“How can I help my kids love art?” My mother asked my first-grade teacher.
My mom was not an expert in art herself but had an inkling from parenting books that it would be a good thing to expose me and my sisters to. My teacher, one of the best I ever had, answered my mom, “Take her to see good art whenever you can – eventually she’ll learn to love it for herself.” I still remember the Vincent van Gogh painting of sunflowers that this teacher kept in our classroom year-round and often talked about.
My mother took this advice seriously and helped me develop a true love of art. I never became a great artist myself (although I’ve taken some painting lessons), but learning about and engaging with art is one of my most enjoyable pastimes and one from which I have learned the most about history, other cultures, and new, challenging perspectives.
Because this is key: art isn’t just a pretty picture, it represents a moment in time and a culture and so much more than meets the eye.
And now that I have a daughter of my own, I hope to spark her interest in art and help her delve into this wonderful area that has enriched my own life so much.
However, the truth is that it’s often not that easy to get into art, especially for children. Art museums can be stuffy, boring, and not very kid-friendly, and art lessons can be frustrating without a dynamic teacher (I’ve had this experience myself.) The changes brought by technology, especially in the realm of fast-paced entertainment, make it hard for anyone to slow down and really look at art for more than a few seconds.
How can we help our kids get interested in art and the fascinating people who created it?
1. Go to museums with a plan.
Museums, when properly used, are a wonderful place for children to be exposed to art. However, children will need help, depending on their age(s). Do a little research ahead of time and make a plan for a new museum using the following tips:
- Don’t stay too long. No one, even adults, can absorb very much art at a time, and 1-2 hours max is usually plenty for a family visit. Aim to visit just a few highlights so that you don’t have to rush – and then wrap up before anybody’s feet start hurting. If you stay for too long dragging the family through endless galleries, you risk wearing everyone out and instilling a real hatred of museums. If possible, go back to the same museum for multiple short visits on different days – sometimes you can re-enter for free within a day or two. You’ll actually remember more this way and have the chance to re-visit artwork that you and/or your kids really liked the first time.
- Have some age-appropriate activities to engage kids, such as “treasure hunts” in paintings (how many cows are there?), drawing your own self-portrait while sitting in front of a Rembrandt or van Gogh self portrait, or listening to a piece of music on headphones that is from the same time period as a piece of art (Gothic chants while looking at medieval art or jazz music while looking at a Miro or Kandinsky abstract painting).
- End your visit with a snack at the cafe — museums often have good ones and it gives everyone a chance to rest and chat about what you just saw.
2. Find and visit local art often.
Burlington does a wonderful job of making art publicly accessible and fun to experience. There are many places you can see public art for free, from the Oakledge Beach earth clock to the Water Treatment Plant sculpture collection along the bike path, to the paintings on Traffic Control boxes in downtown Burlington. You might even discover some artwork for yourself if you look closely – as my family did one day when we suddenly noticed the Winged Monkey statues on top of Union Station on Main Street! A helpful list of public art in the Burlington area is available here, as well as a sample of public art in greater Vermont.
There are also a number of indoor locations to see rotating art exhibitions in our area, such as the BCA (BurlingtonCityArts) and the City Hall gallery. While you may not want to make a special trip to the airport or the UVM Medical Center to see their art displays (which they have!) you can also pay attention next time you are there and draw your kids’ attention to it. Once you start looking, it’s surprising how much great art there is to see in our area, and it is an engaging way to help kids love art.
There are also regular art festivals all over Vermont, many of which happen in the summer. These events are very family-friendly and give your kids the chance to explore all kinds of art, from music and performing arts to a full range of visual arts. In the Burlington area, the annual South End Art Hop draws a great crowd and allows many new and local artists to engage with audiences of all ages. I plan to attend this year, which is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the event!
3. Bring art into your home.
Art in your home does not have to be expensive. Art museums almost always sell high-quality print posters that look quite nice in a frame (for around $25), or you can frame postcard-size prints of paintings that you got to see. Being able to live with and see a work of art on a daily basis will open up that piece for you and your children, so that you may notice things you never would have during a quick museum visit. Locating art in a home or publicly accessible place is actually the original intent of most artists, who hoped that people could extensively interact with the work and have enough time to visually engage with new ideas, designs, and perspectives.
If you live in an area where there are local artists (like Burlington) there are many opportunities to buy inexpensive original art. Check out the galleries on Church Street, Pine Street, or just the walls of local coffee shops to find interesting pieces by locals on the cheap (I just bought something myself at a coffee shop for less than $20!) Enjoying these original works in your home gives you and your kids a chance to appreciate beautiful design and themes, as well as the skill and craftsmanship that goes into an original drawing, print, wood carving, or piece of stained glass. If you’re lucky, you might even get to meet the artist who created your special work (see #2!)
4. Connect art to your child’s other interests.
There are plenty of ways to connect art to other interests that your children may have. For bookworms, there are excellent books on the market that are great reads and incorporate art in a lively way; one of my own favorites as a child was Great Painters, by Piero Ventura. A good museum shop will have lots choices in art books for children in different age ranges.
For history buffs, check out art exhibits that are from interesting time periods. One of my most memorable experiences as a child was attending a visiting exhibition of objects from ancient Egypt at our local art museum – my wonderful first-grade teacher (mentioned before), took us all to see it on a field trip after we had prepared for a couple of weeks through reading about and re-enacting the lives of famous Pharoahs of Egypt. I can still remember the thrill of seeing the mummy cases and monumental statues; I even bought myself a poster from the exhibit and kept it in my room for years!
Contemporary art also includes forms and themes that can be interesting to even the most “anti-museum” kids, whether it’s graffiti, video art, or graphic design. If you and your child can think of it, some artist has probably tried it – just undertake a quick Google search!
5. Encourage your kids to do “real” art projects that go farther than finger paint and sidewalk chalk.
There’s a growing realization that even young children can actually handle a lot more, artistically speaking, than just handprint turkey paintings. They just need the right materials, some space to not worry about making a mess, and some practice. Give your child the chance to create something with “real” materials such as watercolors, oil pastels, clay, or weaving fabric. The materials can be a little pricey, but you could try joint projects and share materials with siblings or friends for art-themed playdates. A good first project is a self-portrait; try to create a piece of art that reflects how you see yourself. Or, you and your child can make portraits of each other (likely accompanied by some giggles). For more ideas on art projects for kids, there are great resources online.
While your kids may not become amazing painters or sculptors right away, these kinds of projects give kids the chance to think creatively and with their hands in a way that is hard to replicate. They might also gain an appreciation for what the creation of art and the handling of materials is actually like. I never had so much respect for the masters until I tried my own hand at watercolors and drawing! Even if your kids don’t dive into art as a hobby, working on “real” art projects allows them to explore what the creation of art is all about and helps kids love art.