it. It is good to remind them of the rules in a positive way (no running, yelling or touching). And it might be useful for you to brush up on the artist and time period, however that leads to the next point. Which is…
2. Lower your expectations. Do not expect to lecture your kids on what you know about the art. Do not expect to get to read each didactic label or even to see every piece of art. When museum going with kids, it is much better to have an open ended agenda. Wandering through the exhibits with out a definite plan allows for surprises and more immediate reactions and connections to the art work. Instead of looking for the famous pieces, adopt an attitude of adventure and discovery. Tell your kids (and yourself), “Let’s see what we find.”
3. But you can still check out any kid resources the museum has to offer. Sometimes they are simply awful — like worksheets that would keep the kid so busy they would not even get to interact with the art. Or, they lead the child around from piece to piece, not allowing the viewer to discover anything on their own. But every once in awhile you might just run across a real gem.
For several summers, the Orlando Museum of Art has exhibited some great children’s book illustrators and has set up a reading center with couches and bean bags and books right in the middle of the gallery. It encouraged us to look at the art, hangout, and look at the art some more. It was a great concept that served families well.
A few summers ago, while in Washington, D.C. we visited the National Gallery Art. I thought my kids would not last long, but I really wanted to try to at least stroll through. The guard offered us some automated phone device guides. I was reluctant — because usually they are too wordy and work against the group dynamic by separating each person with their electronic device. But he insisted, saying they were new and really good for kids. So, we tried them and they were amazing. We were all so impressed we ended up staying for hours and it was one of the best museum trips of the entire vacation. (The short recordings would play the instruments that were featured in an art work or recreate the scene with background noise and a simple narrative. My kids were drawn in immediately.)
4. Learn how to ask big, open ended questions to get a conversation flowing.
Which is your favorite? Why? (especially good in a room full of abstract art)
What do you see?
What story/feeling/idea do you think the artist is trying to communicate/tell us?
How do you think this was made? (my kids love this question — especially with sculpture).
Play I SPY to encourage close looking (my youngest son loves this and it works well with both abstract and representational art)
How does this painting/sculpture make you feel?
And do not be silent about sharing your feelings and thoughts on what you like or are confused about. Kids really benefit from listening to adults “think out loud” and demonstrate the process of figuring out complicated material.
5. To seal the deal of this great art adventure, if at all possible, have a drink or snack in the museum cafe. This is an important part of museum going. It allows your mind to soak in all you have seen, and very often in a nice surrounding. I usually have small journals with me, because my kids always want to draw immediately after they have been through an exhibition. Also, if you can, enjoy the museum store. You can buy cool little trinkets or postcards to remember the visit by.
A membership to a local museum makes it easier to stop in for short visits so that going to see art becomes a normal part of your routine. Besides supporting the arts, usually a membership gives reciprocal benefits to other museums. We recently realized that when we upped our museum membership to a higher level, the reciprocals were amazing and paid for the membership quickly. It is definitely worth investigating.