Guns & Roses: Learning to Look with Children

Today’s guest blogger is Susan Diachisin, the Kelli and Allen Questrom Director of the Center for Creative Connections.

I am writing from my perspective as a mother with an elementary age child. During the work week, I am the Kelli and Allen Questrom Director of the Center for Creative Connections. Having that title puts a bit of pressure on me. All of my friends think my child must love going to the art museum, because I work there. The truth is, I still have to drag him to the galleries in the art museum. I also have a difficult time trying to get him to look at works of art for a long time. This, however, does not keep me from trying. Learning from the museum is one of the most important things I can teach him.
 
One thing that is necessary to enjoy being in the art museums is the skill of close looking. This is something I was able to teach my son from an early age. It happened relatively easily once I was able to put away my own agenda and really pay attention to what interested him. For example, when I took my son on walks in his stroller, he would always reach out to touch things as we were passing them by: a wall, a fence, bushes, a pole, etc. My first reaction was to swerve away to help his hand to avoid injury or germs. Then, one day, I paused and realized he only wanted to explore—“looking” through touch. The walk wasn’t so much about my physical exercise anymore; it was about me helping my child explore the world in his own way. From then on, I stopped at every different texture and material so he could feel it. I would use words to simply name it: wall, fence, red, shiny, flowers, hard, green, prickly, soft, etc.

When he got a little older, the game became “I Spy”. Strolling or driving along, we tried to spot all the various characteristics of our neighborhood. I would model the answers so that the “spying” became a game of naming things with descriptions attached, such as colors, size and textures: blue houses, green tall grass, big pink flowers, rough tree bark, shiny pickup truck, etc. I always asked him to look at the sky and the clouds to tell me what color they were. Of course, blue and white came up often, but sometimes I would ask him to “look again.” Is the sky really blue today? As the sun was setting we noticed that the sky can be many different colors; orange and pink, with purple clouds etc. That kind of discovery reemerged later when he was drawing with colored markers. I was pleased when he didn’t always make a blue sky.

As he got older, he began showing me things he was interested in looking at. Our conversations were still about our careful looking, but the descriptions became much more detailed. I also began to ask questions that would probe for what he saw. If it was an insect he found, I would ask him to tell me what colors it was, and to count how many legs it had. What kind of insect was it? What were the shapes of its body? What did he think that kind of bug ate? He now has a wonderful collection of insects and other interesting things that he has  found on his adventures.

The older my son gets, the more sophisticated his looking becomes. Over the weekend we were in the hill country. As we took walks down the road, we looked at the foliage to see how many shades of green there were in the landscape. My son now notices or “sees” a lot of details I may overlook. He is excellent at drawing and I am convinced it is because he has become very good at close looking. His ability to look carefully carries over into other parts of his life. He remembers visual details in movies and accurate views from places we’ve visited. This weekend, he was nicknamed “Sharp Shooter.” He shot a .22 caliber rifle for the first time in his life. He was the only kid in the group that hit the stacked can of beans with every bullet in the cartridge. Shooting a gun was not what I intended to write about, but I am convinced my son’s experience had to do with being capable of careful looking.

When I do convince my son to come to the museum, I bribe him to go to the galleries by telling him there are monsters and warriors to see. We never spend more than a short time in front of a work of art or in the galleries. I try to take him to see different things, but sometimes we just walk around. Similar to the discovery of touching when he was a baby, I let him lead the journey and discover what he wants to look at. To be honest, most times I cannot get him to stop and look in the way I think we should be studying works of art. At the time, I am never quite sure how the visit will end or if it’s worth it. But when we get home and he tells his father of our visit by describing a work of art in great detail, as well as its location, I know the careful looking pays off. He is actually taking in more than I think.

On a daily basis I speak to many people in the museum who describe being “dragged” to art museums when they were children. They now love the art museums and learn so much from their experiences. So, I am not going to avoid taking him to museums. I am quite sure my son will become more comfortable in the galleries and want to go in on his own. Eventually, I believe there will be a time when I will be the one having to drag him out!

Posted by: Susan

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