Tag Archives: art

How I Raised Good Museum Goers

We recently took a trip to Niagara Falls, where we took an extra day to head to Toronto. Partly we just wanted to see Toronto since none of us had ever been, but the main thing we ended up doing was spending most of the day at the Royal Ontario Museum, which we all agreed was pretty excellent. I promise you that even with a water park in our hotel, a giant gushing waterfall to view, and a pile of vacation sweets to enjoy, that museum was one of the highlights of the trip for my ten year olds.

Having kids who think that way is partly just luck, but most of it was that from a young age I was determined to end up with museum lovers. I think I obviously did something right on that front, so here are some thoughts on getting kids to enjoy museums.

miles in the louvre
BalletBoy chilling in the Louvre.

Even Toddlers and Preschoolers Can Enjoy a Museum

I never shied away from taking my boys to museums, even when they were three or four. I don’t mean children’s museums or science centers (though we did plenty of those too), but real art museums, history museums, and natural history museums. I just always expected that this is something that they would do and I never thought to myself, that museum is not appropriate for kids. That doesn’t mean I didn’t also accommodate them by carrying them sometimes, taking lots of breaks, coupling museum trips with treats, and so forth. However, the expectation that art was interesting to see was always a given and I never undermined that by being hesitant about presenting it to the kids. I’ve seen a few parents approach museums with the expectation that the museum will be a failure for the kids, because they don’t think kids will really find the museum interesting. Of course my kids were occasionally bored too, but they also never got the signal that it was normal to find art and artifacts boring, because I actually don’t believe that’s true.

Join Every Museum (If You Can)

One of the things that most people can’t replicate that we did right was simply exposing the kids to tons of museums all the time. Living in Washington, the land of free museums, makes this massively easier for us. We did join zoos and science centers and children’s museums, but if we lived somewhere else, I would have joined the art museum and historical society museum if those were available as well. Obviously putting down that much money for museum memberships isn’t possible for everyone, but if you can, being able to go to museums often enough to have a membership pay for itself is really important to raising a museum goer. Kids don’t learn to become museum lovers by going to the museum once a year. It takes lots of visits.

Mushroom imitating Thutmose at the Royal Ontario Museum.
Mushroom imitating Thutmose at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Half an Hour is a Solid Museum Visit, Really

That brings me to another point. When Mushroom and BalletBoy were little, it wasn’t unusual for us to be in a museum for less than an hour. When you’ve got your museum membership (or visit a free museum), it’s easy to dip in for a short time. A short visit helps the trip be all positive. It never allows it to get to the point where the kids are melting down and sick of being there. Instead, you leave while everyone’s happy after seeing just one thing that you really focused on. Trying to force a visit to last all day to get the most out of going into town is understandable, but for younger kids, I don’t think it really pays off.

Engage, Discuss, and Model

When adults go to museums, they often wander quietly from room to room, reading the little plaques and interpretive displays and only occasionally chatting with each other. I’ve seen a few parents try that approach with kids, but obviously that isn’t going to fly, especially not for younger kids. I think the only way to get kids engaged is to show them what engaged looks like. So when we’re at museums, we talk quite a lot. I ask them questions, I tell them what I’m thinking, I encourage them to ask questions. Basically I’m modeling what’s going on in my head as I view the art or artifacts. I read the interpretive text aloud to them. I model excitement and interest. When they want to show me something, I let them take me off to another part of the museum. If we meet a docent or volunteer, we ask questions and I model listening and being interested. They’re still kids. Sometimes they lose interest, but usually this approach works and they want to be curious as well.

Take Advantage of Museum Programs

Storytimes and other children’s programs are so invaluable. We’ve been really lucky to have the National Gallery of Art programs at our disposal. They do two amazing programs for different ages. For younger kids, they read a picture book, discuss a painting, and make a small craft. For older kids, they spend an hour discussing a single work or art. However, when Mushroom and BalletBoy were younger, we enjoyed many other programs at the other museums we visit. Hearing other people talk passionately about art and history is really good for kids to see it’s not just their parents.

