Why is it so important to talk to kids about art? Well, I LOVE art now, but for a long time I was put off talking about it – or even thinking properly about it – because I worried about ‘getting it wrong’ and feeling stupid. Sound familiar?
Art is a joy that everyone – kids and grown-ups – deserves to have in their lives. So it’s a great idea to get kids feeling comfortable and confident with art before any of these unhelpful ideas have a chance to worm their way in. The good news is that you don’t have to be an expert AT ALL to talk about art with kids.
Here are 5 easy tips, and 3 quick activities, to help you talk positively about art with kids. You can use any artworks you like – look them up in a book, visit a gallery, browse an online collection or, if you have artworks of any kind at home, talk about them!
1. Ask ‘What do you see?’
A simple but essential first tip. It can be really intimidating for children to be faced with an artwork they’ve never seen before, and an adult who seems to want them to have a reaction or give an opinion about it right away. This easy, familiar question – What do you see? – is a great starting point for engaging kids’ close attention and getting them more comfortable with talking about art.
Say aloud or write down everything you can see in the artwork – objects, colours, patterns, shapes, anything. You could make this a collaborative game by taking turns until you run out of things to see. Or you could write lists separately and compare them when you’re finished – it’ll be a fun surprise to see how different the things are that you each noticed!
2. Adopt a beginner’s mindset
Shift your mindset from teaching children about art to learning with them. If you’re not confident in your art knowledge, this takes the pressure right off! If you know a lot about art, you can still give children your valuable input but as part of a more relaxed conversation as you look at and learn about artworks together.
Without ever meaning to, when we’re in ‘teacher mode’ we can sometimes give off cues for what we expect and want kids to think, feel and say about art. It could be something as simple as wanting them to like an artist we love, and children are really sensitive to the pressure of these expectations. So this shift towards equal ground gives kids the freedom and confidence to take more of a lead, and to talk about art without worrying about ‘getting it wrong’.
Children will also benefit so much from seeing you model approaching art with the kind of open, curious mind that you want to encourage in them. Our most natural, deepest learning often comes from following a positive behaviour example, rather than just doing what someone else asks.
3. Show your working
It can be really inspirational for kids to hear what you – an adult in their life – thinks and feels about an artwork. But what can be even more helpful is showing children how you arrive at these thoughts and ideas. It’s a great way for them to see that other people, even adults, can find it hard to put feelings and thoughts into words – and that insights don’t always appear fully formed, but can be arrived at by piecing together more simple observations.
Try looking at the work of an artist that you are completely unfamiliar with, and narrating your thought process as you see it for the first time. Encourage children to do the same. And rather than leaping ahead to complete interpretations, break them down bit by bit to show how you get there.
For example, you might start with ‘I see a blue shape’ + ‘The edges of the shape are wavy’ + ‘There are lighter patches on the shape’ and this could build up to ‘I think that blue shape is the sea, and those are the patterns that the sunlight makes on its surface.’
You could each close your eyes while the other one describes the artwork, then open your eyes and see if what you were imagining from their words is anything like what you see in front of you.
4. Mix it up
Some art probably leaves you pretty cold, even if you appreciate the talent that’s gone into it. Kids will often be the same. Showing children all sorts of different artworks raises the chances of finding the ones that they really connect with. So try to vary the kind of art you look at with them – and don’t make assumptions about what they will and won’t like, because it might surprise you! I’ve known kids click with conceptual art and medieval paintings when more conventionally kid-friendly stuff hasn’t got a look-in!
You can also mix up the ways that you approach art. Instead of going to a gallery, try visiting a local public artwork. Instead of drawing or painting on paper, try something a bit more unusual – like making some Land Art-inspired lines and stacks of natural materials outside in the park or garden. Think about the child’s specific interests, too, and how they connect to art forms you could explore – where Monet doesn’t cut it, video game art just might.
5. Get specific with feelings
Answering the question ‘How does this artwork make you feel?’ can be quite tricky – for adults as well as children! So get specific and encourage kids to try on some different feelings for size. Does the artwork make them feel angry? Sad? Peaceful? Keep going and you’ll soon get a better idea.
For younger children, try making paper signs or simple party hats with different feelings written on them. Then they can literally try a range of feelings on for size! Another nice activity is to ask kids to create their own art to express their feelings about an artwork – they might actually find it easier to put their thoughts and emotions into lines, textures, shapes and colours rather than words. And it’s a great, practical lesson as to why art can be such a powerful way to express ourselves!
Are you a Modern Art Explorer?
If you’re after a fun, fabulously illustrated introduction to modern art for kids, I have just the thing for you – I wrote it myself, in fact! Modern Art Explorer takes readers behind the scenes to discover the stories behind thirty famous artworks from the Centre Pompidou’s collection in Paris. It features artists such as Henri Matisse, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Frida Kahlo, and it’s full of exciting stories, big ideas and a few very silly jokes.
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