One of the questions that I get asked often is an art gallery docent is “how do I talk to kids about art?” This is obviously not a simple answer and of course, every child is different. But over the years, I’ve definitely found some things helpful when talking to kids about art. So whether you are a teacher, parent, docent, or anybody who wants to talk to kids about art – here are some tips and ideas that I have to communicate more effectively with kids when it comes to art.
Number one: try to talk to kids like how you would talk to an adult.
Now hear me out. I really believe it’s important to not talk down to children.You really shouldn’t be “dumbing it down.” Okay, depending on the age of the child, I might try to not use vocabulary that was too complex for them, and of course, if you believe the topic is not aging appropriate then you can, of course, choose to talk about something else.
But beyond that, it definitely is possible to talk to a child the same way you would an adult about a work of art. For example, when I talk about the paintings of Canadian artist Emily Carr – I would often address how many indigenous villages along the Pacific northwest coast, subject in many of her paintings, were devastated by colonial conflicts and disease, resulting in a population declining of over 90%. If I’m talking to a group of children about this instead of adults – I really think I could tell them the same thing, because it’s important for them to know and talk about this part of our nation’s history.
Number two: show children concepts and ideas that they’re familiar with.
For example, most kids like to see images of other kids, animals, and family activities. But what they’re interested in doesn’t have to be limited to those things. For example, if a child likes automobiles, then you can show them paintings, photographs, or sculptures of cars, trains or other transportation themes. A while ago we had artist Kim Adams’ Artist Colony at the Art Gallery of Ontario and I must say – kids just flocked to this thing. And because they’re children and they’re curious – many of them naturally had questions and just wanted to know more.
Number three: you don’t have to know anything about the art to be able to talk about it.
Often what I hear from parents and teachers is that they’re afraid that they don’t know enough facts about the art to talk about it. But as I showed in one of my other videos – you don’t have to know anything about a work of art in order to talk about it. Along with the child, you can make the observation about the artwork’s physical appearances, medium, subject matter, take a stab at the narrative, and relate it to other things you’ve seen. For these types of observations, there’s really no right or wrong answers.
It’s more about sharpening your observation and interpretation skills, and those are skills that are important for both children and adults to develop and improve. And in my experience of talking to both children and adults – in general children, actually kind of seem naturally more imaginative, natural story-tellers, and are less afraid to share their ideas. Usually when I ask a group of adults “oh what do you see in this painting?” the majority of them are either too shy or too afraid to say anything or are afraid they’re going to say something wrong or stupid. Whereas most children are usually eager to answer the question and are usually more honest about their feelings.
Number four: If a child is young and is just starting to learn about art, you can use this as a way to teach them general art concepts, like what is an oil painting?
What’s the difference between an original painting and a reproduction? Why is art valuable? What’s the difference between an acrylic painting and a watercolor? Again, this is a good opportunity for them to make observations and use their interpretation skills.
Number five: use art to talk about a broader subject that doesn’t have to be art related.
This can be many different things and this is where art can have endless possibilities. For example, you can use paintings from the 19th century that depict industrial landscapes to talk about the impacts and effects of the industrial revolution. You can use portraits of people form a specific time period to talk about the historical fashions of that time period. You can use nudes paintings and sculptures to teach a child about the human body and anatomy. Or you can use depictions of ecological and industrial landscapes to address present-day concerns human have with the environment.
And again these are topics that you can talk to an adult about or a child about. Having children experience art has a lot of great benefits. It’s a place where being “right” or “wrong” is not usually the most important, or in some cases important at all. And it’s a place where you can be creative and develop your imagination. And these are skills that are not only important to maintain during your childhood, your teenage years, but also throughout your adult life. So I encourage you to come to a museum yourself, take your child to an art museum, take your students to an art museum and see for yourself. Just don’t touch the art.