Couple Museums With Fun Experiences

We do this a lot less now, but when Mushroom and BalletBoy were very young, a trip to a museum was often coupled with stopping to have a cookie in the cafe or getting an ice cream on the way home. Or after the museum, we would stop at a fountain to splash or take a ride on the carousel. Or we would meet friends and let them run around outside after their time in the museum. It wasn’t a reward exactly, but rather it was an acknowledgement that doing something fun and easy after doing something that required a little more focus and restraint helps make a positive association. Now my kids are old enough that they don’t need a special food or to see a friend in order to enjoy a museum trip. However, I’m sure that those earlier treats helped them think of even the “boring” trips as something worthwhile. It helped train a good habit of enjoying museums.

Sketching at the National Gallery of Art.
Sketching at the National Gallery of Art.

Bring a Sketchbook

Bring a sketchbook and pencils and sit and draw. Don’t be afraid to sit on the floor like the artists in a museum. And don’t be afraid to let a younger child do this as well. Obviously don’t give a preschooler with a penchant to mark on everything a Sharpie in a gallery, but most kindergarteners are old enough to handle the rules. We’ve done this several times and it’s always really rewarding and lets us look more closely at the art.

Read a Book There

We don’t do this often anymore, but in the past we have several times brought and read picture books in the museums, right in front of the art that it applies to. There are tons of biographies of artists you could read aloud. The Katie series by James Mayhew and the Anholt’s Artists series by Laurance Anholt are two light art story picture book series. If it’s a history or natural history museum there are other possibilities as well. There’s something really special about sitting down in front of a painting and reading a book that features it or explains it.

Make a Game of It

Finally, I learned early on that scavenger hunts and other such find it games really help engage kids when they’re younger. Some museum have such scavenger hunts set up already for kids (occasionally with small rewards). Sometimes you can use the brochures at the desk as a sort of scavenger hunt (such as to find all the works in the highlights brochure). Other times, the scavenger hunt can be more abstract. Can you find a painting for happy, sad, angry, bored, tired, and pained? Can you find paintings with a circle, a square, a diamond, a trapezoid, etc.? Can you find five Greek gods in the Greek and Roman galleries? Or ten Christian saints in the medieval galleries? Can you find ten different occupations? Or ten different animals? Games like these help kids keep their eyes open and their attention focused. It’s a trick, but it’s a trick that helps develop close attention. As my kids get older, we need these games less and less, though they’re still fun occasionally, even for me.

Balancing Acts

Somehow we made it through all of October without doing hardly any field trips and none that were just us.  We did have a couple of things planned that fell through due to illness, but really, it was just inexcusable.

It’s hard sometimes to balance the need to be home and get stuff done with the need to be engaged and spontaneous out in the world.  If I wanted my kids’ education to be only book work and occasional projects all proscribed by a teacher, I could have sent them to school.  But doing that book work and putting in the time on those fundamental skills is important too.  I posted before about how “fourth grade” felt like a watershed to me, about how I feel like we need to be putting in our time on those skills.  However, that doesn’t mean that learning has to become flat and dry or that we can’t still get a lot out of being expeditionary learners.

With that in mind, we finally made it out last week.  Morning work had to work with our listening book, The Calder Game.  The book proposes a sort of game where you think of things in fives – objects, pictures, words, ideas, anything.  So we’ve played around with drawing and then writing little five word poems or five word ideas.

Once we were all dressed and ready, we headed out to do Panera School, just checking off math, spelling and a book for science.  Then we headed to the National Gallery with little sketch books.  We wandered through leisurely then spent a long time in the Calder Room sketching and watching everything move.  Do you know, it’s actually fun to sketch a slowly moving mobile.

Note that this is not a Calder. It’s by Nancy Graves and is the only work in the “Calder Room” at the National Gallery that isn’t by Alexander Calder.

It was fun to see the other museum goers peer over the kids’ shoulders at their tiny sketch books to see what they were up to while the kids were intently looking and drawing.

Afterwards, we headed home, full of art and happiness.  The kids were so thrilled by the day and the field trip that they really shamed me into remembering how completely essential it is to get outside, to do things other than just the stuff that looks like schoolwork.  It is a balance, with all the parts of our education hanging together like one of the Calder mobiles we drew.

Chinese Art

We’re still here, still schooling, still trucking on through summer.  We wrapped up our history study of China with a trip to the Sackler and Freer Galleries to appreciate Chinese scroll painting.  We also did a couple of projects.

First, we learned a little about the tradition of Chinese peasant painting.  You don’t see much Chinese folk art here in the West, but it’s out there.  When I lived in China, there was a terrific folk art center in my city with lots of artisans producing textiles, paper cuts, and the style of art called “peasant painting.”  I showed the kids lots of examples of these brightly colored paintings and then let them plan and try their own in the same style.

