Let’s have a look at the benefits of art for children by answering some actual questions that parents and teachers have asked MO Museum educator and exhibition for children “Lake full of Stars” curator Karen Vanhercke in response to statements about children and art.
In the end of the text you will also find Karen’s video lecture about it, which was a part of a virtual presentation of the exhibition “Lake full of Stars”.
The best way for children to shape their identity is through reflection about art.
Really? How about sports? Horseback riding?
In close relation with animals, children will no doubt understand their human boundaries better. They most likely won’t reflect on this consciously – and that is ok. Some notions like “difference” and “friendship” are best felt before they are understood. What is unique about art, however, is that it offers a type of meta-reflection about them. A child standing in front of this photograph can take a more conscious position towards the horse in the picture than the child in the photograph. She is in a better position to articulate all kinds of unnamed emotions related to her experiences with horses, or even to her friends’ experience with horses. Empathy is one of the great byproducts of art reflection. The child in this picture doesn’t have the necessary distance to engage in this kind of reflection or dialogue. In the continuous process of creating flexible identities for themselves, children have a really powerful lens to perceive themselves: through art.
Atlaidai. Kražiai, 1976
25 x 38 cm
By reflecting on art children train essential cognitive skills.
Don’t they train cognitive skills by reading as well?
Reading is in fact very much linked to art viewing. Let’s not forget that letters originated from images. It seems that the cognitive process of decoding letters is not essentially different from decoding visual language. When we reflect on what we read, we reflect not on the words themselves, but on the images they evoke in our minds. The way that works in our brains is we either perceive actual visual input or we summon imagined visual input – and sometimes it is a mixture of both. For the brain they are all the same thing, however. It turns out that the way our brains are wired, visualization is the basis of nearly all reflection processes! Whether we reflect on literature or on HTML, it is all the same thing for the brain. Isn’t that amazing? The notion that reading is by definition visual and so are all other types of reflection.
Art is a great resource for children to develop their imagination.
Better than playing outdoors?
This is a difficult one – the outdoors are great! One of the reasons that museums are becoming increasingly important as resources for children to explore is that opportunities to spend time in nature are becoming increasingly rare. Alison Gopnik, professor in cognitive science at the University of Berkeley in California, sees museums as institutionalized playgrounds for the mind. It should be the other way round: nature primes children for richer art experiences. Playing outdoors awakens all of their senses, and all of this rich memory database can later be linked to the art they see at the museum. On the other hand, conscious reflection is something children are more likely to practice in the art museum than in the forest, because nature is a super sensory complex. It smells, it chirps, it wiggles, it’s slimy and brittle, it growls, it snaps and it runs away! This is why art-based methods are quite common in environmental education, because putting a symbolic frame around a natural phenomenon, increases the children’s awareness of it.
Connecting to oneself through art is an essential step for children to develop taste.
Doesn’t music develop their taste as well?
Music is art as well. As in all art there is a huge difference between commercial music and art music. The most important thing about developing taste is not to conform to others, but rather the opposite: for children to understand why this or that art form speaks to them personally. Standing still in front of an artwork they sometimes feel uncomfortable though because they don’t know what is expected of them. Discomfort in itself is a great way to show us our boundaries, but it is not helpful if the child just walks away from the art. So to reduce the discomfort I sometimes invite them to listen to music while looking at art and it helps them to prolong their attention span. There is a fascinating synergy between listening and looking. Somehow the mind knows that all sound is the result of a motion. So when children listen to music their motion detection system is triggered and they literally see more! If the music is somewhat predictable, they can relax into the rhythm and start moving their eyes across the surface of the artwork: a bit like dancing with the art. They tend to look at art longer that way, and since it takes time to develop one’s own aesthetic, I think it’s a win win. It takes time, conscious connection, multiple exposure to diverse art forms.
To look at life through art, and not the other way around.
Children of all ages are equipped to make sense out of art.
Is all art suitable for children, even nudity or violence?
Children have no problem with nudity, they were born naked. Violence is another matter. I think this depends on what they have experienced in their lives. According to neuroscientist Barend Van Heusden, children are constantly comparing what they experience with what they remember. That is how they engage with life and how they engage with culture. Adults do this as well, the only difference is that adults are likely to have had more challenging experiences. That is why they react more strongly to violence than most children do. Either way, art is rarely out to shock us simply as a way to get attention. When artists offer us difficult images, they usually offer a message with it that helps us deal with the content. The moment children develop a sense of present and past, they can start using A. their memories to make sense out of the pictures and B. the pictures to make sense out of their memories. This is one of the biggest benefits of art for children that it teaches them to look at their life: through the prism of art.
