Some helpful advice for organizing enriching and enjoyable visits to see art with your children.
Let your child enjoy the art without teaching too much
“We tend to have an overly didactic way of bringing children to a museum, making them look at a given work or sculpture. But we can also enjoy works we are unfamiliar with,” recommends conference speaker Dominique Gauthier. “The adult should follow the child’s initiative and support their personal encounters with what they choose to look at.”
Why not bring the child into the room and let him or her choose the painting or sculpture they want to look at? The image is still the starting point, the priority. The objective is for the child to connect with the artwork, contemplate it, describe it. “Parents try to teach too much. The visit should last ideally between 20-45 minutes, even for adolescents.” Children do not have the level of concentration to correctly appreciate several works one right after the other.
For small children, the priority is not to teach them about the life of a painter or the artistic movement of a given work. The idea is to familiarize the child with a place where they can “make friends” with, say, Michelangelo or Vincent Van Gogh. The child needs to be motivated, not frustrated … and should want to go back for another visit. That’s why the way we present the museum to the child is really important. Children are like sponges, so they will first pay attention to what their parents love. It is useless for parents who are “allergic” to modern art to bring their children to an avant-garde showing, at least not at the beginning.
Likewise, on a rainy day or when they are in a bad mood, a visit to a museum will probably not leave a good taste in their mouth. On the other hand, parents can prepare for the experience by, for example, looking at art books with their small children, which can awaken their curiosity. “There is something exciting about going to a place specifically to see something special there,” confirms art historian Françoise Barbe-Gall.
When should you start?
Between 8-10 years of age, many children can take themselves through the museum, find a painting and read the descriptions. Given that their visual universe is typically populated by heroes and villains who represent good and evil, they will love representations of fighting heroes, scenes from the Old Testament, mythologies, images that are comical, scary, strange or monstrous, scenes of everyday life from other eras, etc.
They tend to like characters, but they also pay attention to small details. They look for animals and objects in paintings, and finding actions they are familiar with, like scenes of a kitchen or living room or festivals being celebrated. The children, in fact, will internalize what they look at. At this point the adult needs to know how to take advantage of each situation: “Have you ever seen anything like that before?” You don’t have to start with the “easy” works. Why not guide the children directly to the “classics”? “Children are continually accosted with ever-increasing ugliness through graphic, horrible images in video games, so it is never too early to show them beauty,” says Dominique Gauthier.
Bring the museum home
By 11 years of age, children are proud to learn vocabulary from the experts. We can “help them discover notions like light/dark, elaborate/simple, transparent/opaque, etc.,” states Françoise Barbe-Gall. Now we can encourage them to get interested in what kind of person the artist was and the movement they pertained to. For this you can refer to subject matter from religion classes and school history lessons to present biblical scenes, a portrait of a politician, a military battle, etc. The more they go to the museum, the prouder they will be of the connections they find between works. Regarding the Impressionists, for example, they will love being able to distinguish between Renoir, Monet, and Degas.
At about the age of 14, we can encourage our adolescent to go to the museum on his or her own—and also to bring the museum home. For example, for their birthday we can get them a subscription to a specialized art magazine. Or in the evening after they’ve visited a museum, why not organize an “interview” at home? You can talk about things like “Why do you like or dislike this painting? What work were you most impressed by?” Current news—like fashion shows where images of the Madonna and Child are worn on clothing, or historical works of art destroyed by terrorists—can be a good source for debate. Young people love to go to exhibits that are currently being advertised in the streets.
The little ones can also go to the museum
Often, parents don’t bring the oldest child to museums because the younger ones are too small to go. But there are ways for the littlest ones to participate as well. We can sit them in front of a painting and ask them to find an animal or a particular color. After the visit, each child can buy a postcard of or draw the painting they liked the most and then glue it into a booklet or save it in a drawer. Later, when they come upon it by chance, they will remember their visit to the museum. This will promote their interior world, framed by an intimate family activity.
Let’s not forget that developing a taste for art is not like a school assignment designed to turn our child into a future Picasso. We might love Van Gogh because we paged through an art book at our grandparents’ house, modern art because we enjoyed the freedom and whimsy of an open-air sculpture park, or Dali from a poster hung in the hallway at school. Going to a museum is not just intellectual or historical training — it is a creation of common memories and shared privileged moments.
Olivia de Fournas
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