I recently went to the Art Institute with my 4-year-old and her pre-school class. I was excited because I hadn’t been to the world class museum in a couple of years, but I was a little anxious. Was I ready to walk around a busy museum with 20 energy-filled preschoolers? But it was wonderful because their field trip leader was fabulous and used some really simple strategies to keep them engaged and focused.
Here are some of the tips I learned that day as well as tips from others who have enjoyed sharing the world of art with their little ones.
Have a purpose in mind.
What are you going for? To just enjoy the beautiful pieces of art, to get inspiration for your own project, to see a specific painter, to see a special exhibit, compare and contrast one painter or paintings from the same era, get a history lesson, talk about composition and color – the list of reasons to go to an art museum is long and every single reason is worth exploring. But you can’t do it all in a couple of hours, so have one or two purposes (depending on the age of the group) in mind before you go, to keep things focused and manageable.
Do your research.
Check out the museum’s website before you go to get a lay of the land and see what kinds of events are going on that day. Lots of sites provide simple maps of the museum. You might thank yourself for having a general idea of where the bathrooms are in an emergency.
Museums often picture some of the more popular art pieces in their collections on their website. Pick a few pieces you want to see during your visit and make a game for the kids to find the selected pieces in the museum. If you can’t print out the pictures before heading to the museum, go to the museum gift shop first and buy post cards of the pieces the kids should locate in the galleries.
Discuss museum manners ahead of time.
Of course we don’t run, we stick together, and we use our inside voices, and we don’t touch the art. These are no brainers. But it can be confusing to know when we can take pictures of the art and when we have to turn off the flash. So be sure to ask.
To keep busy hands and minds busy and away from priceless art, let kids count how many flowers they can find in a painting, or count the number paintings in a gallery that depict ships.
The art teacher leading the trip I was on, handed out a small object that represented each painting the kids explored. It also kept their hands busy and acted as a reminder of the amazing pieces they saw that day. For example, we looked at the famous “American Gothic” portrait of the farmer holding the pitch fork standing next to his daughter by Grant Wood. At this picture, the kids received a small plastic farm animal figure.
Talk about the art.
Of course this will vary depending on the age of your kids, but there is always a question to ask or something to discuss when looking at art. The classic question is, “Do you like this piece? How does it make you feel?” Everyone has opinions. Just make sure to use terms that your kids will understand when discussing the art and find opportunities to introduce new terms. Let’s use this piece titled “Appraisal” by Grant Wood as an example of the types of questions you might ask.
In which time of year do you think this scene is taking place?
Why do you think the woman is holding the chicken?
What do you think the woman on the right is doing?
Where are these women?
What do you think the relationship is between these two women?
Why do you think they are dressed that way – what does that say about how the two women are different?
What year do you think the artist painted this picture?
Why do you think Grant Wood painted this picture?
Do you see any patterns in the painting?
How does this painting make you feel? Why do you think that is?
You might use these activities, too:
Have students act out or pose in the same way as the people in the painting.
Have students choose their favorite piece in a gallery and ask them where they would put it at home.
Provide a sketch book and some time for young artists to sketch the painting. If it is too hard to do the entire painting, focus on one part of the painting.
Talk to the docents.
While the docents are there to monitor the galleries, they can be a good source of information. They usually know the scoop on at least some of the paintings in the museum and you can learn a lot from them. If they aren’t busy, engage with them. Have the kids tell the docent which is their favorite piece of art and ask a question about it. You might just get a good story or two. I recently learned from a docent about a painting in the Toledo Museum of Art. The artist had died before he finished the portrait, so it was actually finished by the artist’s daughter. This information wasn’t on the plaque, so I never would have known that if I hadn’t talked to the docent.
On your way home from the art museum, talk about your favorite pieces that you saw that day, and then plan another trip to later see even more of what the museum has to offer!