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From Picasso to Picture Books - How To Look at Art With Kids

   Adults often feel that art is difficult to relate to, that it needs explanation, clarification, and ways into discovering its “hidden meaning.” Children, on the other hand, connect seamlessly with art. Encouraging them to learn in and through the arts can do more that just enhance their creative impulses. It can also build critical thinking skills. In fact, children’s responses to art are beneficial in that they provide valuable insight into their thought processes and perspectives about the world in which they live.

   Arts organizations and schools across the country have created arts-related activities, from school visits to after-school programs, that serve to encourage new opportunities for children to think, reason, question, and experiment. Looking at and talking about art among classmates encourages not only language and literacy development, but also communication skills and self-confidence.

   During a school visit, for example, a facilitator who has been trained in inquiry-based teaching strategies may ask students a set of open-ended questions about an image. The question may be as simple as, “What do you see?” After each student’s response, the facilitator paraphrases what was said. Repeating an observation helps to validate the student’s comment and reinforces the notion that her contribution to the discussion was valid. This in turn encourages students to feel comfortable with and confident about sharing observations. The facilitator can then continue the discussion by asking, “What else can we find?”

   Opportunities for your child to talk about art do not need to take place in a classroom or an art gallery. Whether you are looking at a postcard sent by a family relative, a Picasso at the Museum of Modern Art, or a picture book at bedtime, discussion about art can happen at any moment.

Here are some simple tips on how to talk to your children about art: 

Take Time to Look

Make a list of the colors, shapes, and/or lines you can find in an artwork. Pick one or two colors, shapes, or lines from the list and ask how they might contribute to the work overall.

Slow Down

Move at your own pace. Tune in to what excites your child and create opportunities for discovery. A comment like, “What else can you find?” will elicit more responses. The more time you spend looking, the more you will find.

Turn Your Child into a Detective

Play an eye-spy game, where you ask your child to point out as many details as he can. Have him describe the detail as carefully as possible in order for you to guess where the detail is.

Links with Everyday Life

Whenever possible, try to relate the image to what your child already knows. For example, say: “This work has different textures. Texture is the way that something looks and feels. Texture is all around us. Touch your shirt, pants, socks, or shoes. How do they feel?”

Explain Complex Terms in Ordinary Words

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Use concepts that are easy for your child to understand. If you use a difficult word, use an ordinary term to build upon it.

Avoid Judgment

Art is not about “right” or “wrong.” Art is about ideas. The arts teach that there is more than one solution to an answer. If your child’s observation surprises you, ask: “What do you see in the work that makes you say that?”

Look Together

Approach your discussion about a work of art from the standpoint that you will learn from each other.

Try This at Home

Try this activity with your child at home. Take a moment to look carefully at an image; it could be a painting or a photograph, but this exercise works better if it includes people. Do the following together.

• Make a list of the colors you see in the artwork. How does the artist use color to draw us in to the picture?

• How many people are there in this picture? What are they doing?

• Where is this scene?

• What is the weather like? How can you tell?

• Works of art are sometimes divided into foreground (the view closest to us), middle ground, and background (distance). Describe what is happening in the foreground and background of the image.

• Write a story or a poem from the perspective of one of the people in the photograph.

Asking kids what they see helps to teach language skills, while providing opportunities for reflection, creative expression, and discovery. More important than building critical thinking, looking at art with your kids provides a special moment to relate to your child’s everyday life and to share a personal learning experience.

DANIELLE CAVANNA earned her M.A. at Boston University and her Ed.M. at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is currently director of education at the Westport Arts Center, a Westport, CT-based visual and performing arts organization offering educational programs including interactive gallery tours, after-school and weekend workshops, summer arts camp, birthday parties, and, new this year, WACky Family Sundays. Contact Cavanna at [email protected]. The Westport Arts Center is at