A step-by-step guide for raising art lovers
When I was little, I had the privilege to grow up in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Saint Petersburg, Russia.
It was not until my family immigrated, that I felt the void that the majestic city on the Neva river left in my life. Our family life always included visits to museums, theaters, and royal palaces designed by the greatest architects, painters, and sculptors of all times. Every weekend, we would dress up and go to see a show, explore a new art exhibit or stroll down the paths of Summer Garden, admiring the many sculptures scattered in its premises. I remember looking forward to these trips because it was an opportunity to dress up, which I loved, while my older brother was persuaded to go to the theater by a promise of a delicious caviar sandwich during the intermission. My parents always made the trips not too long, took snacks along, and talked to us during the visits to museums or throughout the shows, explaining what we were seeing. I remember these moments with great affection, cherishing the special time we shared with my family discovering greatest works of art. Therefore, when my children were born, I knew that museums, theater, ballet, all these special experiences, will be a part of their lives as well.
Why go to museums at all? How does it benefit children?
By introducing your children to museums and art in general, you are expanding their views of the world by showing them that there are different cultures, traditions, and ways of self-expression. They will come to understand just how enormous the world is, with all the extraordinary people and places to discover, and will learn to notice, analyze and discuss the differences. Furthermore, if you would like your children to gradually develop an interest in art, imagination, creativity and the ability to see beauty, as well as broaden their horizons, you should visit museums and exhibitions together from time-to-time.
When should you introduce museums to children?
The sooner the better. It only seems that children don't understand much yet, but in fact, the atmosphere of the museum has an important influence on the formation of their aesthetic preferences and tastes. You can start as early as 2-3 years old and definitely by the preschool years.
How to start?
It is best for the children's first experience to be as less intense as possible. Start with short visits to allow your children to get used to the experience and master the behavior rules at the museum. This is an important opportunity to practice self-control: your child will slowly learn that in a museum one is expected to speak in a low voice, not to run around and avoid touching the artifacts. It is essential to introduce these rules BEFORE the initial visit and review them before every visit.
Don’t feel let down or disappointed if the child does not comply the first time, or the second, or the fifth. Eventually, they will learn to obey the rules, and practice will make it perfect. If during these first exposures, you will see just three pieces of art, or even just one, don't be upset. If you see that the child is tired, it is better to leave the museum and return after a while. The main thing is not to overdo it.
You might want to start with something more classic: children usually like realistic paintings because behind the plots there are understandable stories, there are many recognizable details in the paintings, and people look like acquaintances in them. Preschoolers are very fond of impressionism - they are attracted by bright pure colors and recognizable plots. Contemporary art awakens children's imagination and excites. Children also love sculpture, because it is voluminous: it can be walked around, viewed from different angles.
What about masterpieces depicting scary scenarios or containing nudity?
Children are different: some may even enjoy a scary scenario, but others are more easily frightened. If a child saw a canvas with a not very positive story in a museum and is now worried, then it is worth discussing what scared them. At home, you might want to paint the picture together to help release negative emotions and deal with the fear. The child can somehow continue the story and even rewrite the plot.
As for nudity, children perceive it differently than adults because they find it less embarrassing. It is important to be honest and explain why an artist or sculptor chose to depict his model without clothes: perhaps he admired the proportions of the body or, through the reflection of sunlight on the skin, or wanted to show different shades of color and light. This sort of explanation will be oftentimes sufficient for a young child.
How to prepare the child in advance for the visit?
Discuss what will happen on your visit. Read books about visits to the museum together. My favorite book series for this purpose is James Mayhew’s Katie series about a little girl who visits an art museum with her grandmother. When Katie arrives at the museum, she explores the galleries, connects to different characters in the paintings and has an adventure with them by jumping into the paintings. The books also introduce some basic behavioral rules at the museum.
Another great idea is to read books about different artists and watch movies about their art and life. Laurence Anholt has an excellent Artist Books for Children series that offers a good introduction to different artists. Because children tend to respond better to paintings of artists they heard about, your visit will become much more engaging. If you are able to visit a museum that has one of the paintings described in the books, it will be even more exciting. Imagine coming to a new place and being introduced to a group of strangers, when suddenly, you recognize one of them as an old acquaintance. The interaction will undoubtedly become more pleasurable and memorable.
In addition, you may want to choose some board games to play at home, in which there are images of paintings or sculptures, so that the exhibits become recognizable, and you are able to compare your impressions of small reproductions to real canvases. This way, the child will not have the feeling that they came to a strange, unfamiliar space. Instead, there will be a wonderful sense of recognition that stimulates a dialogue between children and parents.
Today, when my children ask me to go to a museum, we dress up, take a notebook or a sketchbook, and head to the museum of their choice for an unforgettable pastime. This is always a special time for all of us and we cherish these moments together. Moreover, I find that the tranquility that envelops us at the museum and our positive emotional exchange always transcend the short visit to stay with us long after we return home.
We also had an opportunity to take our children to the magical city where it all started, Saint Petersburg with my parents. The moments we spent visiting the museums I grew up exploring were the absolute highlights of this trip. More importantly, I know that these memories will last a lifetime and continue nourishing their appreciation and understanding of art.
When we recently visited the James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art, the kids wanted to draw but couldn't find a bench next to their painting of choice. They know we cannot sit on the floor in the museum and thus started to feel frustrated. Imagine their joy when one of the curators who saw their sketchbooks, offered them folding stools to position in front of any painting! We spent another hour in the museum, with them painting and me exploring new paintings and sculptures. Before we left, I decided to upgrade to a yearly membership because both kids said they want to come back "every day". When she heard that, my daughter asked with a genuine surprise: "Why did it take you so long to come up with this idea, mama?!"