Connecting kids with art

The key is to make it fun, whether you’re in a museum or on the street


Meg Shreve and Diana Oleszczuk


Holding a printed magnet above her head, Marlo Rimalovski, 5, scampers beside an ancient Chinese scroll, trying to find the matching figure holding the red umbrella. The actual ancient scroll is under glass, but she’s searching along a replica on the wall, playing a kind of "Where’s Waldo," with a 600-year-old piece of art.

The little girl from New Jersey is learning about ancient China and its art. She is also having fun. That, experts say, is the best way to get kids to love art—by making it fun and interactive.

And getting kids to love art is important because art can build a child’s creativity and help them better understand the world, says Mary Hynes-Berry, a senior lecturer at the Erikson Institute in Chicago.

"The more ways we give children to look at the world with wonder, the more we help them develop," she says. And starting early is important. It’s like spinach—if kids are exposed to it at a young age, they are more likely to keep trying it, she says.

Museum strategies

Introducing kids to art doesn’t have to be a daunting task. The Chicago area offers plenty of places to find art—from a framed portrait in an art museums to an interactive exhibits at a children’s museum to public sculptures all around the city.

Knowing where to go—and how to tailor the trip so the kids leave with awe rather than a yawn—can help both parents and kids get the most out of their visit. Visiting one of Chicago’s world-class art museums is one way to introduce children to art. But taking kids—especially young ones—requires preparation.

If your destination is the Art Institute of Chicago, Jean Sousa, director of family programs, recommends deciding on three or four works rather than attempting to see the entire museum.

Perhaps the best strategy is to bring your own love of art, says Hynes-Berry. Young kids have fewer preconceptions about what is fun and if the parents are excited about art, the kids will be as well. "This ought to be important to the adult," she says. "They shouldn’t be going just for the sake of the kids."

If you’re visiting with children of different ages, have multiple adults on hand. One can go with the little ones to explore the Kraft Education Center, the Caldecott books and the Thorne Miniature rooms (tiny replicas of rooms from different time periods and countries) downstairs while another takes the older kids to see the galleries and look for paintings or sculptures they have learned about in school.

Better yet, "follow the lead of your child," Sousa says. For example, Chicago mom Joanne Finger prefers Impressionism, but her kids love modern art. Now, she takes her kids to the modern galleries and saves the Impressionist paintings for her own museum trips.

As with any other new experience, children need a little background before they go. Tell them why they can’t touch the art and let them know they’ll have to stick to their "indoor" voices. If you want to view certain great works of art, hit those first.

Families also should arrive early to avoid long lines and be prepared to take a snack break or head home when the kids get tired, says Finger, who has been taking her 7-year-old daughter, Maggie, and 11-year-old son, Danny, to museums since they were toddlers.

She recommends that stroller-toting parents locate parking, stroller entrances, elevators and a few exhibits to see before they go. She also reminds parents not to disrupt their child’s normal nap schedule; visiting an exhibit for an hour in the morning is perfectly fine. "We live in a city with wonderful cultural resources that will be there tomorrow," Finger says.

Danny and Maggie agree the Art Institute is their favorite art museum. While Maggie enjoys the interactive stations in the Kraft family center, Danny likes some of Degas’ statues and other artists’ religious paintings.

"I just think they’re cool. I can tell the artist spent a lot of time working on them," Danny says.

Engage the kids

But what happens once you get to that lovely Monet or Degas? For kids, simply looking at a piece of art isn’t enough, says Wendy Woon, director of the education department at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. They’ll become bored in about three seconds. Instead, kids need to interact with art in some way, perhaps by drawing their own version of it.

To get kids talking about art, Deborah Bain, coordinator of family programs at the Art Institute, suggests asking simple questions: "What do you see in that painting? How does it make you feel? Do you like it or not?"

The Art Institute’s Web site offers the following suggestions for making art accessible to kids:

n Have a scavenger hunt. Print pictures from the Internet or buy postcards from the museum gift shop of your favorite works. During your visit, search for the actual paintings and sculptures.

n Sketch it. Bring paper and colored pencils or crayons, along with a clipboard, and let kids sketch their favorite painting or sculpture. Or let them make up a story about what’s going on in the painting. Georges Seurat’s "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884," the famous French riverfront scene painted with hundreds of tiny dots—is a good place to start. When they get home, let the kids can try their hand at pointilism.

n Play "I Spy." Find a gallery that isn’t too busy, sit in the middle and identify your favorite painting based on its subject or style: "I spy a painting that is blue and calm," for example.

n Talk to kids about the art. Relate the pictures to ordinary life. For example, decide which miniature house in the Thorne Room you would pick. For older kids, connect the art to history they have learned in school.

Parents might even learn something from their child’s reaction to a piece of art, says Finger, whose kids like Impressionist, Renaissance and modern art.

"It’s a very refreshing perspective."

