Introducing Art History to Kids

Introducing Art History to Kids

Today Emma from 95 Acres of Sky is with us to share some great resources and ideas for introducing art history to kids.

I began introducing art history to my eldest son when he was about 5 years old.  I really wasn’t sure what to expect when I cracked open my Great Artists book and opened the page to an impressionist painting I thought he’d like.  As I asked him to look at the painting we started talking about what we were seeing, I asked him simple questions such as “what time of day do you think it is?” and asked him to explain his answer by showing how the painting ‘told’ him that.    I was quite bowled over when he did just that!  He explained how the soft light told he that the sun was coming up, how the fact that the curtains in the window (that I didn’t even notice) were part closed meaning the people inside were probably sleeping and that there were no people on the bridge showing everyone was still in bed.

 

Although that was several years ago now, the experience has stayed with me because it was when I first truly knew that children have an instinctive understanding of art, if it is presented to them in an open ended way with no expectations of what is ‘right’.  Since then we’ve explored many different genres, making our own pointillism paintings with q-tips, discussing baroque religious art and making our own (extremely glittery) versions of a certain enigmatic renaissance lady.

 

Though we’ve continued to include art in our schooling since then, as the boys are getting older (my youngest is now approaching 5) I’m beginning to incorporate more art history and appreciation as a regular practice.  I delight in sharing what is beautiful and accomplished with my boys and I love hearing their un-schooled, totally honest reactions to what they are seeing.  They have no expectations about what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, they are open to new possibilities and ideas.

 

If you are beginning to share art and art history with your children for the first time it can feel a little overwhelming as to where to begin.  The good news is you don’t have to be an art expert to share art with your children, you can learn alongside them, exploring and engaging with new eyes.  Use resources that help you along and don’t feel you have to have all the answers.  If you are new to teaching art I don’t think you can go wrong with the Impressionists.  Their work is vibrant and alive, full of energy and color, while at the same time representing aspects of life that are still familiar today.  Their paintings capture something of what it is to live, what it is to be human in this world and though they were painting nearly 150 years ago, being human really hasn’t changed much.

 

This week we explored Monet, probably one of the most well known artists in the world; if you are beginning with art history this is a great artist to start with.  There are lots of resources and inspiration on the internet and lots of books that will be easily available through your library.  The book I am currently using with my boys is The Usbourne Book of Famous Paintings.  It is a lovely book  with beautiful art work and lots of pointers that prompt discussion.  Another great way to access famous art is with the app Art Authority, there are thousands of paintings that span hundreds of years of art, beautifully rendered and easily accessed.

Introducing Art History to Kids

 

You’ll also need some basic art supplies as, I feel, one of the crucial elements of a good art history lesson is creating your own art inspired by what you’ve seen!  A simple set of water colors, some vibrant crayons and pencils and a set of chalk pastels would be a great place to start.  Buy as good quality as you can but don’t feel that you have to spend on extremely high quality supplies at the outset.  I work on a tight budget and prefer to have a nice variety of mediums and some different papers to give my children a broader range of experiences.  You can also add materials over time (for example metallic pens for a Klimt project) that you can enjoy for a long time afterward.  Don’t feel that you have to have a massively stocked cupboard to begin, tailor the project to what you already have rather than waiting to have everything perfect.  This should be fun and free for you as well as the children!

 

So how do you structure an art history ‘lesson’?  I follow a similar pattern each time to make things easier on myself.  I also don’t think of our art time as a formal ‘lesson’, I’d rather see it as an invitation to learn about something wonderful where there is no right or wrong approach, this makes the atmosphere much lighter and more fun for everyone involved.  Here is a basic sketch of how I approach things:

 

  • Have the art piece you want to study in easy view.  I use a cook book stand to prop up our book or ipad, making it easy to see and more like the experience of looking at art on a wall.

  • Have the materials you want to use ready but set aside until after you’ve spent some time talking about the art, if the materials are there the children will (rightly) want to dive right in!

  • Prepare a few questions to ask about the work you are looking at, keep them as open ended as possible and accept that there should be no right or wrong, allow your child to interpret things in their own way.  Try to resist sharing your views right away as they’ll often take this as the ‘right’ view and cast aside their own innate reactions.  I like to ask things like:

    • What does this make you think of?

    • What do you see?

    • Do you think this is a happy or sad picture?

    • Which colors do you notice the most?

    • (If there are people) What do you think they are doing/feeling/thinking?

    • And of course the most important follow up to any question is, Why do you think that?  It’s really important to make sure you return to the art for an explanation and maybe make a few suggestions at first if your child has a hard time articulating exactly why they have interpreted things as they have.

 

  • Prepare a follow up project that allows your child to explore what it feels like to be an artist (my pinterest board will get you started).  As well as being fun this will greatly expand your child’s appreciation of the art you are studying and give them a much greater insight into the artist’s perspective.

  • Limit the materials available in any one sitting.  Don’t overload your child with too many options, allow them to explore what can be done with just a few colors.  Limiting the palette to the key colors the artist used (for example the Impressionists rarely used black, for our Monet work we used a few crayon colors and only two colors of watercolor paint)

Introducing Art History to Kids

Above all remember that this is supposed to be fun!  The wonderful thing about art is that it is a free medium, you can interpret it any way you wish, there is no right or wrong and your honest reaction is the most valid.  If your child doesn’t want to recreate Monet’s garden, no matter!  By exploring art history together and allowing them the freedom to explore you are telling your child that they too are an artist, free to create what comes from their heart, just like the truly great artists of the world.

Emma

Emma Jones is an English girl who somehow ended up in the Canadian countryside raising two crazy boys and a whole lot of chickens. She homeschools on her 95-acre farm, where she also raises organic meat, fruit, vegetables, eggs, and herbs. Emma earned her BA Hons in English Literature at Sheffield University and her PGCE at Newcastle University. She can be found mostly in the kitchen but also loves writing, photography, sewing, preserving, reading, yoga, and anything interesting that catches her eye, though not usually all at the same time. Emma also enjoys blogging about farming, family life, homeschooling, cooking, and health over at 95 Acres of Sky.

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  1. I really enjoyed this. It brought back memories from my days working with kindergartners–I would bring in paintings (fortunately my mother-in-law was an artist) and ask the children all sorts of questions like yours, including “What sort of smells and sounds do you think you would have if you were in this painting?” I was always amazed at their powers of observation and their complete engagement with the artwork. Because young children are so imaginative, they become completely immersed in it all. We would spend time on abstract, landscapes, portraits, etc. Their own renditions were just terrific. Thanks so much for this. FB: Thinking About Kids.

  2. Judi that sounds so lovely! You’re right, the children react so strongly to art, their observational skills are amazing. I really want to try different kinds of art with them and give them a broad spectrum of experience. How wonderful that you also had an artist in your family and could share that with the children : )

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