Ever wanted to teach your toddler how to appreciate art or take her to an art gallery, but didn’t know where to start? It is not as difficult or daunting as you think.
When my close friend Michelle and I transitioned from full-time to freelance home-based careers to have our babies, we knew that we wanted to expose our kids to art and culture at an early age. Coming from creative backgrounds (we first met as colleagues at a creative agency), we are aware of how important it is for children to be resourceful, creative and culturally adaptable. However, it was hard to find creative cultural experiences for toddlers in Malaysia. Also, galleries tend to have a reputation for not being child-friendly.
Appreciating Art : Going Beyond The Crayola
Too often, art experiences for young children in Malaysia only focus on the making of art. Michelle’s and my initial research showed that children should actually be encouraged to talk about art objects, the artists and how the objects were made. Looking at art and encouraging conversations about it in ways that relate to children’s own experiences not only develops their visual literacy and descriptive language, but also their logical and creative thinking.
Cognitive specialists share that our brains can only continue to grow and form new synaptic connections when we are exposed to new and novel experiences. Thoughtfully planned visits to art museums and galleries that incorporate multi-sensory activities can therefore be valuable experiences for children. That said, adult intervention is important as we play a vital role in determining what children notice about a particular work or art and how children feel about it.
Michelle and I decided to sit down to design the very programmes we wanted so badly for children, ourselves. Many playdate-cum-work-meetings later, the Art Discovery Tours for Tots and Kids at the ILHAM Gallery in Kuala Lumpur was born in 2015. Since then, we have run almost 50 tours for more than 500 children and their families.
The main point to note is that we didn’t start off as experts in this area (and we still aren’t, as we’re learning along the way!) but we want you to know that with art appreciation for children, a little bit of research and lots of enthusiasm can go a long way!
Below are 5 ways to help your kids appreciate art at any age:
Art Tip #1: Look at art in your own home
To lay the groundwork for a good visit to any gallery, start by looking at art in your own home. Start a discussion about a favourite piece of art hanging on the wall. Talk about why you like it. Introduce a few art-related terms e.g. “portrait” for a picture with a person, “landscape” for scenery, or “still life” for works with objects. Point out if it’s a painting (done in oil, watercolour or acrylics), print or photograph. Explore whether cool or warm colours have been used. This Art Words List and Critique Terms Bank can give you more ideas.
If going to a specific gallery, Google ahead to find what you’re going to see and talk to your child about a few selected pieces. Discover more about the exhibition theme together to increase your child’s anticipation and interest during the actual visit.
Art Tip #2: Read lots of good children’s picture books
Many parents don’t realise that good children’s picture books are often a child’s first introduction to fine art. Michelle and I complement each tour season with interactive reading sessions done in collaboration with Books Kinokuniya KLCC. We talk about the themes in the books as well as the artwork used to present the stories. For example, using Chris Haughton’s book Shh! We Have A Plan, we were not only able to explain how important it was to have a different way of doing things, but also able to talk about colour theory (cool and warm colours, contrasts) and the use of collage.
Art Tip #3: Expose children to art galleries in an enjoyable way
When visiting a gallery, keep a few things in mind:
- Gently set the ground rules upfront – basics like no eating and drinking, no running, no shouting and no touching the artwork. After a few visits, these rules will become second nature and set the scene for more enjoyable future visits.
- If you are a see-every-inch-of-the-gallery kind of parent, you need to sacrifice this habit when visiting with your child. Don’t feel guilty about what you miss but focus on creating an enjoyable experience for your child. If you drag your child around an entire collection, he is likely to become overwhelmed, lose interest or have a meltdown. He may never want to go again.
- Use simple activities, familiar to children that incorporate the art. One idea is to visit the gift shop before you go inside the gallery to pick out a few postcards of the artwork featured. You can also print out pictures from the Internet at home. Get your child to look for the selected pieces as you walk around the gallery. These will also serve as nice mementos of your visit, and can be used for further conversations on art at home. You can also pick a common object then count how many times it appears in paintings. Kids who like doodling may enjoy sitting down to sketch their favourite piece with some paper and crayons.
- A few minutes on Wikipedia before your visit will also pay off for most of us who are not art historians. Kids love stories, and stories about the artists will give them a point of contact with the art. They will be intrigued by how Ai Wei Wei was inspired by his pet cat’s toy to create a sculpture (the one that’s at the ILHAM!), when Picasso started painting (at age seven) or why Matisse did cut-outs (because he couldn’t hold a paint brush).
- Go for a special treat (ice cream, cake, or a trip to the park) after your gallery visit, so that your child’s overall memory of the day is a positive one.
Art Tip #4: Ask children to speak up, share their points of view
Get children to speak up and share their thoughts about artwork. Encourage them to have an opinion, emphasising that there is no right or wrong answer. Ask open-ended questions such as, “What do you like about this piece? Why? How does it make you feel? What’s going on here? What makes you say that? What else can you see?” The responses can be very insightful and surprising! You may learn a new way of looking at the artwork and something new about your child.
Art Tip #5: Learn with your child, model a sense of wonder
Don’t worry if you know nothing about art. Look at it as a shared (intergenerational) learning experience where you can grow alongside your child (much more valuable than knowing all the answers!). Model a sense of wonder. Use descriptive language and communicate your own imaginative thoughts about everything you see in order to spark their opinions. As you awaken your child’s sense of wonder, you’ll also awaken your own!
What are your tips for exposing kids to art? Do share them with us!
Li-Hsian left a career in corporate communications to become a full-time mum to twins. She is learning new things daily as she tries to balance the romance of motherhood with the messy realities of her latest role.