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We also went more traditional and imitated the Chinese brush paintings with some black watercolors to stand in for inks.

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Block carving is an old hobby of mine, so we happen to have lots of materials on hand.  When the kids asked if they could “sign” their paintings with a red stamp, I cut two tiny squares of pink EZ Carve for them and let them quickly carve something.  BalletBoy chose to do his initial and the Chinese surname I use.  Mushroom asked for me to pick a surname for him so I picked one as close to their last name as I could.

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Art at the Rowhouse

We got a little off track with art.  Here’s how I know.  When I went to compile our portfolios awhile ago, there wasn’t hardly any art.  And when I went to list the field trips, there weren’t any to art museums in two months.  Shocking.

Christmas helped force us back on track.  In the weeks leading up to Christmas, there was a flurry of art as the kids made cards, picture frames and two calendars for grandparents and great-grandparents.  To get them motivated, I left an “art challenge” out in the mornings several times.  I left all the materials – paper, paint, pencils, etc. – along with an explanation of the challenge on one of the little white boards and an inspiration page from an art book to get them started.  This worked so well that it led to two things.  First, I started leaving “morning work” out everyday.  Second, I have kept including art challenges in the morning work.  Beyond setting out the materials and putting the challenge on the board the night before, this is so easy.  And perfect for my children who think that one should get up before the sun.

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We have a number of art books, but there are two that we keep returning to for ideas.  One is Art Lab for Kids and the other is The Usborne Big Book of Things to Draw.  I like the variety and simplicity of the projects in each book.

We’re also trying to make more time to see art again, so the Husband took the kids to the Ai Weiwei exhibit and I took them to the building museum.  Then, as the National Gallery’s Artful Conversations program started up and we headed to a co-op field trip, we found ourselves at the National Gallery twice in one week!  Sometimes my kids frustrate me, but I have to say, they are some of the best museum going eight year-olds out there.  They probably have a greater appreciation of modern art than many adults.  So in a matter of a month, I felt like we got completely back on track with art.

Projects and Revolutions

A couple of months ago, I read Lori Pickart of the Camp Creek Blog‘s book Project-Based Homeschooling.  While I didn’t absolutely love it, I would say it’s definitely worth a read.  The ideas from it are still swimming around in my head, along with bits and pieces about project-based learning.

I liked the book because it straddles the space in homeschooling that I aspire to straddle: the space between structure and freedom and actually had practical ideas about how to bring that space about in your homeschool.  It was a book that made you want to do art with your kids, especially if they’re at all arty.  And the ideas about organizing art spaces were excellent and inspiring.  However, for a short book, the text got repetitive for me pretty fast.  And I was disappointed that the projects remained focused on art or letting kids use art in service of subjects that interest them.  To me, engineering, science and writing are all just as ripe for project-based learning as art.  These topics do get some coverage, but it’s pretty clear to me that the author has a lot less experience with them than with art, which was clearly her passion.  I would have loved to see just as much space about organizing science supplies as art, for example.

I’m not sure if this really heralds any changes in our homeschool though.  As much as I love projects and try to support them when they arise, I can’t see them as the center of our homeschool.  If they were, then I know myself.  I would swoop in and ruin them or take them over.  It’s so much better when the kids have full charge of them and my roll is as tape supplier and general appreciator.

I will say though that eight seems to be a big project age in our house.  BalletBoy has been busy making things for the stuffed Perry the Platypus he got at Disneyworld, like a special carrying case from a tissue box and a special “room” from an Amazon box.  He also, of his own accord, made a Christmas stop animation video for his Christmas Eve performance, featuring a bunch of his toys going to admire the baby Jesus from the Playmobil nativity set.  A couple of years ago, I helped the kids make a stop motion Lego movie for Christmas, and while they took the photos and made the creative decisions, the whole thing required a lot of executive action on my part.  This go around, he did the whole thing alone and I was surprised by how good it looked.  He only had me step in at the end and show him how to load and edit it on the iPad.  (By the way, let me recommend Smoovie for that purpose.)

