We, in my family, are frequent flyers at Sydney’s art museums. In our own ways, we all love poking around the galleries, seeing what’s new, and rediscovering pieces we’ve seen before. On weekends, there are often activities on for kids, which is great for the mini-Artsplorers. We can go when it’s raining or stinking hot. And, entry to some is free, which is a relief in a city as expensive as ours.
But, frequenting art museums with a pre-schooler is not without its challenges. Namely, how do we engage her in actually looking at and maybe even starting to get something from the art, rather than just running from room to room like a contestant on The Amazing Race, then declaring herself boooored? She doesn’t yet have the capacity to understand the historical references and finer metaphors in any of the work, but there is still plenty that she can observe.
For the past year or so, I’ve been working on some questions that are on her level. My aim is to start showing her that there is a skill to experiencing visual art, and that comes from asking questions. The more we ask (and the more we can think to ask), the more we’ll get from each piece. Frankly, I’m no expert, either. I try to make it OK to wager our own guesses, look for answers where available, and even leave some questions unanswered. These are usually short encounters with maybe only as few as 10 or 12 pieces a visit, but I feel like they’re the first step towards deeper appreciation.
So, if you’re heading to the art gallery with a pre-school aged child, and aren’t sure what to say, try out some of these questions:
What do you see?
Yes, it’s simple and broad, but at minimum, this is the signal to stop and look. Generally, she’ll point out an obvious image, if there is one, or perhaps one of the more striking abstract features. Sometimes she’ll just say, “I don’t know, Mama?” which may lead me to ask her if she sees, say, the girl with the flower or the red squiggly line. Try looking at the piece close up and then taking a few steps away to get a new perspective, as well. This usually leads to more questions.
Why do you think he/she is doing that?
This is good for images with a clear subject, rather than more abstract pieces. We can start to read the piece like we read a book, building a story and exploring empathy. “What do you think she’s feeling?” is another entry to this line of questioning.
What colors/shapes do you see?
At this age, colors and shapes are still an important learning component. It can also help break down abstract works into smaller parts. Counting is also useful in building on their pre-school learning – “how many circles are in that picture?” or “how many horses can you count?”.
What does that look like to you?
I particularly like this one for sculptures, and often get surprising answers. I’ve seen a piece that I thought was clearly a snake, and she told me she saw a river. Or, candle holders to me that were lollies to her.
What do you think that’s made of?
Pre-schoolers love to know what things are made of, and even at home, I hear a lot of classification of “that’s made of metal” and “is that made of plastic?” So, it’s just a natural extension that they’d want to explore what the pieces in the art museum are made of. We’ll do plenty of guessing, and often the placards on the wall will tell you exactly what the medium is, so that we can confirm if we were correct, or not. Particularly in modern art galleries, you can get into some very unexpected and fun mediums.
Will you show me your favorite piece in this room?
I tried this one recently, and it’s definitely going into my bag of tricks. What in this world makes a young child happier than getting to be the expert? Mine is pretty well trained about “don’t touch,” and so I let her have a bit of closely monitored free reign to look around the room, and pick something to show me. Then, I asked her what she liked about it. I told her something I liked about it, too and complimented her choice. Proud-proud.
Naturally, she has questions of her own, and I try to answer them in an honest and age appropriate way. I’ll read the wall plaques for more information, when it’s available. Or, try to put something in historical/cultural context, as I’m able. And, sometimes answering honestly means that I tell her that I don’t know the answer, and we can make a guess together.
The museum experience doesn’t need to end when you walk out the door. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can always create extension crafts at home (Google away, and you’re bound to find ideas!). But, sometimes it’s as simple as saying, “look at the dog over there. It reminds me of the one we saw in the painting at the museum. Do you remember that?” or “that blue water really reminds me of the color in that big painting we saw together.” Once we’ve experienced art, we can own it in our memory and feelings, and our experience of it can continue to grow deeper. I believe this is especially true for children because so many images they encounter will be new to them, either in subject or style, and they can make a real impression on their growing minds.
As children get older, their ability to understand art on a more complex level grows. I’d suggest this article for anyone taking a school aged child to a museum. But before they reach that next level of understanding, even pre-school children can learn to love the beauty and challenge of appreciating art.
Have you taken young children to art galleries? What questions and conversations work for you?