Introducing Children to Art

Caleb and Monet, Joseph and Picasso

Art has been a part of our school life from the time my boys were toddlers, both producing art and enjoying works by others. I enjoy art and I think exposing our children to beauty always has rewards.

When the boys were young I collected postcards, calendars, posters, and books. I didn’t have a formal plan, we just enjoyed looking at the works of a variety of artists. If they expressed an interest we might read up on a particular painter, but for the most part I just made the introductions and let them gravitate toward the works that spoke to them.

As time passed they became quite familiar with many different styles and time periods and could accurately identify and group paintings. We made it a game, putting out cards and seeing if they could pick out all the Van Goghs (Van Gogh is a good one to start with as his style is so distinct). Sometimes we would study a work and then turn it over and see how many details we could remember.

We have the privilege of introducing our children to geniuses like Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Michelangelo,  all incredibly gifted artists who were able to express their vision of the world in moving and beautiful ways. We can, in a sense, enter into a conversation with these masters. It’s an amazing thought, your child can enter into a ‘dialog’ with some of the greatest minds and talents the world has known by thoughtfully contemplating and studying their work.

Following the advice of Charlotte Mason I refrained from immediately giving them a lot of information about a particular work, instead I let them first experience it for themselves. They had their own thoughts, insights, and feelings about particular paintings. At some point, I would tell them a little about the artist and the world he lived in, not a long lecture, just enough information for them to gain a deeper understanding of what the circumstances were that surrounded a work. Often love and knowledge go hand in hand. While they might be drawn to a particular painting, learning more about the context it was painted in, and the artist who produced it would deepen that appreciation. As they got older our study of Art History became more intentional and in depth.

For instance, Picasso’s work Guernica is moving and disturbing on it’s own. (More disturbing when you consider that the

Picasso's Guernica

Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937, Oil on Canvas, Museo Reina Sophia, Madrid Spain

finished work is 11 feet tall and 25 feet long.) The lack of color and violent images were noted by my son Joe when he was probably 8. He had his own thoughts on the painting recognizing it as a work of Picasso and wanting to know what was wrong. (He had found many of Picasso’s other works sad, amusing, or funny, but this one felt different to him.) His understanding was deepened by learning that  Guernica was painted in protest of a vicious bombing of the city by the Nazi’s during the Spanish Civil War. A tour of the work brought this event to the world’s attention and has become a perpetual reminder of the tragedies of war.

Don’t worry, google any artist and you can get a brief history that will fill in some of these pertinent details for you. You don’t need to be an Art Historian to introduce your children to art…that is part of my point, you are making the introduction.

Back to the point. Joseph had his own experience with this painting, he interacted with it, came to his own conclusions, sought more information, and then went back to looking at the painting, picking out the anguished horse, disjointed people etc. He didn’t need a summary from me of what he should think and a nice stated objective to walk away from the ‘lesson’ with. If he were to look at the painting now he would probably notice different things and, with the additional years he has had to mature and learn more history, he would probably have a deeper understanding of Picasso’s mindset. In another 20 years his relationship with this painting will change again. Great works of art, (or literature) enrich our lives in a variety of ways and continue to speak to us throughout our lives.

Claude Monet, The Artists Garden

The Artist Garden at Vetheuil, Claude Monet, 1881, (French 1840-1926) Oil on Canvas, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA

When Caleb, my third son, was 10 or 11, we went on a field trip to the Norton Simon Museum. By then he knew most of the painters he would be seeing and began to wander…until he found this painting by Monet. We had moved on and I realized Caleb wasn’t with us so I went looking for him and found him still standing in front of this work. I asked if he wanted to come see the Rembrandt’s and he said, ‘No, if it’s okay, I’ll just stay here. I like this one.” He found a bench and sat in front of that one painting until it was time to leave. He was so relieved when I told him we could purchase a copy of the painting to take home. For whatever reason, at that time in his life, that painting spoke to his heart.

After these two experiences I appreciated even more that as educators we often need to get out of the way. We introduce our students to ideas, books, works of art, and then we step aside and trust them to take away from the experience what is appropriate for them.

This style of learning can be scary for those of us who associate ‘education’ with mastering a specific set of skills for each grade level. We have science standards, math standards, and reading standards. If you google most museums that cater to children and have educational tours you can get a list of which ‘standards’ their tours will meet. That day at the Norton Simon I had parents who were very concerned because Caleb didn’t ‘see’ everything. We, as parents and educators often have a set idea of what we think our children should take away from an experience, and those expectations can get in the way of your child making his or her own genuine connections.

I’m asking you to throw out the standards and let your child lead. Instead of giving information, ask questions. Get your children thinking and interacting on their own. If they are not used to this kind of learning at first they will be resistant…they have been trained to ‘give the right answer’ and will be hesitant to just offer an opinion.

But if your goal is to nurture curious, independent thinking in your children,  then resist the impulse to wrap up every learning experience in a nice little package with a stated objective. I am not suggesting that you should not be intentional about what you introduce or that there are not some specific facts you want them to learn (we read biographies of the artist, tried out some of their techniques, put them onto timelines, and played the games I mentioned earlier). What I am suggesting is that within that framework there should always be room, lots of room, for them to think their own thoughts, draw their own conclusions, and react with their own feelings.

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