Why be a teacher when you can be a guide?
Art history is not like math. It's not a subject you need to "teach" in a traditional way. In fact, I suggest you forget all about teaching when you and your kids are exploring art history together, and think of yourself as their guide instead!
I’ve taken lots of art history classes, and I loved them all. But the things I remember to this day are the little “fun facts” that a docent, volunteer, or chatty security just casually shared with me in passing as they noticed me looking at a piece of art in a museum.
I love this approach, and I intentionally used it when I began to introduce my own kids to art history (when they were 3 and 5). We’d gone to museums since they were infants, but it was more of a wander around and causally chat kind of experience.
When I decided to start introducing them to artists and concepts, I didn’t sit them down and “teach” them anything. Instead, we’d read a children’s story book about the artist (or I’d tell a story that would pique their interest if I couldn’t find a book), then we’d just start creating art in that style, and we’d chat as they painted/drew/sculpted. I’d just weave little informational bits into the conversation, and to my surprise and delight, this sparked their curiosity!
They’d ask questions, we’d continue our chat, and weeks or months later (out of nowhere) one of them would see something that would remind them of what we talked about and they’d recall our discussion and make a connection back to what they learned weeks ago. Not only were they remembering what we talked about, but they were internalizing it, and recalling it in the context of something else that was somehow similar or related.
I was amazed!
These are kids who will forget to brush their teeth at night unless they’re reminded, and yet they were remembering artists, concepts, and discussions.
I knew this “guided tour” approach was definitely working, so I continued.
Occasionally, I set up “invitations” for them to explore. I have no expectation for these invitations, they can take them or leave them. I don’t interfere or coach them to do anything. They are truly open ended, and there is no right or wrong. An invitation might be a vase of sunflowers sitting on the table, with a book about van Gogh, and some watercolors and paper.
I also love to “strew” things around the house for them to discover. I’ll leave something out for them to stumble upon and pick up… a book, an art game, or even just a postcard from the museum shop of an interesting work of painting.
When I do have information I’d like to share with them, I incorporate it in a conversation. I present them with an idea and then I wait.
And wait…. and wait.
I want to hear what they have to say before I go on, because kids only get one chance to form their own idea. If I just tell them everything I know, they’ll listen, and probably even remember a lot of it, but I’ll rob them of the most valuable aspect of their education… becoming a critical thinker by analyzing information and coming to their own conclusions.
I like to begin a new project with a mental list of open-ended questions. My job as their guide is to start a discussion. I want to encourage their creative thinking, curiosity, and stay out of the way as much as possible as they make their own discoveries.
I want to be that chatty museum security guard who unexpectedly saunters over and mentions the most amazingly interesting bit of information in passing... sparking interest, and opening the door to find out more!