When setting out to help children learn about art, I think it’s important to spend some time thinking over the subject first – what is the purpose of art, and why should kids study it? To some, art is nice but sort of a fluffy distraction; possibly not even completely necessary to human existence. To others, art is essential and fulfills some specific human needs that can’t be met any other way.
The Purpose of Art
The earliest art – cave drawings and the like – certainly fulfilled some important purposes. This type of art was a record of events, a means of sharing stories, and a way to pass on information. People created primitive art to show the world around them – pictures were usually of animals, birds, plants, and humans in scenes of daily life (especially hunting).
In recent centuries, the visual arts have become more sophisticated. The spoken and written word has become our primary means of communication, so art can be more than just a chronicle of historic events or a way to share stories, although it still can definitely be those things as well.
Through art, artists share their feelings in a way that evokes something from the viewer. The emotions one feels when viewing art may be pleasing or not; you may find a piece of art thought-provoking, challenging, or even distressing. The artist is trying to convey something; it’s up to you to figure out what that is. Art is a conversation between you and the artist; they put themselves into their work, and you bring yourself to your interpretation of it.
Because of the feelings that art can evoke – feelings that usually cannot be brought on by other means – art is indispensable to human existence. Art meets our needs for self-expression, communication, and our desire for connection with other humans across centuries and cultures. It’s important that children know art is important.
What Can Young Children Learn from Art?
Even at a very early age, children can appreciate works of art. They enjoy looking at pictures (photos and paintings) of fruit, flowers, animals, and other popular artistic subjects. Bright colors and sharp contrasts are stimulating visually and aid in brain development.
Older kids begin to notice that art has meaning beyond the images themselves. As they observe the feelings and emotions that works of art evoke, they will see how art can be a way of expression for themselves, too. Studies show that exposure to great art increases a child’s verbal ability, expressiveness, reasoning and logical thinking, and leads to philosophical questioning as a child seeks interpretation and understanding.
Aside from strengthening their verbal and analytical skills, studying art can teach children about design, color, shading, perspective, shadows, lighting, composition, and various artistic techniques. In addition, I find that children begin to view the world around them from an artists’ perspective; everything they see is a potential subject. They are more attuned to details and characteristics of objects, animals, and people.
Finding Art All Around Us
My kids and I frequently visit the Art Institute. One time, when they were little, as we wandered the cavernous halls, we came across an exhibit of furniture from the past 50 years that exemplifies modern design principles. I watched my son’s eyes grow wide as we walked through; afterwards, he looked at me and said, “Mom, I get it now. A couch can be a work of art! A chair can be a work of art!”
It was a really neat moment because he came to that realization completely on his own. So rather than confining our study of art appreciation to painters (which is easy to do), I encourage you to expose children to all kinds of art. They can appreciate a book of calligraphy; a lovely building; an artfully composed photograph; an intricately woven rug; a handpainted vase; or even a beautifully designed website. Once they start looking, they will find art everywhere.
Studying the Visual Arts
Paintings are definitely the largest category of visual art and I think it’s appropriate to spend quite a bit of time on this particular type of art. Additionally, many painters were also skilled in other areas (sculpture, architecture) so studying their paintings leads to studies of other kinds of art as well.
Naturally, the very best way to study a painting is to see it in person. However, that’s not always possible. I do highly recommend taking young children to local art museums and galleries (making sure beforehand that subject matter is age-appropriate). If you don’t live near any, you can work them into your travel or vacation schedule.
One of the most popular ways to learn about art in recent years has been the Child-size Masterpieces Series by Aline Wolf (formerly known as Mommy, It’s a Renoir!). You can Google to find places to buy these cards; you can sometimes find used sets on eBay or Montessori Facebook groups. These books consist of great works of art, postcard size, printed on thick paper. On the backs of the paintings you’ll find the name of the artist, date and place of birth, and some information about them and about the specific painting.
The paintings are arranged in order of difficulty and by school of art (Impressionist, Cubist, etc.) Also, the fact that they all contain information about the artist and paintings is extremely helpful. In some cases, the child will want more info than the cards provide, but at least you will have some basic info on hand as a starting point. The first few sets contain two of each painting so that the child can use them as matching cards.
If you’re unsure about making the investment in the entire Child-size Masterpieces series, I would suggest purchasing the first book and trying it out. If the children enjoy it, you can get another and slowly build your artwork library. This series also comes with an instruction book, but I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary. There’s not much more to presenting the paintings than laying them out on a rug and talking about each, one at a time.
Some people may want to make their own sets of art cards using museum postcards; this is certainly an option and kids will have fun collecting and choosing postcards of artwork to study. Actually, Aline Wolf suggests doing that even if you are using the Masterpieces series, to increase the amount of paintings and artists that you can study. You may also want to add more pictures of art from around the world; the masterpieces set does tend towards European and American artists (although not exclusively).
My son and I worked our way through the entire Child-size Series this past year (his second grade year). He was eager to work with the cards and seemed to be the right age to really understand and absorb the information about each artist. We concentrated specifically on artists and paintings that are found at the Art Institute; by preparing this way, he had a great idea of what to expect on our field trip.
In addition to the art cards, we read quite a few books from the Getting to Know the World’s Great Artists series by Mike Venezia. Each of these delightful (and often hilarious) books tell the story of a great artist, and not only show reproductions of their own artwork but contain Mr. Venezia’s entertaining cartoons illustrating the artist’s life. This makes the books extremely fun to read; indeed, my son literally begged me to read them. There’s also another series by the same author called Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Composers that I highly recommend.
Early on in my teaching career, someone told me that a Montessori teacher should be a renaissance person; that is, skilled in many different areas. That’s a tall order! As with any of the curricular areas, you might feel that you are not equipped to teach art if it’s not something you studied in school. Don’t be afraid! There are so many resources out there – books, websites – and you’ll be learning right alongside the children. If they see that you appreciate art, they will too.