Thursday, February 11, 2010

Art Museums and Toddlers.

Our AWCB quarterly magazine asked me to write something about toddler travel for the upcoming edition. I decided to write about the rewards of taking toddlers to art museums. Here is my draft thus far. I welcome your feedback!
Art Museums and Toddlers. Anyone would be quick to say these two don’t mix – and shouldn’t. But I am a firm believer that they can and should. When we moved to Belgium it was a stretch to get me, a grown up, to concentrate in art museums. So I didn’t hold out much hope for my busy toddler to appreciate them one bit. But as with art, toddlers sure can surprise you! Our daughter, Connor, grew through her baby milestones in Europe’s finest art museums. What a rare and beautiful blessing for her and for us. It was not always peaceful or easy, but the collective experience is a textbook lesson in patience, creativity, and looking within art to see the unexpected.

Here are my top 10 recommendations for viewing art masterpieces through the eyes of a toddler and enjoying it!

1. . 1. 1. Recognize your child’s current life stage and relate art accordingly. Initially Connor loved animals so we made games out of hunting for the “cows” and the “horses” in artwork. You would be amazed at how many animal friends the masters painted. Art museum animal scavenger hunts can be a barrel of fun. Similarly, when Connor was potty-training we had a ball finding and pointing out all the “ladies who forgot their big girl pants!” in the Realist nude works. And then peeling into laughter over that forgotten underwear.

2. Smile at the docents. They might follow you skeptically and nervously from room to room, fearful of little fingers and loud noise. Which in turn will make you nervous. But we always had Connor say a hearty “Bonjour/Ola/Guten Tag!” to each one in every room and went about our way. If the docents see you engage your child in the art that will help everyone relax.

3. Have your child identify emotions within art. As Connor has grown more aware of fear, sadness, and joy we have been able to spot those same feelings in art. I cannot think of a more rewarding way to learn about what smiles, tears, and goose bumps are. A thoughtful ‘Mona Lisa’ or a happy ‘Girl with the Pearl Earring’ are fun adjectives to assign with a little one in tow. Or take it one step further and discuss with children what the artist must have been thinking or feeling to paint a particular subject or style.

4. Spot your travels or springboard itineraries from art. We live in Europe for goodness sake! Smack dab in the heart of where these masterpieces were painted and inspired. We found several Impressionist paintings of France’s Etretat coastline in the Musee D’Orsay just weeks after running along the real beach. Visiting Monet’s Giverny home in conjunction with seeing his Water Lilly collection at Paris’ Orangerie Museum could not make a more perfect match.

5. Find your favorite. We make ‘finding our favorite’ painting or sculpture a game in our family. It gives a reason to tune in and pay attention to art. Connor has to make a decision and we talk about why she preferred her favorite. Then we go to the gift shop and locate the corresponding postcard. What a simple 50 cent way to engage your child – while also avoiding wanting more expensive shop toys and gadgets. We tape our postcards all over the walls in our toilet room. Connor spots her favorites every time she is in there and inevitably asks if we remember “the Dancers, the Kiss, or the Scream.”

6. Seek out Bible Stories. Connor and I have completely fallen for the many reproductions of “The Adoration of the Magi” all over Europe. Adam and Eve, Noah, Mary, David and Goliath. They are all out there, along with the ever present Baby Jesus. I am elated that Connor is learning her Bible stories through artwork. Stories and connections of all faiths and beliefs abound.

7. Reproduce your favorite pieces at home. My Connor is still a little young for this project, but as a child my art teacher would show us a Van Gogh and have us duplicate our interpretation. To this day Starry, Starry Night feels more alive because I painted it with my own color and style.

8. Laugh together at the absurd. The Brussels’ new Magritte Museum in the Musee des Beaux Arts is open and free the first Wednesday of each month. That is where you will find us after naptime. Connor thinks Magritte’s Surrealist style is hilarious. “An apple on a man’s nose, that’s silly!” “Houses stacked atop each other, that’s silly!” I may think Magritte’s work bizarre and confusing. But my daughter thinks it could not be funnier.

9. Expect some tantrums. As with all things toddler, meltdowns happen. Just a fact of life. I try to be prepared with snacks and drinks. And to identify toilet locations first on the museum maps before venturing in. Sometimes bathrooms can be quite a hike through the gallery halls. Distract and negotiate as it seems necessary, but art museums will not always be a fit. Do not let one bad experience keep you from trying again.

10. Build your rhythm. Art is important! The more art museums we go in the more familiar Connor is with what to expect. How to act. And our routines. The arts are vital to our children. Through them they learn color, emotion, and interpretations of history. Here’s hoping early exposure will help our budding artist appreciate all the world has to teach and inspire in her.

Click here for final version of this article published in AWCB's Rendez Vous

Here are some of our favorite European art museums:

The National Gallery, London

The National Museum, Oslo

The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Belvedere, Vienna

ModeMuseum, Antwerp

Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, Albi

Guggenheim, Bilbao

Musee de l’Orangerie, Paris

Uffizi, Florence

Musee Magritte Museum, Brussels

Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid

Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Musee Unterlinden, Colmar

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Mauritshuis, The Hague


Louise said...


Stacie B said...

This post, in particular, really needs to get picked up by some kind of syndicated "how to be a more awesome mom" kind of blog...I'm serious!

You are amazing. Connor is a lucky girl.

Jennifer said...

Hi Reid!

Great draft. I like what you've written. I might suggest also that many of the museums in Europe have kids programs - maps, games, treasure hunts etc. that young children can do while touring the museums with their parents. Our boys liked having their own child-oriented brochure at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam for example. When we returned to the service counter at the end of our visit, they each got to pick a postcard to remember their visit. That was pretty neat.

julie said...


itdoesntgetbetterthanthis said...

This is amazing - makes me want to head out to a museum right now! and now I might actually feel comfortable taking Taylor with all of your wonderful tips.

Connor is so lucky to have this experience of traveling with such engaging creative parents!

Sara said...

I need to print this blog entry and have it handy for our upcoming move! Thanks for sharing such excellent advice.

Sara said...

I need to print this blog entry and keep it with us for our upcoming move! Thanks for sharing such excellent advice.

Shannon, Tony, Grayson & Max said...

Awesome article! Somewhat similar to the postcard idea, we would often stop in the museum gift shop before touring a museum and pick up a kids' guide or board book with photos of some of the art we were about to see. Grayson would then be on a scavenger hunt to find each of the pictures in his book.

Wow - you make me really miss Europe! It was such a special time with my little man.