DoFamilyHow to....Life

How to…talk to children about art

kids-looking-at-artSince having a child, I spend a lot less time in galleries than I used to (although I earmarked this and this as must-sees – and made it to this tiny, but perfectly formed exhibition the other weekend). But I really enjoy art – and am keen to introduce my three-year-old to its delights. But….I’m not sure where to start. She enjoys her art classes – but thinks galleries are a similar hands-on experience. Not so good. Sure, we look at pictures at home – discuss what’s hanging on the wall, read an abundance of beautifully illustrated books – but ‘real’ art? Help!

Fortunately, I know the wonderful Matthew Sanders. I met him years ago, when he was a film pr with a not-so-secret passion for art. He now puts that passion (and his ferociously bright brain and natural warmth) to brilliant use – running Magic Lantern. This incredible educational charity uses art to help children observe and explore the world. You can read more about them and what they do here, including where they conduct sessions. (Note to self: bookmark for when daughter starts school.) Despite just having had his second daughter, I prevailed upon Matthew to help me in my quest to initiate my little girl into the wonderful world of ‘looking at pictures’. The results are completely inspiring.

Matthew – you are a wonder. Thank you so much! Please do check out the Magic Lantern website and follow them on Twitter @MagicLanternArt. If you are inspired to donate (Magic Lantern receives no public funding) – you can do so here.

What does Magic Lantern do?

Magic Lantern is an educational charity that gives interactive presentations of famous works of art in schools. The key word is ‘interactive’: instead of telling the children what they’re looking at they are encouraged to tell us what they can see. They pose as characters in the painting, provide dialogue, sounds and actions, tell us what happened before, after or outside the paintings and become the artist, emulating brushstrokes and different artistic styles.

But looking at great works of art has even more significant educational benefits. We strongly believe that it’s possible to teach pretty much anything through art. All of life is there! Paintings allow children to travel the world and back in time from the comfort of their classroom. History, geography, science and even maths can be illuminated through art. Issues including relationships, race, gender, immigration and the environment are all there to be discerned and discussed.

At the same time it’s a great way to help develop various skills in children. As well as honing their powers of observation and deduction, looking at and talking about paintings allows children to express their own ideas. It helps them with Speaking and Listening and encourages them to question and debate on a variety of levels.

And while all of this is going on we are introducing children to some of the greatest works of art ever made – the majority of which can be seen free of charge around the UK – and helping to ignite a lifelong love of culture.

This year we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary. We currently have eight presenters covering Greater London, Kent and Essex, the North East, Devon and Hampshire, and reach over 20,000 children each year.

Matthew teaching a session in school

Matthew teaching a session in school

I want my child to fall in love with art (fingers crossed): where do I start?

In many ways it’s very easy. From a very young age children respond to visual images. The trick is to follow their lead and not force-feed them the images you think they should look at or like. As adults we have a range of often-strong opinions on art so it’s no surprise that children like (and dislike!) different things too. I think it’s important not to bombard children with facts (names, dates, country etc.) but to concentrate on what they can see and how they respond to it. The facts can come later once they’re already hooked.

I meet many parents who are nervous about taking their children to galleries because they feel they don’t know enough about art. I always say the same thing to them: “Let your children take you around a gallery and not vice versa.” They will pick out the paintings that interest them in a gallery, sometimes they happen to be by famous artists, but it makes no difference whatsoever if they’re not. Unlike adults, children have no fear in telling us what they’re looking at and even what a painting means. We often hold back because we think we might not be right. One of the great things about looking at art is that there’s no right or wrong. Even if we happen to know what an artist meant in a particular work if a child sees something entirely different it doesn’t matter. I find that children are fired up by being able to give their own opinion that’s valued as much as anyone else’s.

I often fall into the trap of asking questions to lead children to a specific answer. They then surprise me by giving me an entirely different – but just as plausible – answer. Children have an amazing ability to show us a different way of looking at things when we think we know it all.

How old do children have to be to look at art? 

It sounds like a cliché but it’s never too early. Babies respond to simple images in their early months and there are plenty of artists who use black and white patterns and shapes including Bridget Riley and Julian Opie.