Mushroom has also been busy with projects.  He decided that he should have a “job” at co-op, which he refers to as the “revolution.”  It has led to a number of enterprises on his part, including a “fifteen minute writing class” that he has been teaching to some of the adults and which is both precious and surprisingly well-planned for a writing class taught by a kid who can’t spell.  He also initiated a co-op newspaper, which he drew a masthead for and wrote two articles for.  At which point, I stepped in and offered to help him put it on the iPad so he could play around with formatting and put in other stories.  He published one issue and was so excited to hand it out.  When I wrote my self-assessment, I said that I needed to plan more writing projects ahead of time instead of waiting for them to organically arise.  So, of course, as a result, one organically arose from the kids.

Mushroom shows off his newspaper.
Mushroom shows off his newspaper.

With all this great project learning going on at the Rowhouse, I can’t really deny the power of project-based learning.  I say it’s not central, but upon more reflection really I mean it’s not central to my thinking and planning.  It may be central to the kids’ learning and processing.  As I said before, it doesn’t take much planning for the adults to have tape, junk, electronics, and other project materials on hand.  Nor does it take anything but simple time to listen and encourage for us to support kid-driven projects or a little flexibility to work something important into our schedules.  The things that take planning for me are teaching the various core subjects we learn about.  It takes planning and buying curricula and books to teach math, reading, history and so forth.  That’s my job: to teach the actual stuff.  The wonderful thing is that the stuff I teach informs these projects.  They get into the history topics we study.  They make art about the books we read.  They act out games that play off the science we learn.  This is like a learning conversation.  So while I plan school, they plan projects and each can inform the other.


Last weekend, we went to the Corcoran‘s Family Day, where we saw a breakdancing/tap dancing performance, tie dyed handkerchiefs, participated in a drum circle, took in the art and generally enjoyed ourselves for several hours.  It’s having amazing free stuff like this that helps balance out some of the other costs of living in the city (you know, the monetary ones).  The kids were super engaged, especially BalletBoy, who seemed to get over his whiny attitude once he was back out in a large group of people again (reminder to self: BalletBoy is an alien who likes to interact with people nonstop, otherwise known as an extrovert).  Here’s BalletBoy making an edible color wheel (Nilla wafers with icing mixed from little pots containing the primary colors).

The exhibit that’s wrapping up now shows off the Washington Color School painters, such as Gene Davis and Thomas Downing.  This was an abstract movement in the 1960’s that utilized lots of bright, big blocks of color.  Our city sometimes seems pretty stuffy what with our government bureaucrats everywhere, so the Color School painters (along with Duke Ellington’s jazz, go-go music, and Ben’s Chili Bowl) is one of our few cool cultural achievements.  You can see some of Davis’s stripes and Downing’s cool circles below.  When you get right up to Davis’s striped paintings, many of them seem to be moving.

Well, after doing all the various activities, we saw the exhibit and BalletBoy immediately noticed all the connections to the activities we had done.  Circles! – like the color wheel!  Stripes! – like the masking tape art workshop!  Dyed cloth! – like the tie dying!  I usually do art the other way around and most of the time when we encounter art (such as through the National Gallery’s Stories in Art program), it’s also done the other way around.  We see the art then do the activity that somehow emulates it.  That works, but with this my brain just went, a-ha!  Clearly doing it backwards works as well to help kids appreciate the art better.

Well, since then, BalletBoy has been inspired.  He’s been hard at work creating lots of stripes of bright color and arrangements of shapes.  This one was on one of the white boards, so it needed to be photographed to be captured anyway.

Our Favorite Art Resources

If there’s one thing I can’t imagine actually buying a formal curriculum for, it’s art.  Whether we’re talking about appreciation or creating art, you probably can’t talk me into setting aside part of our school day for art on a regular basis.  I just don’t see it as needing that type of attention.

But that’s not to say that we don’t give art a lot of attention!  We love art and it’s a big part of our larger homeschooling in the form of fun classes, field trips and kid-initiated art on their own time.  Plus, we incorporate a lot of art into our history study.  So here are some of our favorite resources for art.

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All the Museums!
Okay, I know we’re super lucky to live in D.C. with the Smithsonians and the National Gallery, not to mention the private museums like the Kreeger and the Phillips Collection.  We like them all, but we do have favorites.  For one, while I often have mixed feelings about what’s showing, the kids adore the Hirshhorn’s often strange, contemporary exhibits.  They discovered this showing there when they were about 3 years old and liked it so much we had to buy the video.  We also adore the Smithsonian American Art Museum, especially when they have a family day.  There’s also the Luce Center there, with their great scavenger hunts.  Finally, if you live in the area and have kids age 4-7 but haven’t ever been to Stories in Art at the National Gallery, then you really are missing out on something.

