How to teach children about art

My long career as an Art Educator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and now teaching preschoolers in my studio in Historic Downtown Northport, Long Island has taught me the incredible value of bringing art education to young, developing minds. What I initially thought was an impossible challenge has become the greatest gift of my career. Teaching art to kids builds their critical thinking, observation, and articulation skills. It will enhance their self-esteem, thus guiding them in wanting to continue to look at and interpret various forms of art. There are several principles that I have learned work well in educating children about art, even at an early age. Here are 6 easy things you can do at home to turn a painting, sculpture, or any medium of art into a lesson.

1. Start by creating anticipation.

When children first arrived at the MET, we gathered together before beginning our trek through the museum to find the “treasure” that would be our lesson for the day. I always told the children what wing of the museum we would be going to in order to create anticipation. At home, you can do the same. If you are introducing a European artist, let them know a bit about him or her so that your child can begin to create a picture in their mind. Let them know where this piece is currently being displayed. Pretend you are traveling there to see this piece. Be excited to create excitement in them! 

2. Ask them what they see.

Once you show them the piece, ask them what they see. This open ended question will engage the child to start the conversation. Art is about the experience of seeing it from a fresh prespective and interpreting what is seen. So encourage your child to examine and then articulate what they see in paintings and sculptures.

Asking other open ended questions such as, “What do you think the artist wanted you to know? What do you think the artist wanted to tell you? Why would you think that? Why would he paint this? What would you call this piece?” will continue to build their skills in observation and interpretation while developing critical thinking skills. 

3. Direct their eye.

One of my favorite ways to do this is by playing “I Spy.” Typically, I want to direct their attention to things like lines, colors, shapes, value, form, texture, and space. Many of these art elements are already familiar to young children, and by helping them to identify these elements they are guided to continue to look at and interpret paintings over time. 

Let’s look at Paul Cezanne’s painting “The Card Player” as an example.

You could ask a question such as: 

“Can you find any shapes in this picture?”

On close inspection, a young child will be able to see that the face of the card player on the right side of the painting is a cone, the arms of the players are cylinders and the bodies are cubes. Then, you simply have to continue the game:

“What else can we find?”

4. Help them to connect with the art.

Once a child is able to identify what is happening in the picture, they can now look for the connection to their own life and experience. When a child sees the shapes in the picture, they can learn to see the shapes in the world around them, in their home, in nature. Their knowledge of art will shape their view of the world.

You may say to the child, “Let’s look for the cone, the sphere, and the cylinder in nature today.” This will encourage them to not only remember what they’ve learned from one piece of art but also help them to continue to look at other works of art with confidence.

5. Ask them how the art makes them feel.

Art is meant to create an emotional response. Having a conversation about the effect art has on us will not only bring you and your child closer together, but it will also help them to express themselves.

6. Experience the art together.

Once you have finished discussing the art, try to have your own “interaction” with it. At the museum, we often sketched the piece. You can also try acting it out, writing about it, or recreating it.

You don’t have to be an art history major to enjoy art. And you don’t have to be an expert to talk about it. Hopefully these tips have given you the tools and confidence to talk about it freely. Art is meant to be enjoyed by all, and you can help your kids to enjoy it by exposing them to it at a young age.

I met Lena when we lived in NYC and started joining her class, “Start with Art,” at the MET. I can confidently say that my children love art because of Lena and her authentic approach to teaching them. She inspired them to think about art in a way that has carried them for many years afterwards. I have so much gratitude to her for opening their world through art.

Cynthia Holt, Learn + Live Letter Co-founder
Lena Massari Sawyer, Art Educator
Lena Massari Sawyer, Art Educator

Lena Massari-Sawyer is a former Museum Educator for over 25 years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She has worked primarily with young preschool children, teaching them about art history and studio art. She hold a Bachelors degree in Art History from the University at Buffalo and did her graduate work at New York University.

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