Visual literacy is a critical skill, especially for anyone interested in new media and technology, but it's often misunderstood as simplistic. When speaking, we get most of our communication clues visually. As we travel, negotiate space, watch television, surf the web -- we use our visual literacy skills. Unfortunately, the concept of teaching and enhancing visual literacy is often disregarded. Still, I have been championing and even teaching courses in visual literacy and media literacy during the last ten years.
One of the reasons we spend so much time in art museums as a family is because my husband and I understand the importance of visual literacy and the extraordinary impact of visual and design sense within our culture. We have been taking our son to art museums since he was just a few months old. For years, he toured museums from the comfortable vantage point of a stroller. Now he strolls through museums as we all go around somewhat independently and somewhat as a group. I strongly believe that most children can be taken to museums when they are young and can continue to go throughout their teen-age years. But both parents and museums need to work on socializing children on how to handle the experience. Some museums are better than others. Going to your local children's museum is a good place to start. But that shouldn't be where you stop.
Parents who want advice on helping children with understanding art will find many books that will help them learn about specific artists, some art museums, and how to talk about art. Here are a few:
How to Talk to Children about Art by FranCoise Barbe-Gall. a good guide for parents to read before visiting an art museum and answers to common children's questions.
Faces, Places and Inner Space by Jean Sousa Using the Art Institute of Chicago's collection, this book helps children understand art through a cultural perspective.
Seen Art? by Jon Scieszka. About a boy wandering around the Museum of Modern Art.
Babar's Museum of Art. by Laurent De Brunoff. Uses Babar the elephant as a guide through art in this pleasant over-sized picturebook.
The Smart About Art series has books about specific artists including Van Gogh, Picasso, Degas, Kahlo and Monet.
Come Look with Me: Enjoying Art with Children by Gladys Blizzard. This book encourages looking at details about specific paintings. It is part of the Come Look with Me series.
Museum ABC from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The Art Institute of Chicago has several online lesson plans for teachers that parents might also find useful. Check out the thoughtful ideas for lesson plans about the nude in art, which is something you have to deal with when taking children to art museums.
I'm writing this entry about art in part as a response to a comment on my previous post about renting audio tours. The commentor has an interesting blog about his weekly visits to the Art Institute with many images from the Cezanne to Picasso show. I wanted to add a context for my reasons for recommending the audio tours. While it is wonderful to wander museums at any age, visiting a big, highly promoted, blockbuster-style exhibit like this one seems to demand a different style of viewing. First, most people have paid extra for the tickets so they feel they should get a higher quality experience, i.e. no screaming children. Second, my son, like most younger children will have difficulty reading the annotations on the walls, yet often wants me to read them outloud. One of the unwritten rules seems to be no talking around great art, so when I read aloud people find it rude. These kind of exhibits in general demand a different style of behavior. That's why renting an audio tour seems to work so well because it helps my son hear what he cannot read, it helps him be quiet among older adults (he was one of 5 kids when we were in the show), it causes him to look intently at the images and as a result he is given a respectful, and closer, viewing of the paintings by the older adults, and it helps him learn something about the art. Consequently, we were able to spend a good 1 1/2 hours in a show while we saw another boy slightly older than our son be fidgety and force his father to run through the show.
In general, taking children to art museums, or any museum, can be a wonderful learning experience. But it needs to be set within a context and everyone needs to consider how children and their parents together can have an interesting visit.