Taking your child to an art museum? Whether it's the first or fifth time, learn how to maximize each museum visit to teach kids about art.

Child looking at artwork in museum
Credit: Blend Images Photography/ Veer

Art educators say it's never too early to introduce kids to art through books, projects, and museum visits, but parents often steer clear of museums for fear that kids will be bored or disruptive. Parents can make a museum trip successful by giving kids a snack on the way over, limiting the visit to an hour, and spending a lot of time with two to four artworks instead of trying to see a lot. "Before you go, use the Internet to get the museum's layout and decide what you want to see so you don't wander around," says Lindsay Obermeyer, an art educator in Chicago. On the websites, look for sections compiled for families and educators; these have suggestions on what to see with kids, information about family tours and workshops, and facts about the art. Follow these other tips below to introduce museums and art to kids of different ages.

Toddlers (Ages 1 to 2)

At the Museum Start by showing your children sculptures of people or geometric shapes and engage them by examining the statue from different sides, angles, and levels, says Renee Sandell, a professor of art education at George Mason University. Encourage observational, language, and vocabulary skills by playing a game: Take turns saying "I see ____" and finish each other's sentences. Talk about what the statue is doing and why, what expression and feeling it's conveying, and what shapes and materials the artist used.

Art Lessons at Home Let your child make her own sculptures with homemade modeling clay to spark creativity and develop fine motor skills. Obermeyer suggests that you ask your child to make squiggly lines on paper with black markers or crayons, then give him water paints so he can fill in the spaces between the lines. "Encourage [children] to go all the way to the edge of the paper because they tend to focus on the middle," she says. "This helps to develop hand-eye coordination." This activity will help young kids explore the angles, shapes, and volumes of space similar to the statues.

Further Reading The Metropolitan Museum of Art's picture book series draws on colors, shapes, letters, and numbers to introduce works of art.

Preschoolers (Ages 3 to 4)

At the Museum Point out art with bright colors, Obermayer suggests. Find artists kids can imitate on paper, like Pollack, Miro, and Kandinsky, or find paintings with scenes that kids can create stories around, such as ones by Matisse, Gauguin, and Van Gogh. Make up a story together or continue playing the "I see ___" game. You can expand on it by asking questions, "What do you see?" or incorporating descriptive words, "I see a blue ____" or "I see a small ____."

Art Lessons at Home Cut paper into different shapes seen at the museum (squares, circles, triangles) and let them recreate their own Miro- and Kandinsky-inspired art. Remind kids of the bright colors they saw by using six different types of green, yellow, and blue paper. "It helps children appreciate the nuance of color and how colors relate," Obermayer says. Sit down with your children's favorite books and ask them what they see in the pictures. Talk about how they tell the book's story, even without the words.

Further Reading Julie Merberg's artist series (Dancing with Degas, A Picnic with Monet) introduces artists in small doses with an easy-to-follow narrative.

School-Age Kids (Ages 5 to 6)

At the Museum Look at art that was made to tell visual stories, such as tapestries, murals, stained glass, or mosaics. Engage them by asking what story they think the artist was trying to tell and what different elements in the picture (flowers, animals) might symbolize. Compare their story with the work's "official" story. It helps to understand how to read symbols and interpret all the visual stimuli we see in our society," Obermeyer says.

Art Lessons at Home Look for art and symbols in everyday life. Point out church windows, subway mosaics, stop signs, and store windows, and discuss what the colors, shapes, and images tell us. Encourage your kids to draw their own versions of symbols they see around them or to use cut-up bits of paper to create their own mosaics. Better still, encourage your child to create a story by drawing, cutting, and gluing pictures and then have you guess what the story is. "They can make up a story or use stories they are learning in school, like Greek myths," Obermeyer adds.

Further Reading Art Is Every Day: Activities for the Home, Park, Museum, and City, by Eileen M. Prince, suggests projects; Chuck Close: Face Book, with Ascha Drake, weaves artists' paintings and photographs around a narrative based on questions kids asked Close.

Big Kids (Ages 7 and Up)

At the Museum Seek out portraits, landscapes, and still lifes. "This is the time to introduce them to the masters, such as Leonardo da Vinci, and to artists like Chris Ware, who influences graphic artists and cartoonists," Obermayer says. Have mini scavenger hunts and get kids to look for items, shapes, or lines in a specific picture, says Ascha Drake, an art educator and author in San Francisco. "Encourage children to view the same work from different parts of the gallery," she adds. "And to consider their surroundings: Is the gallery brightly lit or dark? Why is a piece of art displayed in a particular way? How are other people in the room reacting to it? It teaches them to be sensitive observers."

Art Lessons at Home Have your child sketch portraits (theirs or yours) or let them try their hand at landscapes by looking out a window, going into the backyard, or visiting a park. Experiment with different lighting for portraits or different times of day for scenery, and discuss how the view changes. What becomes more or less visible? How do shadows change? You can also arrange still-life objects. "I put together tableaus with sports equipment, stuffed animals, or flower pots, or a set dinner table," Obermayer says. "By this age, kids feel they can't do art if they can't draw realistically. Drawing with them helps them see that it doesn't have to be perfect and that one image can be seen in lots of different ways."

Further Reading Delicious: The Art and Life of Wayne Thiebaud and Edward Hopper: Painter of Light and Shadow, both by Susan Goldman Rubin. Biographies of Jackson Pollock (Action Jackson), Andy Warhol, and Van Gogh, by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan. Jill Deupi, director of the Bellarmine Museum of Art in Fairfield, CT, suggests The Art of Teaching Art to Children, by Nancy Beal and Gloria Bley Miller, How to Talk to Children About Art, by Francoise Barbe-Gall, and Teaching Art with Books Kids Love, by Darcie Clark Frohart and Clark Frohardt

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