Chicago art scene can introduce kids to culture

[Photo credit: Dan Rest] The Lyric Opera's production of "The Mikado"

Jennifer A. Moran

A walk through the Art Institute of Chicago, a Tony Award-winning play at Goodman Theatre or a special concert at Symphony Center-for as long as you can remember, you've taken pleasure in them. They are occasions that still resonate and may even be bound up in important personal histories. It is where you first discovered you loved Modigliani or Mozart, or where your husband took you on your first date.

Now as your children grow, you want to instill in them an appreciation for the arts as part of your legacy. With your family's full schedule and the economy challenging many household budgets, not to mention the seemingly limitless activities vying for your youngster's attention, what is the best way to begin engaging your child in the city's cultural landscape? Educators at some of Chicago's leading arts organizations weighed in with practical advice about cultivating children's interest in one of the world's ultimate urban classrooms.

"Limit your focus. The biggest mistake is trying to do a whole museum. Three objects and lunch is a nice introduction," advises Jean Sousa, director of interpretive exhibitions and family programs at the Art Institute. "Many children have collections, so talk about the museum as a collection."

Goodman's director of Education and Community Engagement, Willa Taylor, says children are natural arts patrons. "Kids do theater and performance all the time. They have imaginary friends. They have vivid internal scenes happening and you just have to tap into that."  Active engagement is key. After seeing a play, Taylor recommends reading the story at home and acting out the scenes. "If your child says the table is a castle, go with it."

Steppenwolf Theatre's Young Adult Artistic and Educational Director Hallie Gordon suggests attending performances that allow kids to talk to the actors or go backstage.

But arts educators also emphasize the importance of not underestimating what your child might enjoy.

Mark Riggleman, director of education at Lyric Opera, proposes this season's "The Mikado" (which ends Jan. 21) as an ideal introduction to opera for children because it's comical and performed in English.

In addition to numerous children's books about opera and music, the Web can be a useful tool for parents. The webisode, "There's Nothing Like Lyric," gives young viewers an idea of what happens at the opera house.

Beyond the concert hall, parents can create a conducive environment at home by playing music, says Charles Grode, vice president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Institute for Learning, Access and Training.

The payoff shouldn't be overlooked. Playing an instrument, for example, can help young children master mathematical concepts. Performing music with other kids can develop strong teamwork skills.

"Exposure to the arts allows children to explore other ways of communicating. It allows them to see multiple perspectives," says Kathryn Humphreys, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's director of Education and Community Programs.

"Art changes how we see the world," says Sousa.

Taylor believes the biggest advantage is that "the arts encourage children to see the beauty in the everyday."


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