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Introducing Children to Art and Art History

Introducing children to artArt and art history have been a part of our school life from the time my boys were toddlers, both producing art and enjoying works by others. This reflects a strong belief in introducing children to art and art history – art is interesting, expansive, and leads a well rounded education.  I enjoy art and exposing our children to beauty always has rewards.

Our Experience

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.

Teachers have the privilege of introducing children to art and art history and exposing children to geniuses like Van Gogh, Rembrandt,  and Michelangelo. All of these incredibly gifted artists were able to express their vision of the world in moving and beautiful ways. An  introduction to art helps us enter into a conversation with these masters. What 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.

Charlotte Mason’s advice

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.

Joseph experiences Guernica

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

For instance, Picasso’s work Guernica is moving and disturbing on it’s own. (More disturbing when you consider that the
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. Joe 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. 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. Introducing children to art and art history doesn’t require you to be an Art Historian…that is part of my point, you are making an introduction.

Back to the point. Joseph had his own experience with this painting. Interacting with it, he came to his own conclusions. After seeking out more information, he went back to looking at the painting noticing the anguished horse, disjointed people etc.  A summary from me of what he should think and a nice stated objective to walk away from the ‘lesson’ with weren’t necessary. As an adult he would notice different details. With additional years and maturity he will likely develop a deeper understanding of Picasso’s mindset.  Great works of art, (or literature) enrich our lives in a variety of ways and continue to speak to us differently throughout our lives.

Enthralled with Monet

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

Caleb, my third son, at age 10 or 11, 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. Our group 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.  When asked if he wanted to come see the Rembrandt’s he said, ‘No, if it’s okay, I’ll just stay here. I like this one.” Finding a bench Caleb 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.

Get Out of the Way

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

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. Science standards, math standards, and reading standards are important to education. Google most museums that cater to children and have educational tours and you will 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. Parents and educators often have a set idea of what we think our children should take away from an experience. 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. Having been trained to ‘give the right answer’ students will be hesitant to just offer an opinion. Introducing children to art is the perfect opportunity to give this freer style of learning a chance.

 Learners Need Lots of Room

If your goal is to nurture curious, independent thinking in your children, resist the impulse to wrap up every learning experience in a nice little package. I am not suggesting that you should not be intentional about what you introduce or 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. However, 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.

Implementing The Principles offers curriculum choices to help you to bring your children’s art world to life, check out this Overview of Western Art Packet as a starting place for introducing children to art and art history. This packet is designed to bring art history into your child’s hands and field of vision – it is hands on and your students will love it! Click on this link to go to our online shop.

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