My daughter and oldest son have very different takes on this portrait by Raphael.
A while back I was asked for some thoughts on art, beauty, and God. A few of those comments made their way into this nice article on beauty by Anamaria Scaperlanda Biddick in Our Sunday Visitor. I’ve written here before about art and developing an enthusiasm for it, and in a general way, about introducing children to it. As I was reading the OSV article, some more concrete examples came to mind about introducing children to art.
A general principle that my wife and I have tried to follow with our children: introduce art with them, not at them. By this I mean: don’t turn on some music, a movie, or toss a book of paintings at them and leave the room. Sit down with them, watch things, listen, and look. Discuss. If they are uninterested, don’t push it. If they show an interest in some good art, cultivate that interest and find ways they can engage with it.
I don’t kid myself about my children’s native artistic taste: they are just as likely to want to watch or read something that has little to no artistic merit as they are to want to watch something good. But if introduced to great art with enthusiasm, they pick up on it pretty quickly.
When we first watched Tomm Moore’s The Secret of Kells together, my kids were enthralled. We went online after the movie ended and looked at the images of the real Book of Kells. We printed up some coloring pages based on the book and displayed them in the house after we colored them in.
This year Song of the Sea—the second film by Tomm Moore—arrived in theaters. We went to go see it as a family. Afterwards I discovered that the Cartoon Art Museum here in San Francisco was having an exhibit of original work from both movies. We got a museum pass through our local library and went on a visit. Being able to see the drawings and concept sketches that went into the animation of these two movies was very interesting to our two oldest; our four-year-old just used the opportunity to run as fast as he could around the gallery. You can’t reach everyone!
Another favorite movie around our house is The Kid by Charlie Chaplin. Even after seeing it multiple times, the kids will still laugh uproariously at the slapstick and get righteously outraged when the antagonists try to separate the Tramp from his adopted son. From this introduction to silent film, we’ve also watched Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd shorts.
Watching Star Wars occasioned a talk about the musical score. We went exploring into the musical influences on John Williams, listening to Holst’s Planets, Dvorak, and others. Watching Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts led to making some brief stop-motion movies using an app on my phone. Winnie the Pooh cartoons led them to discover the original stories. Lost in Space led us to a local gallery where an artist makes interactive robots from discarded metal, and then back home to make our own bots from cans. Reading Zita the Spacegirl inspired them to try writing their own comic book stories.
In an age when we’re nearly always in reach of a device that can call up nearly every bit of culture you can imagine at any time, it’s easy to put this to use in exploration of art. An appearance of Beethoven on Peg + Cat led to listening to a sonata and a symphony. An episode of Doctor Who featuring Vincent Van Gogh was supplemented by a look at his greatest works. Watching The Miracle Maker, about the life of Christ, led to looking at some different ways artists have depicted Christ over the centuries.
Our adventures in art have resulted in differing interests. My oldest son is fascinated with filmmaking and cheesy old monster movies, and spends a lot of time drawing up plans for his (as yet unmade) movies. My daughter is already quite good with the visual arts, but is also very interested in reading and classical music. Our youngest son is still figuring out his own interests, but will sit and draw or listen to his older siblings read.
If I were asked for a set of four basic guidelines for introducing small children to art, here’s what they would be:
- Be genuinely enthusiastic. Don’t introduce your kids to art you aren’t interested in yourself. Always accompany them with the art: sit and watch and listen, ask questions, look, discuss. It would be a rare child who gets excited by being plopped down in front of some art and left on his own.
- Create things. It doesn’t matter if you’re no artistic genius. Make a painting or play some music or film a little movie. Kids love to be able to have a concrete example of something they did, and it makes the art that inspired your project become that much more real in their minds.
- Follow up on interests. If one kid is inspired by seeing a sculpture to want to dig into some clay, make it happen. If another gets excited by seeing a Van Gogh painting, get a book of his art out from the library. Expanding their artistic world will probably expand yours as well!
- Recognize differing tastes. You can’t force someone to like something. If a kid doesn’t “get” a piece of art or actively dislikes it, leave it alone. Their artistic sensibility may change to be receptive at some point, but trying to force them to enjoy something is a recipe for future association of that art with unpleasant memories. Stick with what they respond positively to.
My kids are still young and we’ve got a long way to go until adulthood. Along with equipping them with moral awareness, academic skills, and practical knowledge, an appreciation and understanding of art is something we hope to pass along. It is an essential facet of a fully rounded education.