It’s important not to overload children with images and information, so I’d say less is more at an early age. Ten to fifteen minutes in a gallery might be enough for a toddler for example. We’re very lucky that we have so many free collections in the UK. You can pop into a gallery and just look at two paintings, and the chances are you’ll look at them more closely and remember them better than if you spent three hours ticking off every work of art from a prescribed list.

Is there a simple starting point?

For very young children books and postcards might be the easiest start. I recommend Art for Baby, which I’ve seen young babies respond to. It won’t take long until older babies will recognise things in paintings in galleries. From around 4-11 years I absolutely love the series of Katie books by the wonderful James Mayhew. Katie visits galleries where famous paintings’ characters come to life and lead her on exciting adventures. What’s particularly lovely about them is that the stories are all illustrated but the paintings are photos of the actual works. There’s factual information at the back of each book for those who want to know more.

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Katie and the Waterlily Pond and Katie and the Starry Night (both £5.03) from a selection by James Mayhew

And galleries?

My favourite place to start with children (or adults for that matter) is the National Gallery. It’s where my own particular art sensibilities lie and where I discovered art myself as a child. Again, you might well find that a child points to the images they want to look at.

Personally, I’d stick to bold, colourful paintings where children can spot shapes, colours and sounds. Paintings of animals work really well.But you can’t go far wrong taking them to see works like Rousseau’s ‘Surprised!’  where they can find a tiger and imagine how the picture sounds: roar like a tiger, splash like the rain, whoosh like the wind and crash like thunder; or Stubbs’s ‘Whistlejacket’. I guarantee that as soon as a young child sees it they will point and shout “horsey” or even start neighing.

Surprised, Henri Rousseau

Surprised by Henri Rousseau

Whistlejacket, Thomas Stubbs

Whistlejacket by George Stubbs

One child I’ve taken to the National was obsessed by the amazing historical dresses and materials on display in so many of the works. Another, older, child loved the wonderful array of severed heads. There’s something for everyone! Some people might find abstract works have more effect on their young children. Again, there’s no right or wrong.

After a gallery visit it’s nice to go to the shop and tell the child they can pick a postcard of their choice. The chances are they’ll pick the painting(s) that made the biggest impact on them. They’ll take it home and look at it again and again and even tell whoever else is at home all about, all enthused like an un-cynical art critic.

Imagine you’re standing in front of a painting with  a young child: what’s a good ‘in’ to the world of that painting?

I find a good way to get child to climb inside a painting is to break it down and think of our senses. What can we see (always the starting point for obvious reasons!)? What can we hear? What can we smell? If there’s a range of materials and textures, what can we feel? And if there’s food and drink in the painting, what can we taste?

An example of how a particular painting can work is one my favourites to show children, David Hockney’s ‘A Bigger Splash’.

A Bigger Splash by David Hockney

A Bigger Splash by David Hockney

The first question is “what kind of place is this?” I might want the answer to be “a swimming pool”, but I’m often told it’s a hotel or wealthy person’s house.

I then ask whether there are any people in the painting. The gut reaction is to shake one’s head, “No, there’s no one in the painting.” But then at least one bright spark points out that there must be someone under the water because we can see the splash they’ve made.

Following on from this we they can work out how the person got there – by jumping from the diving board. At this point I often ask the children to show me how they think the artist painted the splash. Looking around the painting it becomes clear that most of it was painted in simple block of colour, mainly squares and rectangles.  But when we get to the splash it’s completely different – it looks random and all over the place, just like a real splash.

On a slightly higher level we could ask what the weather is like in the painting. The answer is almost always “sunny.” But when you ask how they know it’s sunny, given that the artist hasn’t painted the sun, they’re forced to think a bit harder. The answer could be simply because it’s a swimming pool – who goes swimming on a cold day? Someone else might tell you it’s because there’s a clear blue sky. Another child might notice the palm trees. If a child is particularly eagle-eyed they might spot the shadow under the chair.

On a higher level still you can go on to ask if they can point to where the sun is in the sky outside of the painting – the direction of the shadow under the chair gives it away.

There are many different ways of approaching a painting like this one and none is wrong. The essential thing is to constantly ask questions so the children tell you about the paintings rather than the other way round. In my experience they will not only remember what they’ve seen far better but their confidence will be boosted and their interest sustained.

Images: Life in Blog, Magic Lantern, The National Gallery, Tate

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