The human brain is a visual brain and is perfectly equipped for art reflection.
But blind people can reflect on art too, can’t they?
Visually impaired people use the same brain centres that seeing people use for visualisation, but they use it more to remember tactile, olfactory and auditory experiences. Seeing people do that too sometimes: for example when it is dark and the seeing person tries to visualise a space by assessing how the sound travels in the room. Visually impaired people are just much better at “hacking” the visual brain. Not surprisingly they also demonstrate a far richer vocabulary to express tactile, olfactory and auditory experiences. Visually impaired people may be at a disadvantage because they can’t see the art, but we certainly shouldn’t assume that they are at a disadvantage to reflect about the art. Visual culture belongs as much to visually impaired children as it does to seeing children. They grow up in it and have as much need to reflect on it as anyone else. I think when museums will include people with sensory impairments this will benefit the entire community. Understanding how our different senses inform us, is a great way to become aware of our visual bias and there are many good reasons to embrace the use of other senses in our dialogue about art. Just imagine how fun it will be describing materials as crunchy or juicy!
Art has relevance to children’s lives.
Really, my children find it dull and my teenager said that art is dead!
If you heard that art is dead, you’ve been listening to teenagers or to philosophers too much. The American author and critic, Arthur Danto, wrote about “the End of Art” in a famous article published in 1964. He blamed Art’s demise mostly on Andy Warhol, whom children these days absolutely love! But of course art is dead! It has to die in order to be resurrected by a new generation! Pop art was scandalous in Danto’s time, but now it is printed on children’s lunch boxes. Young rebellious artists will have to find other ways to break with artistic traditions. According to cognitive scientists’ aesthetic rebellion is the number one evolutionary strategy for children in their teens to distance themselves from their parents. The paradigm switches that take place in art are perfectly normal and absolutely necessary from an evolutionary point of view. I say this with confidence, and that might be more telling about my advanced age than about my understanding of philosophy, but when people come to tell me that art is dead, I say: “What, again?”. Because to me the statement is simply proof that art has relevance in children’s lives! Unfortunately it also proves that whoever is saying has not managed to keep a flexible attitude towards life’s challenges. An occasional visit to the art museum could have helped with that. All art, the old and the new helps us to rejuvenate. Art is not only about emancipation of the younger generations, but also about learning needs of our society as a whole.
Children can make perfect sense out of art all on their own.
Isn’t it your job as an educator to tell them what the art is about?
Museums came about in a time when educating the masses was considered a good strategy to develop harmonious society. Depending on your definition of education, that still holds true, but I don’t believe in the strategy where we as specialists tell people what to think or where to look. Dialogue with children around art is part of a larger democratisation process in education. So, we don’t have this exhibition for them in order to pamper them, but rather to challenge ourselves to see the art from their perspective. Taking them seriously is a great way to reach out to wider audiences. Dialogue based methods practiced at the museum can be used in schools as well, while Sensory-based experience can inspire us to look at visual culture with more awareness. Like in art, there are paradigm switches in education as well. In the previous century John Dewey introduced experiential learning. Then the cognitive revolution happened in museum education, with Yenawine and Housen doing great pioneering work that still has relevance today. Their emphasis was strictly on cognition and right now are in the middle of a movement towards more emphasis on emotional intelligence and social awareness in education. Each of these paradigm switches requires new methodologies and that is our jobs as educators. Telling people what the art is about? Sure!
It is about you! Now, what do you make of it?
We live in a visual culture and some parents worry that their children are experiencing visual overdose. There is a huge difference though between art and mainstream visual culture, which is often commercialized or politicized. In fact, I see this as one of the benefits of art for children: art can serve as a detox from the seemingly endless stream of manipulations that target young people. Museums might be one of the few remaining places in society, where children can look at an image without being coaxed into buying a phone or a new pair of sneakers. Learning to connect authentically with images, they can learn to leverage images for their own benefit. Visual literacy in a nutshell is about cognitive and emotional resilience.
We can’t know beforehand what unprecedented challenges the children of the future will face. The ability to learn flexibly, to adjust to new circumstances, to alter social structures imaginatively, are more important than they have ever been before.
We also invite you to hear Karen’s lecture about how do children benefit from art, how can we build an open dialogue with our little ones through art and how all of these features are reflected in the exhibition “Lake full of stars”.