It’s far easier to wax eloquent about the goals of a classical education than to put those ideas into practice. I find this to be especially true when it comes to art education for children. While idyllic scenes of young children sitting quietly around great masterpieces of art and somehow magically absorbing an appreciation for all things creative sounds wonderful to me, I doubt it’s the normal classroom—or household—experience. Despite our best admonitions, students’ responses often don’t match up to our great hopes.
Having carted (and classically homeschooled) four children—ages 5 to 13—around Europe for the past few months, I have had many opportunities to experience fine art with children. At my last count, we’ve visited over fifty different art museums, palaces, cathedrals, and other historic sites since September, most of which display significant paintings, sketches, sculptures, and other works of fine art. (Lest this sound too romantic, you should know that during our visits to these exhibitions, numerous meltdowns, countless bathroom trips, and multiple sibling arguments took place! We are a real family trying to expose real children to really great art!) While we experienced our share of frustrations in exploring fine art as a family, we also saw a lot of excitement and growth in our kids. And at the end of our journey, I’m still glad we put forth the effort to expose even the youngest among us to fine art.
Our best experiences in exploring fine art as a family were helped along by good strategies. While many of these were produced and provided by the museums we visited, nearly all of them are reproducible by any willing parent or teacher. Here are some of the tools that made our art exploration with children successful:
- Museum Dice: Our kids loved this game! Essentially, a child rolls the dice inside of a small box (preventing dice from flying around the room!). The child then matches the marking on the dice (color, shape, number…depending on the type of dice you use) to a corresponding list of questions. Consider grouping questions according to theme. For example, rolling a “5” might lead the child to questions about tastes or smells associated with a work of art in the room. Rolling a “yellow” might lead to questions of comparison or contrast. Rolling a “3” might lead to creative questions requiring the child to imagine the perfect room to house a particular piece of art or to decide whom they might gift a particular piece of art to and why. For the youngest students, consider placing colored stickers or other markings on the dice to make playing the game (and matching the categories) easier.
- Treasure/Scavenger Hunts: Who among us hasn’t enjoyed a good treasure hunt?! The idea of hunting treasure is that there is something valuable to be found. Indeed, in examining fine art, there is treasure to be found! However, we all know that in educating young children, it never hurts to dangle a small prize in front of them. Consider creating a handout or map of clues, leading students to examine different aspects of a masterpiece. Alternately, create a scavenger hunt that leads students through a gallery (or a display or book of art if you are in a classroom—walls are not limits here!) in order to locate specific pieces. Make this as engaging as possible for the youngest students, offering magnifying glasses, flashlights, clipboards, and other “tools” to aid them in their discoveries! At the end of the “hunt”, reward students with stickers, detective badges, miniature cards of famous paintings, or other small treats.
- Look and Find: This idea is particularly useful in exploring architecture as art. For example, give students drawings or photographs of small pieces of a stained glass panel or a sculpture found at the top of a stone column. Ask them to locate the small piece of art within its greater context. This not only draws students’ attention to individual elements of the work; it also helps them think about how all of the parts work together to convey a message. The same strategy can be used by cutting out a post-card sized portion of a painting, drawing, or sculpture, and then asking students to locate that section within the larger work.
- Hands-on Activities & Workshops: We had the privilege of attending several art workshops in museums which gave our children a chance to do something related to what they were learning. For example, after touring the Mauritshuis and learning about Rembrandt, the kids attended a portrait-painting workshop. There were costumes, mirrors, and art books available for use as the children did their best to paint self-portraits. For the youngest visitors, transparent colored blocks, puzzles of famous paintings, and dress-up stations helped them understand aspects of Rembrandt’s work. I have little doubt that my children will remember Rembrandt because of that dress-up station! Consider finding ways for children to move their bodies in order to explore fine art.
- Connect the Story: Sometimes it’s possible to connect a piece of literature with the fine art in view. Many great paintings illustrate biblical stories—why not read the story when viewing the painting? A couple of months ago, our family had the privilege of viewing Van Gogh’s Good Samaritan in the Kröller-Müller Museum. I think I’ll always remember corralling the kids onto a bench in the middle of the white-walled gallery and listening to my husband read the story of “the good Samaritan” from the Bible. This can be done with the youngest of students; illustrated copies of famous biblical stories, Greek myths, and historic battles abound. Plan ahead and connect your students’ experiences with art to literature and history!
- Use Winsome Resources: Search out beautiful picture books and biographies of famous artists for your child’s enjoyment. Some of our favorites are James Mayhew’s picture books (such as Katie and the Impressionists), Vincent’s Starry Night and Other Stories: A Children’s History of Art, and Anholt’s Artists Books for Children (such as Degas and the Little Dancer). We also like David Macaulay’s books on cathedrals and castles. You’ll likely find some of these in your local library (and many more on Amazon!). Also, most major museums offer books of their collected works.
Nurturing a child’s appreciation for fine art can be daunting, but it’s not impossible! Perhaps the most important strategy is simply to do it—to look for ways to explore God’s created (and creative!) world together. What other ideas would you add to this list?
I am using the modern singular form here, denoting one cube.
 One of our favorite treasure hunts took place at the Van Gogh Museum: https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/whats-on/children-and-families/treasure-hunt. The museum website also offers many other resources for families (such as printable projects).