Planning your visit

When the Cohen family drove into Chicago from Lake Zurich, they knew they wanted to see the Art Institute’s Impressionist collection. Because Julie Cohen called ahead, they were able to register for one of the museum’s "Mini Masters" workshops, where 5-year-old Jacob and 9-year-old Andrew heard a story about Impressionism, perused a few paintings, including Monet’s "Haystacks," and went to the Kraft Education Center to draw their own impressionist pictures with oil crayons.

Making their own artwork was the highlight of the visit, the brothers agree. "The best part was I blended it in with my thumb," Andrew says.

Checking the Web site (www.artic.educ/aic) or calling ahead can make a big difference, Cohen says. The Art Institute has a calendar of free kid-oriented activities, but many require preregistration.

Click on the "Kids and Families" section of the Web site or call Family Programs at (312) 857-7161. September programs include a paper weaving project in celebration of Diego Rivera’s painting "The Weaver."

Modern can be magic

Sometimes a less conventional approach can trigger a love of art in children.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art, fluorescent lights make the entire fourth floor radiate in green, blue, yellow and rainbow, thanks to featured light artist Dan Flavin.

The lights drape the room and the viewers in color.

"Kids love colors and lights," says Nina Sabota, who brought her 10-month-old son, Hadrian, to see the exhibit. "All the toys you see have lights and colors. This is on a bigger scale."

Kids can make personal connections to contemporary art because it uses everyday materials and objects, Woon says.

"It’s easy for the kids to comprehend," agrees David Becker, visiting from St. Louis with his son, Dylan, 9, who liked the a room filled with pink and yellow lights best.

"It shows that you can be creative with anything," says mom Kim Becker.

The Museum of Contemporary Art is also a good place to discover that art can be thought-provoking. "Short Cut," a piece by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset installed outside the museum, appears to be a car attached to a camper emerging from the earth in a V-shape. Woon says kids will debate at length about how the car and camper—two images familiar to them—arrived at that spot.

(Note: Some exhibits in the MCA—although none currently on display--have violent or explicit content. These are labeled, but the small signs are easy to miss—they are red with white writing.)

While the Museum of Contemporary Art doesn’t have an area specifically for kids, parents can pick up a family guide with postcard inserts, facts, questions and activities geared toward families.

And the museum is much smaller than the Art Institute, which means it’s easy to do in a day or even a few hours.

On the street

In Chicago, seeing art doesn’t require an admission fee. Even better, the city’s public art program is extremely hands on and interactive. There’s no need to stand around looking at the Picasso at Daley Center when you can get to know the sculpture by climbing on it.

"When you’re walking down the street, you can see [public art] and interact with it," says Nathan Mason, curator of special programs for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs’ Public Art Program.

"Children are not going to think about the aesthetic and philosophical issues. The fact that they can touch something gives them a more immediate and tactile relationship."

Chicago is home to more than 500 pieces of public artwork, ranging from sculptures of animals and historic figures to murals in libraries and public buildings, says Mason.

Brochures listing the city’s public art pieces are available at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., (312) 744-6630.

As with museum exhibits, Mason says parents can engage kids with simple questions about public art pieces, such as, "Does that statue look like a real animal?" or "What do you think the artist was trying to say about the community in this mural?"

Sousa and Mason agree that parents don’t have to be experts to expose their kids to art.

Parents don’t question going to a zoo even though they aren’t zoologists, Sousa says. In the same sense, parents shouldn’t feel they have to be art historians to teach their children to appreciate art.

"Parents don’t necessarily have to be art experts," Mason says. "You can just approach a painting or a sculpture on a level you’re comfortable with."

Rather than visit an exhibit, pick an artist and track his work throughout the city with the kids. Your own artist scavenger hunt.

Marc Chagall is a good place to start. His work peppers the city, and his technique and subjects often appeal to kids. "Chagall’s paintings are very whimsical and have a lot of content children can relate to like animals and simple shapes," says Mary Trieschmann, vice president of programs at Kohl Children’s Museum.

Before heading to see one of Chagall’s paintings or mosaics, Trieschmann suggests reading about him. Or let your kids practice painting like Chagall by drawing faces with strange skin colors, similar to Chagall’s green-faced musician in "The Green Violinist."

Once you’ve done your homework, visit Chagall’s "Four Seasons Mural," a mosaic made of multicolored stone and glass tiles at 70 W. Madison St. Have the kids pick out some of the people in the mural and create a story about them, or let them point out their favorite glass tiles.

The Art Institute has just taken down Chagall’s stained glass "American Window." But several of his paintings hang in the modern gallery, including "The Praying Jew" and "White Crucifixion." (Note: Both depict strong religious imagery, which may not be appropriate for younger, more senistive children).

Trieschmann stresses that it’s important that children enjoy themselves and see that art is not about perfection. "This is a way to get children interested in art and understand it’s about the creativity and not making something perfect."


Meg Shreve and Diana Oleszczuk are students at Northwestern Medill School of Journalism and former Chicago Parent interns.
Chicago Parent Playdate Spring 2016

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