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Mendo Lake Family Life

I Spy a Van Gogh

By Mary Ellen Bardsley and Tracy Galuski

Art museums are full of wonder. If, during the winter months, you and your children need a creative break, consider exploring a local one or even taking a virtual field trip to a museum abroad. Even very young children can be drawn to the images portrayed through art. Here are some tips to make a museum trip fun for the whole family.

1. Choose a museum. Locate the art museums in your community and check out their websites, noting special hours for families or discounted days.

2. Research it. Use a museum’s website to explore its exhibits, including photographs and background information. This will not only help you plan what you want to see, but also help you determine if there are exhibits that are inappropriate for young children. Note if there are children’s areas that have opportunities for making art.

3. Prepare your child for the visit. Talk about how people act in the museum and what you might see on your visit. Use the museum’s website to offer a preview of the building and art. You can even use website images to create a personalized scavenger hunt document. Consider reading museum-oriented children’s books, such as Anthony Browne’s The Shape Game (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003) or David Goldin’s Meet Me at the Art Museum (Harry N. Abrams, 2012). 

4. Focus on the highlights. Many people assume that it’s necessary to look at all the exhibits in a museum. This can be exhausting! Instead, choose exhibits that reflect your children’s interests, or choose one or two items in a space to examine. For example, if your child loves animals and the museum has a feature on western landscapes, check that exhibit for paintings that include horses or cattle. If the museum includes outdoor exhibits, consider taking a break outside. A bit of skipping or running may re-energize everyone. 

5. Select a few games to play. Games help children to focus. Here are a few of our favorites:

• What Do You See? To encourage children to engage with the art, find an interesting image and ask them, “What do you see?” Paraphrasing the children’s responses lets them know you understand them. Preschoolers and older kids like to use images to make up stories. Images of people, landscapes, etc. especially lend themselves to this whereas abstract images encourage creative meaning-making.

• I Spy. In this game, a child focuses on an image, statue, or other art piece and doesn’t share what it is. To provide clues to an object’s identity, the child uses the phrase, “I spy something ______ with my little eyes.” The child fills in the blank with a color, shape, or other attribute, and then it’s up to you or the group to take turns guessing what the child sees. 

• Scavenger Hunt. At home before your visit, or once you’ve checked in to the museum, create a list of objects and people for kids to locate in the museum’s paintings. For example, if you know the museum is hosting an exhibit on art depicting families, your list might include a baby, a rocking chair, a dog, a mustache, a vase of flowers, and a woman wearing a gown. Create an age-appropriate list for each child or work together as a group on one list. You can use word- or picture-based lists with varying numbers of items. 

It can also be fun and challenging to choose one artwork and see how many items on the list are in it. 

6. Follow up. Keep exploring the museum’s art even after you leave. Review pictures from your visit, or even create your own book or story about the visit. You can also explore art materials or techniques that the visit inspired. 

7. Go virtual. Many art museums offer virtual explorations. The Benaki Museum in Athens, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and the Louvre in Paris have online archives. And the Metropolitan Museum of Art offers #MetKids, which was designed for, with, and by children. 

Tracy Galuski, PhD, has worked in the field of early childhood education for many years, serving as a teacher for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and elementary schoolers. Currently she is a professor at SUNY Empire in the department of educational studies. She is author of two books, Open-Ended Art for Young Children co-authored with Mary Ellen Bardsley, PhD,  and School’s Out: Challenges and Solutions for School-Age Programs.

Mary Ellen Bardsley, PhD, is recently retired from Niagara University, where she was a professor of early childhood education. She is the author of two books, including Open-Ended Art for Young Children (with Tracy Galuski), and presents regularly at state and national conferences.