Teaching children to take an interest in and look closely at other people’s Art in a world in which sports dominates is no easy feat. In my mind, it all starts at home. Although no family member ever took me by the hand and led me through a museum as a child, we were fortunate to have artwork around us. My grandfather helped support the artist, Louis Kronberg, and all three of his daughters, and therefore his grandchildren, had Kronberg’s early sketches, watercolors, or oils of his dancers there for immediate viewing. The message we got was that Art deepens life experiences. I feel fortunate that my own sports minded sons acquired a love of Art, and their intrigue meant that somehow Art seeped into their career choices.
The most impressive model I’ve seen for introducing young children to Art in museums has been in France. Once I witnessed a grandfather holding a boy of no more than 18 months up to a Fra Angelico in the Musee du Luxembourg. He gently told a story about the painting, and the child looked on with delight; someone this boy loved was taking the time to make meaning of Art for him. Museums are filled with families who recognize that the experience of seeing Art first hand is a joyful way to spend a weekend day.Talking together about what a piece might mean, how the history and culture could have contributed to its making, and what the artist might have had in mind give us common ground for meaty conversations and sharing perspectives.
Last week I shadowed a public school group at the Farnsworth Museum with a docent from whom we all could learn. The docent and classroom teacher were experts in their field. They’d both been trained in the “Lincoln Center” method that teaches children to “notice deeply.” She sat her ten children down in front of an N.C. Wyeth painting saying simply, “Look at it for a while.” Although the expedition had a beginning and end, she took her time, focused her students, limited the galeries they visited, and asked them to tell a story about what they saw. “Does anybody have any theories?” she queried. Children with theories needed to provide specific evidence to justify their thinking. One child ventured forth with his idea about a book illustration, “He’s ready to jump in. He has his eyes there.” Every chance she had, our docent pushed children to make connections, to take an inference beyond a first inclination. As if weaving a tale of her own, she slowly began integrating bits and pieces of information into a dialogue in which her students were the key players. I was curious about what happens at school. When I asked the teacher whether she’d applied similar strategies in her classroom she told me that her fourth graders are reading and examining two books simultaneously. “Common themes seem to leap at them from the page,” she said. That inspired an even fuller investigation.
Sketching in a gallery, in an historic place, or in “plein air” further strengthens observation skills. It helps kids notice patterns and detail. As family members, teachers, or docents, we have to offer students the time they need – more than just a few moments for drawing. And we must give them quality materials, worthy of the attention they are giving to the project.
Schools and museums are natural partners. We have a common agenda: to teach kids to be good thinkers. In the process of exploring Art kids are learning skills they need across a spectrum of subjects. At the Farnsworth fourth graders were applying what they’d practiced in literacy class, where they’d learned to observe, classify, analyze, synthesize, and verify their theories. Their teacher used her training from the Lincoln Center Institute across the curriculum, and by the time her fourth graders arrived for their museum visit, they knew how to think about Art as well as literature.
Looking at Art is neither a frill nor an extra. Whether with family or with classmates, children who learn to “take apart” a piece of artwork, will know how to analyze a math problem or generate a hypothesis in the sciences.
Summer’s coming and school is almost out. Indulge your senses and your children’s and visit a gallery or Art museum. Start the conversation that might continue in school next fall.
Know that thinking about Art is just good thinking!