Introducing Kids to Art

My son, who is nearly two, has been coming to museums with me since he was born. In the past couple of months we’ve seen the Louise Bourgeois show at MOCA and Oranges and Sardines at the Hammer. He’s often the only small child in the galleries, especially in exhibitions like Kara Walker, which we explored together last spring. Some might argue that the artist’s work, which addresses race, sexuality, and troubling histories, is unacceptable for children. In fact, that’s what many of the other visitors at the museum seemed to be saying as, with eyebrows raised, they watched my son and I stroll by.

I have many reasons for taking my boy to museums, and for now, frankly, it’s easy to introduce him to provocative work since he’s not asking the tough questions. But he’s only a couple of years away from understanding on some level, and I plan to continue taking him to challenging exhibitions. Perhaps naively, I look forward to the discussions that will ensue between the two of us—I think art and the context of museums is a wonderful way to plumb life’s complexities.

By and large, researchers agree that children benefit immensely from exposure to the arts. Study after study, findings indicate that “Arts experiences enhance ‘critical thinking’ abilities and outcomes” (Why Your Child Needs the Arts Advantage and How You Can Gain It). It’s clearly a private decision to be made within a family, but suppose you do take your children to museums: what about those awkward moments? LACMA educator Karen Satzman pointed out that up to a certain age, the parents are often more embarrassed than the children. When the kids grow older and begin giggling at nudes, for example, she asks why they’re laughing and opens a dialogue. Then she tells the children that what they are experiencing—a reaction—is what art is all about.

Allison Agsten

6 Responses to Introducing Kids to Art

  1. Elon says:

    Great point, Allison. I’ve overheard some inspired dialogues between parents and young children in the galleries at LACMA. It also provides a nice counterpoint to the destination of last–but easiest–resort, the mall.
    We’ll just put off visiting Paul McCarthy installations for a few years.

  2. Ken James says:

    I’ve been taking my two year old to museums, performances and shows his whole life. He has favorite artists he wants to go back to. To those who worry about content, I would rather have to explain a painting with nudity etc than most TV shows.

    I’ve also seen kids understand conceptual pieces much faster than their parents – fun listening…

  3. Great post. I personally could never buy into the idea that children must be sheltered long past the time they’re physiologically capable of getting into trouble.

    In Karen Satzman’s example, the nude also exposes the viewer to the possibility that the cultural norms in middle class Southern California aren’t universal or static for all of time. A trip to LACMA can be eye opening and mind expanding in the same way a trip to Europe can, and far less expensive!

    Another approach would be to ask why they think the artist made the work in that particular way. Sometimes you find out it’s not the nudity that makes them giggle, but the way the swan wrapped around her body makes her look like Björk.

  4. Joan A Smith says:

    My two granddaughters are 10 and 12 and we visit the many Bay Area museums throughout the year. Last summer they asked to go back to see the Women Impressionists at the Palace Of The Legion of Honor. The younger one still remembers the Berthe Morisot quote regarding the value of women!

    No matter what the content of the exhibit, expanding one’s horizons through sight and sound is valuable. We never know the impact these experinces have on young minds.

    I believe it is a responsibility to expose our young people to new material both audio and visual. It is an experience and a resposibiltiy I gladly accept.

  5. Allison,

    Thanks for posting this – I often eavesdrop on school groups at museums for refreshing perspectives on what we are all looking at and experiencing. It’s amazing what associations and insights are made by children – largely due to their expansive imaginations, and also testament to the freedom that comes from not trying to impress anyone.

    As the director of a gallery I am always encouraging parents to bring their children in to see shows. Let’s hope many parents share your attitude and are helping their children stay open to new sights.

  6. kristi says:

    i heart you, smart lady.

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