On a recent Saturday, my children and I sat on the floor of the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, huddled around “PH-272,” a massive abstract painting by Still, dominated by warm reds and oranges. We were on a family tour, along with two other families.
Our guide gave each of us a card with a prompt written across the top. Ours said, “word describing the painting.” After five minutes, my family came to a consensus: breathtaking. And the fact that my two elementary school kids were completely engrossed—no tablets or smartphones in sight—was also breathtaking.
The developmental benefits of art education are plentiful: decision-making, fine motor skills, language development, self-regulation, social skills and visual literacy—the list goes on. “Art education is more important now than ever, and visual literacy, a key component of art education, will unlock a successful future for today’s youngsters,” says Jill Day, an art educator in Littleton Public Schools.
Day thinks that art museums” family programs are an excellent way to supplement art education in schools. The world-class art museums in our backyard offer many possibilities for Colorado families. As the snowflakes begin to fly and you look for indoor family activities, make plans to visit an art museum.
Portrait of an Art Tour
Having fun was at the top of our list when my family and I embarked on our Clyfford Still Museum tour. I wanted us to learn something new and grow a little in the process, too. Our tour had a theme—the museum’s architecture. It’s a popular subject because the museum is almost as well known for its architecture as its art.
First, we got a short lesson in gallery etiquette—establishing guidelines and gently reinforcing them throughout the tour helps develop self-regulation in kids. Our guide gave the rules a positive spin to empower the kids rather than shut them down.
Next, our guide placed a basket of images next to a gallery bench. Grabbing one blindly, I showed it to my brood. All of the images were copies of ones Brad Cloepfil, the architect, used for inspiration. The card I held showed a grove of aspen trees.
Then we chose a painting that we thought resembled the image. This required us to make a decision—something my kids resisted. Eventually, we selected our painting and talked about what we saw and why we chose it, strengthening language development in the process.
My children described vertical lines that looked like trees, and different colors rising out of swatches of black paint. Our guide prodded us to look around the room, at the hand-poured concrete walls rich with texture, the smooth wood floors, and the ceiling with tear-drop openings, nudging us to grow our visual literacy skills. She asked if we could find any ties to the grove of aspens.
Our final activity was to design an art museum. We were encouraged to be creative, and the kids embraced it. They added helicopter pads on the roof and sundae bars in the basement. While the children drew (honing fine motor skills), and chatted happily with each other, the grownups received a handout summarizing what we had done, the skills we had practiced, and how we can build on those skills at home.
Since the tour, “architecture” has become a fun game that my family plays. My kids think and talk about the art museums they designed during the tour, what they would change or add, and other buildings they would like to create in the future.
In addition, Jacquii Fabricant, another Denver mom who was on the same tour, told me a week later: “The girls can’t stop talking about it. When can we go back?” I was delighted that all the kids loved it, and that it made an impression on them.
Our family literally sees things differently now. My kids notice details in everything around them, from the shade of green in a T-shirt to the texture of a piece of sandpaper used on a Cub Scout project. We talk about what we see, continuing to hone visual literacy and language development skills.
More Family Friendly Art Options
Many museums recognize the important role art can play in youth development, and are continually expanding and growing their programs. Here are a few.
- Denver Art Museum (DAM): Check out the Just for Fun Family Center, Family Backpacks, Creative Corners, Gallery Games, and more. They”re offering a special treat for families this fall: Star Wars: The Power of Costume opens November 13. General museum admission is free for youth under age 18 everyday. Special events, such as Star Wars, require additional ticket purchase for adults and youth ages six to 18. denverartmuseum.org
- Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Denver: The Fox Family Idea Box, with a kid-friendly installation by artist Paul Anderson, is an inspirational space for quality family time and art making. MCA thinks that teenagers are underserved and takes on teens in a big way, with programs including the Failure Lab and free Teen Friday Nights. Museum admission is free for youth under age 18. mcadenver.org
- Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (BMoCA): BMoCA’s youth programs serve Boulder and the surrounding counties. Programs include Art Stop, Contemporary Classroom, Art Stop on the Go, and Art Lab, as well as Studio Project, a teen program. Museum admission is free for youth under age 12. bmoca.org
- Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus: The Artist-in-Residence program in the Art Studio brings a professional artist in for workshops and creative exploration. Little ones learn hands-on and face-to-face about new art forms and processes. Art Studio programs and play included with general admission. mychildsmuseum.org