By Monica Henry, Education Coordinator
My absolute favorite Clark family program is Start with Art, which serves preschool-aged children and their parents. Younger and older siblings are welcome to join in too, so nobody is left out. We designed Start with Art to introduce young families to museums in a way that, as one parent said, “made me feel comfortable and helped me to understand how to explain art to a child.” Start with Art is all about showing families that visiting a museum can be a fun activity for a family outing.
At each session we offer painting talks to engage children in looking carefully at art, and written gallery discussion guides to spark conversation about the art between parents and their children. We also offer art projects around a theme drawn from the works in our collection. Each session is organized around a different theme that appeals to children. Our January Start with Art event was on “Food and Art.”
Our first priority of the day is to make families feel comfortable and welcomed. We want them to know that we’re excited they’ve come! On the day of the event, Ronna Tulgan Ostheimer (Head of Education Programs), docent Carol Kiendl, our family program volunteer extraordinaire Linda Dragat, and I were all on hand to host.
The first activity on the program was to head to the galleries for a painting talk, which we repeated a little later that morning so that late-comers would have a chance to catch the talk (we know it can sometimes be hard for young families to get out the door on time!). I gave this particular painting talk about The Women of Amphissa, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, which I selected because it is set in an ancient Greek marketplace. Carol Kiendl engaged the children in discussing The Wheatfield by John Constable.I really enjoy giving gallery talks at this program. I guide the group in exploring different sections of the art work, but approach it with a lot of flexibility. Preschool-aged children are excited to tell you about how the image relates to their everyday life. I like to highlight how fun it is to look at details they’ve never noticed before, giving the kids the chance to make discoveries and share their experience with the other children and parents as they talk about what they see.
Talking about art with kids might seem straightforward enough, but engaging children with seemingly complex artworks in a gallery setting can be a tall order for a lot of parents. We want to turn it into a laid-back conversation with their kids, along the lines of: What do you notice? What’s going on in this picture? What do you see that makes you say that? Do you like the picture? Discussing art in general doesn’t have to be hard or complicated, and what we’re trying to do is make it an enjoyable experience.
We share these techniques with parents both by modeling them during the gallery talks and in our written gallery discussion guides. As one parent said, “Start with Art gave me ideas and language for framing a conversation with my child.”
We gave the families some time to do a little exploring in the gallery, and then opened the art room so they could try their hands at “food and art” themed projects. Our masterpiece cookie project was far and away the favorite (who doesn’t love a painting you can eat?). The Clark’s caterer, Steve Wilkinson, made large, rectangular sugar cookies for the kids and supplied icing in four colors—it was the perfect “canvas” for edible pictures.
In another art-making project, kids snipped pictures from magazines and collaged their own stir-frys. We also offered the kids metallic markers and self-stick “gemstones” and let them go to town decorating wooden eggs with fancy stands.
When we design art projects for each Start with Art session (and our Family Days) we try to provide a variety of tactile experiences and motor tasks. If two of the three projects involve the same task, we’ll scrap one and choose another that provides opportunity for the kids to move their hands in another way and problem-solve from another angle. It’s best to have a variety of materials to look at on the table, and the tactile experience of reaching into the bowls and touching the materials is also important. Are these materials interesting to touch? Do they catch the eye? We also try to bring in things kids haven’t played with before. Are these materials the kids would usually have at home or at school? If the answer is yes, we usually look for another option. The bottom line is that the process of making the projects is more important than the finished product.
Start with Art facilitates meaningful interaction between parents, grandparents, and children through gallery conversations and creative collaboration in the art room. Preschoolers are a curious, enthusiastic bunch, and we love to encourage their ideas, questions, and creativity!
We hope you’ll join us this Saturday, February 11 from 10 am to 12 pm for our next Start with Art program, this time on the theme “Animals.”
Can’t make it this weekend? We’ll also host a “Flowers and Plants”-themed program on Saturday, March 10!
Linnea Keiser-Clark, Finnegan Noyes and Liam Noyes working away
Henry Bradway (child) and Kim and Rich Bradway and Natasha Nugent (child)
Lawrence Alma-Tadema (British, 1836–1912), The Women of Amphissa, 1887. Oil on canvas,
121.9 x 182.9 cm. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts (1978.12)
Erin and Linnea Keiser-Clark
Zamir Ashraf eating his “paint”
Finnegan and Liam Noyes showing off their art-making skills
Loghan Strzepa working on her stir-fry collage at a table adapted for preschool height