Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Fine Art for Children

Yesterday, we found ourselves with yet another snow day. And since we were not, in fact, snowed in, and since we have all but exhausted our stockpile of crafts around here, it was time for a field trip.

East Building atrium

Ever since my teenager was a toddler and we lived within walking distance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I have been a firm believer in exposing children -- even young children -- to art. I love how little kids seem to be able to respond to abstract art much more freely than us over-thinking adults. I love the things they notice in paintings, details I might never have seen. I love how their smaller stature alters their reaction to sculpture, puts things on a different scale for them. I love their lack of preconceived notions.

We are fortunate enough to live in day-trip distance of our nation's capital, and thus have access to the amazing -- and free! -- museums there. Usually we visit the Natural History (dinosaurs! bugs!) or American History (trains!), with a little Air and Space thrown in. But this time, we went for the art. We brought sketch books and colored pencils, and only a vague agenda. I find that our most successful outings of this kind strike the right balance between planning and serendipity. Yes, it's good to know in advance what the special exhibitions are, to prime some interest for some particular piece, to give a little background so things can be seen in some kind of rough context. But if you're simply dragging the kids through the museum ("hurry up, we still have to see the Rothko!"), you risk sucking the joy right out of it. So yes, I brought the art supplies with the suggestion that the kids might want to sketch some things that they see, but I had no idea what those things might be. I did my best to sit back and observe, to let them explore and see what they might find.


I can't remember the last time I had so much fun watching my kids experience something. The toddler was drawn to the sculptures, and things with bright primary colors. The teenager wandered off and found herself soaking in a roomful of Barnett Newman abstract paintings. And the five-year-old sketched, observed, and declared her intention to become an artist.

Rendition of stripes

But you know what? My kids were, it seemed, the only kids in the museum. Of course, it was a weekday, but I'm sure my kids weren't the only ones with yet another day off school. I know the hushed environment of an art museum might not seem like the ideal destination for small children, but you know what? It should be. Because kids should see these things, and not just in a book. Just as I consider reading and arithmetic essential elements of my children's educations, so too is learning to appreciate the arts. It's part of my role to expose them to these kinds of things when they are still young, still open, still able to see with unclouded eyes.

After Renoir

But most importantly, it's fun. As the five-year-old declared, "ten tons of fun." Right on, ma petite artiste.


  1. I love this!! I went to school for fine arts and I can't express enough how important it is to expose everyone to as much of this good stuff as possible. Two things I miss about living 30 miles from Chicago - the lake and the Art Institute. And you are so right about rushing through to get as much in as possible. Take time and absorb each image, plan extra days or focus on one time period, style, or medium per visit. Give each piece the attention it deserves and you'll be rewarded.

  2. I enjoyed this post. My sister and I practically grew up in the National Gallery, and both gravitated towards artistic endeavors as adults... But you know what? I hardly ever take my kids (2 and 10 months). You've reminded me of an incredible day-trip and teaching opportunity.

  3. I find that my kids are usually the only kids in the museum as well! And oftentimes the staff is not too welcoming of them. We recently had a not so nice experience at our local museum. BUT I still love it and think that it is really interesting the different ways that your children interacted with the art.

  4. I was surprised at how incredibly nice all of the security guards and other patrons were to us. I was half-expecting a less than warm welcome. But it worked out very well. Several people even stopped to watch the five-year-old sketch, and one older lady commented on how lovely her work was. It really made my girl's day. :)

  5. I love that you saw/created art too....of your little one experiencing the art on the walls. Very cool.

  6. Oh Laura you down in my neck of the woods and for such a fun reason. What a great idea. I dream of doing this with the boys, just you did, with no agenda. I think right now they might just run around like crazy, but someday soon I hope to do it.