As a museum educator, I work with students who visit us for school field trips, and I work with children who visit with their families. It’s a joy to work in this space, and I’d love to share some of my favorites aspects of making art with kids in the museum setting.
Artmaking Supports Skillbuilding
Skillbuilding happens at all different levels in the museum environment. Toddlers work on their dexterity while holding markers or crayons. Young children learn how to use scissors. Artmaking also gives older kids practice with more advanced skills, like problem solving, prototyping, and perseverance on a project.
I can tell when a class experiences less artmaking in the classroom. They are more likely to put down their own abilities. They might tell the museum educators that they’re not artists and ask us to make part of their project for them. Students who have a chance to make art more regularly are more eager to dive into materials. They are less afraid of making mistakes, and when they face a setback, they are less devastated.
When an inflatable sculpture inspired us to create balloon art with families, I kid you not, one child built a functioning bow and arrow with those balloons. For a seven year old, it was not easy. There were times when I was skeptical that it would ever work. He would build a bow and test it, then take it apart, change something and put it back together. By the time his parents pulled him away from the craft table, sure enough, he had a balloon bow that could shoot that balloon arrow. Talk about project perseverance!
Artmaking Builds Confidence
When making art in the museum setting, we work on demystifying some of the processes of adulthood and empowering young people to see themselves as capable.
In one of our school programs, students use mortars and pestles to grind up natural materials. We use bee pollen for yellow, chalk for white, charcoal for black, and blue-green algae for green. Students mix the pigment with water and gum arabic, and just like that, they have paint (which we use to create different projects depending on the age group).
Students often get more excited over paintmaking than creating the final artworks. It’s loud with the banging of the mortar and pestles, and it’s messy when vigorous students scatter their materials everywhere. They’re also amazed that they were able to make and use their own paint. To many students, paint seems like mysterious chemicals that only come from factories. Making paint is one step that demonstrates to students that they are capable of creating something real and useful, breaking down their perceived barriers of what young people can do.
Artmaking Brings Joy
Perhaps my favorite part of making art with young people is their joy at freely pursuing their own ideas. Some materials lend themselves more readily to open exploration. I have found supplies that are colorful and able to be bent or cut to be especially fruitful.
Papercrafts are always great. We have a pop-up cardmaking activity for families that visitors can take in a myriad of directions. Young visitors might color the picture of a penguin that we provide, glue it inside their card, and be proud of their work. One day, two pre-teen siblings created Christmas cards that looked like the inside of tiny living rooms, complete with Christmas trees, presents, and a windows to a snowy scene outside. One mother-daughter pair spent the better part of two hours creating intricate cut paper cards.
That reminds me, part of the joy of artmaking in a museum is the chance for families to work together. When young people run into challenges, sometimes they need their adult to help them. Better yet, when projects capture the imagination of family members they play together as well. When our Dorothea Lange exhibition inspired us to make paper cameras with families, one dad led his kids on a romp through the museum garden, using their cardstock cameras to “take pictures” of sculptures and each other.
For all the skills, the confidence, and the joy that artmaking has brought to me, I hope it brings to you, as well as to the young people in your life. When you can, take them to a museum, give them some inspiring materials, make art and play together.
Lead Museum Educator | Oakland Museum of California