I don’t mean to brag, but our city has some great art museums. Still, I hadn’t considered taking my kids to them. I like my kids to be “cultured,” but the idea of a toddler and preschooler in a room full of masterpieces conjured up some frightening possibilities. So when a friend suggested we take a field trip to a local gallery, I went solely out of peer pressure. Keeping expectations low (and kids inside the stroller), we found a quiet gallery and played a game I knew my children already liked—“I Spy.” They were charmed, and I was relieved!
Since then, we’ve invented our own “gallery games”—kinetic and verbal art museum activities. Different from the wonderful hands-on art projects many museums offer for children, our gallery games are designed for connecting with the art that is already on display.
Packing Your Bag for Fun
Even if your kids have never seen an art museum—aside from the one they created on your refrigerator—this can be fun. As with any new experience, though, kids need prepping. Don’t surprise them with unpleasant details once you’re inside (unless you’re aching for a meltdown). These ideas helped us to make the most of our visit:
1. Brief everyone on museum rules. “Walk, don’t run,” “Don’t touch or sit on anything that might be art,” “Stand at least three feet from the art piece,” and “Use the same voice we use in the library” are fairly universal. Practice these manners beforehand with very young children, and you’ll be ahead of the game.
2. Pack your “tools of the trade.” Some gallery games call for a camera, paper, pencil, or clipboard. Check with your museum in advance to see whether the items are allowed in the galleries. Museums vary widely on their rules about these items. Even if the rules are stringent, don’t worry; plenty of gallery games don’t call for any tools at all.
3. Decide which area you’ll focus on ahead of time. Don’t try to see everything, even briefly. Kids enjoy small doses of in-depth exploring.
4. Know the territory. Visit the museum’s website beforehand, and find out what types of art they display, how the museum is laid out, where the restrooms are, and whether your desired mealtime arrangements (café or space for brown-baggers) are available. Check, too, for any wild cards on particular days—a children’s art festival would be wonderful news, but a remodeling of the main gallery wouldn’t!
1. Art Detectives
This children’s classic works well in any museum. Take turns choosing something from a work of art without telling the others what it is. Give clues about what it might be, like so: “I see something orange.” After each incorrect guess, the clue-giver adds another detail about the chosen object. (“I see an orange square,” and so on.)
For more variety, choose a single color or shape before entering a particular room. Spy that shape in as many works of art as possible. Work in teams to help the youngest players.
2. What’s Your Name Again?
Choose a work of art and cover the plaque beside it. Have each member of your group choose an original title for the work. Then, uncover the actual title on the plaque, and discover who was thinking most like the artist. Kudos also go to group members whose titles tickle your funny bone.
3. An Art Critic Never Forgets!
Find an art work with lots of details (paintings work best). Study the work for a couple of minutes, talking about it together. After the time is up, have all but one group member turn and face away from the painting. The one person still facing the painting becomes the “quizzer,” asking questions to test the group members’ memories of the art. Top honors go to those who answer the most questions correctly—or to the quizzer who stumps the most players.
Have more advanced art students sketch a work of art from memory after a five-minute study period. When satisfied, turn around and compare group members’ masterpieces with the original. Point out details remembered and forgotten. This activity sharpens the eye and creates a cool souvenir.
This game plays especially well in a portrait gallery. Begin with one portrait and “Once upon a time…,” inventing a story about the person depicted. After a few sentences, pass the story to another group member. The plot thickens as group members add other portraits and the details of those characters’ entrance into the tale.
Young children may enjoy hearing an imaginary story about a single work of art. Older children can match their storyline with the details of their chosen artwork (e.g., Is the subject old or young? Rich or poor? African or French?).
5. Everyone’s a Critic!
Ask each group member to choose the “best” art. Take turns persuading each other about the merits of your chosen work. End with a vote. Possible criteria include artistic accuracy, use of color, creativity, importance of the theme, or simply aesthetic pleasure.
6. Strike a Pose
Pose like a subject in a work of art and have other group members guess which art work you depict. In an outdoor sculpture garden, where guests have an extra measure of physical freedom, “pose” near sculptures and take photographs. Can you fool the camera and appear to be resting on a sculpture you’re not actually touching? Can you converse with a statue so convincingly that it seems to be a real person?
If budding art critics leave the museum begging for an encore, don’t hesitate to ask museum employees and volunteers to recommend highlights for another day. Also ask about post-visit activities, such as hands-on art projects, classes, or online resources.
Finally, while gallery games teach enthusiasm and appreciation for art, there’s no need to place artists on a pedestal. Don’t dismiss your little critic’s ideas just because they don’t match the artist’s. Anyone, including children, can develop a creative eye by focusing on shapes, colors, and stories.
These activities build confidence and put smiles on kids’ faces. And that’s a masterpiece worth more than all the fine art in the world.