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Art Appreciation for Little Artists

Copyright BabyClassroom

For many of us, the term "art appreciation" evokes images of darkened lecture halls, pompous professors, and tedious discussions of paintings and sculptures we may or may not find appealing. Hardly a topic for preschoolers, much less toddlers.

But art appreciation doesn't have to be stuffy. Exploring the world through art comes naturally for most children, and learning about art can help them develop cognitive, social and creative skills that go far beyond a box of Crayolas.

Creating Art
Creating art is one of the richest experiences in a young child's life. When he scribbles with crayon, squishes clay, or makes a mess with fingerpaints, he's learning to express himself creatively and confidently. "Art or the ideas behind art might not have a particular wording or language," says Ann S. Epstein, Ph.D., Director of Early Childhood for the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation. "Especially for young children, who are just developing their language skills, art (offers) another means of expressing themselves." Encouraging children to explore their artistic creativity sets the stage for success in reading and writing, introduces basic math and science concepts, and builds confidence and social skills. Besides, it's fun!

Appreciating Art
But while most young children are encouraged to create art using a variety of media, other aspects of exploring art -- which are often overlooked -- can be equally important. When children create art, they're "focusing on expressing their own intentions, their own desires," says Epstein. When we introduce them to the concept of appreciating art, or thinking about art, "they're not only looking at their own art experiences, they're looking at the artistic expressions and intentions of other people."

Acknowledging that children are naturally egocentric, Epstein believes that encouraging them to explore art, whether by their peers or well-known artists, can broaden their perspectives to include others. Art can show children that the thoughts and feelings of others can differ from their own. It can also introduce them to other cultures in ways they can easily understand and appreciate. "We talk a lot about the importance of multicultural (education) these days," says Epstein, "and certainly the younger you begin that the better. Art is a wonderful way of entering into other cultures, how other people see the world, what things are important enough to them that they want to express them artistically. These are important social lessons that children can learn through appreciating art."

Talking about art can foster healthy development in cognitive areas as well. Sorting and categorizing, for example, are important skills in math and science. Young children need to learn to compare and contrast objects, to recognize similarities and differences based on a variety of properties. Art can be a wonderful way to introduce them to these concepts by looking at color, texture, media and styles. Picture books are essential to early literacy development, but they're also a great way to introduce art appreciation by showing kids that stories can be told with pictures as well as words.

Activities and Ideas
Art is everywhere our children look, so it's easy for parents to guide them in thinking about art through everyday activities. Consider some of Epstein's simple suggestions below to get you started:

Begin exploring art with your children using their favorite picture books. "Call their attention to how an artist chooses to express the story and different styles of artistic expression," says Epstein. Talk about the different styles you see in books, from paintings and drawings to photographs and collages. Make sure to use familiar books, she adds, or it will be difficult for your child to focus on the pictures rather than the words.

Postcards and Art Books
Use children's art books or postcards -- which are often available at museum gift shops, bookstores or libraries -- to introduce your child to the works of well-known artists. Ask them what they notice in the pictures. Do they see any stories represented in the works? "There are a few aesthetic features that young children tend to focus on," says Epstein. "For example, they're very attracted to bright colors and simple forms." Introduce them to simple artistic vocabulary as you look at and talk about those features.

Museums and Galleries
Some museums offer family activities or touching galleries for young children, but even traditional museums and galleries can engage your little ones. If you're worried about your child wanting to touch the art, says Epstein, give him something to hold during the visit like a postcard of one of the paintings you're going to view.

The Great Outdoors
Help your children see art in nature by focusing on colors, shapes, shadows and light. Talk to them about how light differs inside and outside or on cloudy and sunny days. Introduce the concept of perspective by pointing out how objects appear larger or smaller as you move toward or away from them.

Everyday Art
Another simple activity, says Epstein, is to "talk about the aesthetic properties of objects around the house." We choose objects for our homes and gardens because we find certain properties appealing, she notes, whether it's color, shape, pattern, or something else. Simply talking about those properties with your children encourages them to appreciate art.

Judge Not
When we talk to children about art, Epstein explains, "it's important to avoid using judgmental terms like pretty, ugly, bad, or good" because children might not be confident enough to express a differing opinion. Instead, parents should focus on the properties of a work of art and how those properties make us feel. Rather than saying, "I really like the color red," she suggests, "you might say, 'Gee, the color red makes me feel warm inside,' or 'That looks like a scary color.'"

This applies to art your child creates as well. Focus on the properties of the work, the process he used to create it, and his feelings about it. Encourage your child to talk about his own art. Even your praise, says Epstein, can make a child feel as if he is being judged. "If you show interest in what children are doing it makes them feel really valued," she explains. "You don't need to value them with praise. You value them with interest and by sharing and participating in what they're doing."

Art appreciation doesn't have to be complicated, and there are no wrong answers. "We just have to get in touch with our own feelings and reactions to art and feel confident to express them," says Epstein. "You don't have to be a Picasso to make art and you don't have to be a Robert Hughes to (discuss) art."

Anybody can appreciate, think about, and talk about art -- even the youngest artists!

At Baby Classroom, we're proud to feature engaging books, DVDs and videos to introduce your little ones to the wonderful world of art. Here are a few of our favorites to get you started:

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Art Appreciation for Little Artists