Thursday, January 7, 2010

How young is too young for the SAAM?

Edited to mention that this sublime painting is "The Girl I Left Behind" by Eastman Jackson, on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC.

I don't go back to class for another week, so I've been filling my days with the kinds of stuff that is hard to get done when the semester is in full swing: I took the car in for a tune-up, went to the dentist, deep-cleaned the fridge...that kind of thing.

But I also went on a field trip with my son's 4th grade class to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I am so grateful any chance I get to go on a trip with them. Especially an art museum! Especially THIS art museum! Just to be in that building (the third oldest in DC, home of the first patent office, locale of President Lincoln's inaugural ball, home of the stunning new Kogod Courtyard) is enough reason to go, and then the art collection is jaw-dropping. Check it out here.

These fourth graders are getting pretty sophisticated. They were asked to walk through the museum for 1 1/2 hours, pausing to contemplate about 12 different works of art, and they did it. When they were asked for their input, they said things like, "The colors are vibrant." I don't think I knew the word "vibrant" in the 4th grade, ya know? They were great kids, a pleasure to tour with, and I think most of them gained a lot from the experience.

Since I am studying the education of little guys, they were on my mind as we made our way through the SAAM. Could I bring Kindergarteners here? What would I show them? How long could they last? What could I do in advance to prepare them?

My children's school takes the Kindergarteners to the farm. (And that's a terrific field trip. We all love it. Nothing wrong with going to the farm.) It's not until 4th grade that they take them to the art museum. And that seems reasonable to me.

But I didn't always live in the shadow of the Washington Monument. I'm a relative newcomer here, so I'm keenly aware of what a gift it is to be able to hop on a school bus, gaze at a few American treasures, and be back in time for lunch. You can go to a farm in virtually any corner of the US, but there are unique opportunities available when you live here.

So, how could I prepare a group of really young students to get something out of a resource like the SAAM? Perhaps we could study a particular medium, and try it many times ourselves, and talk about the life of a particular artist....and THEN go on the field trip. And only see two or three things before we regroup in the Courtyard (which is its own artistic achievement) to engage in a portable art project of some kind, and a snack. Then perhaps view one more work, then get back on the bus. And go on a January weekday, as we did, when we pretty much had the place to ourselves.

Have you tried taking little ones to a place like this, that requires prepping? How did it go? Does it sound like a good use of time and energy?


  1. I did that same tour two summers ago with my daughter's 5th grade class and had a similar experience.

    I've never taken my preschoolers to an art museum, but I used to take my daughter to the Seattle Art Museum (and others) when she was between 18 months and 3. I think there may be less to do to prepare the children as there is to prepare one's own expectations.

    For instance, I learned to invest in a season pass so I never felt like I was wasting money if she wanted to look at one painting then leave. We went to SAM regularly and she developed a fondness for certain paintings. We would usually find those and sit in front of them, and make up stories about them. We also made up our own names for the paintings as well. (One of them depicted Jesus throwing the money changers from the temple. She named it "Jesus Whacking Those Guys.")

    When we went to new museums it often frustrated me that she wouldn't stop and ponder each painting as we passed it, but would instead motor through the place, barely seeming to notice things. After awhile, however, I figured out that she liked to get sort of an "overview," then go back and find certain pieces that caught her eye. I'll never forget one installation at the Henry Gallery that incorporated several video monitors depicting various female body parts as if she'd been chopped up. It almost made me feel queasy, but Josephine stood there laughing and laughing.

    I have so much more to say about this post, but I've already left a book in your comments!

  2. "...less to do to prepare the children as there is to prepare one's own expectations." SO TRUE, Tom. Thank you for your insights. I've been to the Henry (I went to UW, years ago) and I remember photos of children with superimposed puppy eyes that also made me a little queasy. Love your daughter's reaction!

  3. When I lived in NY we would travel by rail to the city with the preschoolers. An experience in itself. Expectations is the key... have none and you will have a great time... have to many and it will never live up to the picture you have in your head. Extra Hands... that's the can never have enough help with young children.
    We also set up an Art Museum in the Hall of our School and had a couple dry runs... it was amazing how the kids would tell their siblings (big or small) how to behave in "their" museum. They would find joy in explaining certain pieces (usually their own) to anyone who would listen.
    My motto is never rule anything out just because it isn't the norm. We need more teachers out there to think out of the box :)

  4. Michelle, I LOVE the idea of a class-created art gallery, for so many reasons...what a terrific idea. Thank you!

  5. I have taken a group of Preschoolers to the Indianapolis art museum. They actually had a program specifically designed for this age and they gave us the tour and did a great job making the tour age appropriate. My students loved it and they were well behaved. I enjoyed it too. I took 27 four year olds:)

  6. By the way - I left a little award on my fingerplay blog for you. I wanted to share your blog with others! Just accept it as a compliment to all your efforts here! Thanks - Deb

  7. Deborah, what a great story. 27 four-year-olds! Yes, age appropriate-ness is the key to so much!

    Oh my goodness, you made my day! Thank you so much for the mention on your Fingerplay blog! Yippee!