How to Look at Modern Art With Your Kids

by ParentCo. March 03, 2015

You don’t need to "understand" art to enjoy it. Here are some tips on sharing that enjoyment with your kids, while teaching them about creativity and observation.

I’ve always found the comments I hear in modern art galleries both sad and amusing. "I could paint that." "Looks like a preschooler did it." "I don’t get it." Toddlers have no inhibitions when it comes to art. They will splatter and spread paint all over the place and use anything as a canvas. Years ago I taught art to kids ages 5-16. It always made me sad to see that as kids aged, they grew more self-conscious, restrictive, and less creative about what they produced. We have rules about not drawing on walls or furniture, but I do everything I can to help my six-year-old continue to develop her limitless view of creativity and art when it comes to subject matter and technique. People often dismiss modern art because they don’t understand it, but you don’t have to understand every piece of art in a museum in order to enjoy yourself and help your kids learn more about art. This past weekend we went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York with our daughter. It’s a fabulous place to look at art with kids and free on Friday nights. I was an art history major and worked in art museums in my first career, so I had a bit of an advantage when it came to context. However there were still artists I was not familiar with, and these are some of the strategies I used to keep my daughter and myself engaged during our visit.

1. Ask open-ended questions. Try to avoid “yes” or “no” questions like Do you like this? Instead ask open-ended questions: If you could give this work of art a title, what would you call it and why? What do you think the artist was thinking about when she made this sculpture? Our six-year-old entitled this piece “Laser Beam” because it looked like a laser beam exploding a planet in space. She said the painting felt like it was full of energy.

2. Share your observations. If you like a painting, explain why you like it in as much detail as possible. If you don’t understand or care for an art installation, talk about what you find interesting about it or how it makes you feel. You don’t have to like everything you see, but if you can’t talk about art – you can’t expect your child to be able to talk about it. It takes practice. This work was called “Comet” by Ron Gorchov. I didn’t really care for it, but I told my daughter it made me feel curious. We tried to think of as many subjects the work made us think about together: a pig nose, two fish in water, footprints, and an electrical outlet. Suddenly I was engaged with a work of art I might just walk right by due to not understanding or caring for it aesthetically.  

3. Explore art from different perspectives. The more deeply you talk about a piece of art, the more you will connect with it. Here are some ideas for topics taken from Looking at and Talking About Art with Kids by Craig Roland: subject matter, sensory qualities, emotional aspects, technical aspects, and context. The painting below is by Mark Rothko. Here are some of the questions I asked our six-year-old about this painting: What colors did the artist use? What feelings do you usually think of when you see those colors? If you could give this painting another title, what would you call it and why? What tools or materials do you think Rothko used to create this painting? Do you notice any patterns in the painting? 

4. Do some research. It’s always helpful to learn a little about some of the art you will see before you go to the museum. If you have context for the art or artist, you will appreciate the art more. A good art museum will provide you with some context in the museum labels, but you can also make a note of artists you can to look up on the web when you get home as an extension activity. This painting is by Ferdinand Leger. He painted during World War I and II when Europe became much more industrial. He obsessed over how technology and factories affected human beings. Knowing this context, you begin to understand why his figures look machine-like and can usually recognize his art without reading museum labels.  

5. Take frequent breaks. Sit in the café and enjoy a snack in between galleries. Bring a journal and write or sketch on a bench in front of a work of art. Stroll in a courtyard or garden to give your eyes a rest.  

6. Check out the education department. Many art museums have materials for educators or parents online or at the information desk. Use these materials to preview exhibitions, enhance visits during the exhibit, or as extension materials for deeper learning following a visit. MOMA has activity cards that engage kids with their art. This activity asks kids to consider city noises for Piet Mondrian’s art and then make a song following the color pattern of “Boogie Woogie.”  

7. It’s okay not to know. “I don’t know” is a powerful phrase in an art gallery. You don’t have to have all the answers. Being honest and willing to talk about art without knowing anything about the artist or work isn’t easy to do and takes practice, but this will help foster curiosity, critical thinking, and creativity in your kids if you’re willing to try.  

8. Give the kid a camera. If the museum allows you to take photographs, let your children use a camera. It is fascinating to see what captures their interest and what art looks like from their height or perspective. My daughter asked to take a photograph of this piece at MOMA. It really made me appreciate how the work looked different from her height and wonder why this particular piece attracted her.  Visiting a modern art museum with a kid will really help you to appreciate and look at art in a different way. If you don’t have a kid, take a tip from Austin Kleon and borrow one. It’s an incredible experience.



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