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Saturday, September 3, 2016

Teaching Your Children About Art

From painting to sand castles, outdoor museums to Bloom's Taxonomy
As with all forms of teaching, the art endeavor boils down to what, when, and how. In each case let me emphasize that this is by no means the ultimate word on the subject. This is not intended for art instructors (who should already know instinctively all I mention here). It's not for artists who happen to be parents. These words are for parents who know little about art but who want to assure themselves that their children don't share that family trait. This is for parents who want to learn about art along with their children, avoiding major pitfalls while having a degree of control as to their offspring's art education. It's also an introduction to parental home schooling in art. (I should also note that all the parental rules mentioned below become less rigid as the child passes into his or her teen years.) To the above three factors, I also hope to shed light on why each is important.
Art is messy, but most of all art has to be FUN.
To begin at the beginning, there are few rules for the youngest of children in learning about art--don't eat the crayons; paint tastes yucky; be careful you don't poke someone's eye out with that pencil; if you make a mess, you clean it up. For parents, however, there are far more rules. The first rule, and the most overriding of them all is that: Art is fun. For children, from pre-school well up into adolescence, the moment art ceases to be fun, is the moment learning STOPS. The moment art becomes work, learning STOPS. The moment the art product becomes more important than the acquisition of knowledge, understanding, and skills, learning STOPS. Therefore, greatest challenge parents face in teaching their children about art is to "first, do no harm" by maintaining the "fun" aspect in all their teaching efforts.

Paint tastes yucky.
The second most important rule for parents has to do with when to teach what. This rule simply states: Age has little to do with a readiness for learning. No one on earth knows more about "reading" a child than his or her parents. The key here is not chronological age but personality, attitude, and most important of all, the child's perceived intelligence. By that I don't mean some IQ score. Save that for the professionals. Creativity and self-expression are important clues, both being attributes of intelligence for which numbers mean little. This is not about how to teach a child to draw and paint. For young children, those skills are merely a method of teaching about art--a means of maintaining the "fun" aspect. It's axiomatic among educators of all stripes; real learning (especially in children) occurs only when that which is being taught has importance to the learner. Some children can be taught eye-hand coordination at a surprisingly early stage; but first they must be taught to value eye-hand coordination without losing the element of playing with art (fun).

Non-representational Abstract Expressionism.
Abstract Expressionism does not
necessarily mean non-representational.
The third and fourth rules for parents to remember go hand in hand and may, at first glance, seem contradictory: All child-ren's art is abstract expres-sionism. Expressionism, abstract or otherwise, is the filtering of reality through the child-artist's mind into or onto a fixed media. The fourth rule is that Realism is the only valid standard by which children's art can be evaluated. You see why the two rules seem contradictory? How-ever, the latter of these is not imposed upon the child by the parents but by the child upon parents. Like his or her parents, the child lives in the real world. Except in rare cases, children universally seek to mimic this real world in their art. And while their art is abstract expressionism, it is seldom non-representational once the child begins to acquire the first vestiges of eye-hand coordination. The problem is that parents often fall into the trap of equating Abstract Expressionism with non-representational art, which is not always the case.

Helping children paint, the art of non-critical questioning.
I wrote a moment ago referring to evaluating children's art. The fifth rule is simply; Don't evaluate children's art directly. By that I mean one-on-one even if the evaluation is quite positive in nature. "That looks nice," simple and harmless as it sounds, is the first step towards the teaching of parent-pleasing behavior (if it comes to that at all, it should be much later). That type of comment is, in any case, rather worthless. It teaches nothing that can benefit the child's future efforts. Moreover, children do not need that kind of art evaluation because they, in fact, provide it themselves. Learning self-evaluation is far superior to direct adult evaluation. The key word there is direct. Of course the parent is going to, almost automatically, evaluate their child's art efforts, often without even realizing it. That's good; it allows the parent to subtly direct the child's learning--to teach. How? Through questioning the child. "What does this mean? Why did you choose to make the face blue? Why is the cow jumping over the moon?" These questions cause the children to think, to express themselves verbally, and ultimately lead to the most important goal--self-evaluation. As the child grows older, a light touch of constructive criticism begins to play a role.

Talk to your kids about art, before it's too late.
Rule number six for parents is this: Lead, don't push. Especially in a home environment, scheduled progress is not only unnecessary, but detrimental to the child. Let the child decide when to move on to other media or in learning more difficult skills. In a school environment art students are, in a sense, mass-produced--products of an "art factory" so to speak. At home, under the guidance of loving parents, they are, in effect, "hand-crafted." That's not to say parents have no role in guiding the progress of their children's art education. They do, but the important factor here is subtlety. Repeated trips to various art museums in which parents and their children study art together is an example of subtle guidance. Not only do such events reinforce within children a feeling for the importance of art to the parents (and thus to themselves), but they also serve to spark new interests in both content and media for the kids. Museum visits likewise make learning art history fun provided parents guide their future Picassos to areas appropriate to their learning level. For younger children, limit such visits to no more than half a day. (Frequency is more important than longevity.) It also helps to top off each visit with one to the museum's gift shop and snack bar.

Starry Night, 1888, Vincent van Gogh
And finally, one rule having to do with what to teach: Teach about art and artists. This rule collides head-on with rule number one. Art history and appreciation are seldom thought of as a "fun" art activity. The museum visits discussed above are one answer to that quandary. Another is exposing children to current working artists as in "art in the park" shows. As for the art and artist of the past, administer this type of learning in small doses as inspiration for some type of creative art activity. (Keep in mind, historic dates mean virtually nothing to most adults, much less to small children.) For younger children art history and appreciation means one artist and only one work at a time by that artist. Start with Vincent van Gogh, for instance. Use his Starry Night (above) or his Bedroom in Arles (below) for example (but not both at the same time). These are paintings children can easily identify with. By all means mention that van Gogh cut off part of his ear and gave it to his "girlfriend," (but be prepared to answer, "why?"). Kids love such macabre details. It's just such trivia about artists which makes them human, which makes them fun, and thus makes them memorable. (In this day and age, think twice about discussing van Gogh's suicide.)

Bedroom in Arles, 1888, Vincent van Gogh
As one moves up to teaching older children about art, it's almost unavoidable that you and they are going to encounter nudity. This is not a hard and fast rule like the others, but merely a guideline: mention that nudity is not a sin; that in art, nudity does not always equate to sex; that artists find nude bodies (don't say naked) to be beautiful because God made them that way to encourage procreation. Depending upon the child, nude art should be first presented before puberty, and, as with all art history, administered in small doses. A painting of Adam and Eve (below) is a good place to start.

The Temptation of Eve, 1508-12, Michelangelo