The Online Fun
Mushroom and BalletBoy have a few websites they’ve enjoyed for art.  Probably top of the list is the game Waltee’s Quest from the excellent Baltimore Art Museum, The Walters.  It’s an online scavenger hunt where you have to search for certain items to save the museum during a freak lightning storm… or something.  It’s very detective and very well done, with sleek graphics.  Also amazing is the National Gallery’s online site, NGAKids, which is filled with wonderful collage applications that you can make and print.  One more site we’ve seen and liked includes Getty Games, from the LA Museum The Getty.  And, while we haven’t used it yet, I’m sure that Google’s new art project, which has gotten a lot of buzz recently, will get used here at some point in the near future.

The Daily Dose
We have a couple of things to get our daily dose of art.  One is the book A Year in Art, which has activities and pictures for every day.  We also have really enjoyed The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s art a day calendar.  I especially like the variety in the pieces of art in that one.

Getting Ideas
We have a pile of drawing books, but there are a couple favorites.  First of all, the Usborne Art Ideas book is a little volume with lots of good ideas.  I like how the book shows several different styles and media.  Sticking with Usborne, the Usborne Big Book of Things to Draw is even better.  This is a large format book with different types of methods and media, but all in drawing.  Finally, we have really enjoyed the Doodles at Lunch book.  This book shows simple, step by step ways for kids to draw little cartoon doodles.  Mushroom really likes their method and enjoys sitting and copying them.  It has really improved his own art as well, which I can see from how much more detailed his drawings are getting, even if slowly.  There are other books that I’ve used to get ideas for the kids, but art books the kids can enjoy on their own has been a relatively new and exciting pleasure around here.

Resources on Hand
Of course, probably the most important thing we do is keep the art supplies handy.  The kids can get to all of these at a moment’s notice:

  • markers, crayons, colored pencils or oil pastels
  • glue sticks or glue
  • colored masking tape, colored Duck tape or sticky tape
  • different kinds of paper
  • Prang watercolors or lots of washable paints and brushes
  • modeling clay
Some of Mushroom's works.

Reason #361 We Love DC

Along with our co-op, we decided to spend the morning at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Portrait Gallery last week.  This museum is one of our favorites.  We thought we would go do one of the scavenger hunts in the Luce Center upstairs.  You get a button when you do one.  We have a whole bulletin board of buttons.

We did do the scavenger hunt, but first, we spent more than an hour sidetracked by the Norman Rockwell exhibit.  An Art Cart was waiting for the kids in the museum’s amazing courtyard.  There, two museum educators told the kids about Rockwell and explained his artistic process.  Apparently Rockwell staged all his paintings as photographs first.  Then he painted from the photos.  The museum educators gave the kids a notebook of Rockwell’s works from the exhibit and told them to pick some that they could recreate and we could take photos of.  What a brilliant idea!  Here’s Mushroom posing as a teacher.  BalletBoy and one of his pals are the students:

And here’s the actual Rockwell painting:

I’m not a huge Rockwell fan.  However, the idea behind the exhibit was that his works tell a story.  As we moved through the exhibit, we talked about the emotions and the actions.  What comes next?  What happened before?  We imagined what expression faces hidden from view held and imitated those we could see.  In short, it was a great exhibit for kids.  Also, you should have seen BalletBoy’s face when I told him the man who created Star Wars was the owner of many of the paintings on display.

Surprises like that are one of the many reasons we love life in DC.

Mushroom the Artist

This picture is a testament to the unusual and creative quality of kids’ art projects everywhere.  We have a huge bag of junk from a place called The Scrap Exchange, near my mother’s house.  It’s a wonderful place full of crazy items that no one needs anymore.  Here, Mushroom has turned some of it (and a broken IKEA ice tray) into a “video game.”  He’s holding the “remote” in his hand.  Sometimes, Mushroom draws amazing, detailed pictures of robots.  Sometimes he makes me paper creations, like the actual functioning bag with a handle he gave me the other day.  In his art class on still life, he drew a beautiful apple with its shadow and some gorgeous shading.  But sometimes, he makes abstract sculpture that even the curators of the Hirshorn might find perplexing.  My main question is, why does this installation have to be on my kitchen floor?