Object of the Month: Calder Gallery at the National Gallery of Art

As was the case in September, this month’s Object of the Month is actually an entire gallery. This gallery is dedicated to the artist, Alexander Calder, and is located in the newly re-opened East Wing of the National Gallery of Art. The latest iteration of this gallery is bright, airy, colorful, and full of shadows. It is in many ways the perfect art space for a young child can while away their time looking and getting lost in their imaginations.
The objects within the gallery can be used in conjunction to several age-appropriate themes.

  • Shadows – The sundial just outside the Smithsonian Castle in the Haupt Garden  + Moonbear’s Shadow by Frank Asch would round out the experience.
  • Color – Calder’s bold color palette is a great way to introduce your child to colors.
  • Shape – Circles, triangles, even a quadrilateral (the elephant’s ears)!
  • Ocean – Finny Fish offers an imaginative take on our ocean friends- combine it with a trip to the Natural History’s Sant Ocean Hall.
  • Balance – His mobiles are a great way to introduce children to the concept of balance.
  • Movement/Wind – Take notice, Calder’s mobiles move and come alive!
  • Space – Many of his pieces reminiscent of the solar system, especially Vertical Constellation with Bomb.


Infants, Toddlers, and Twos


Visit the NGA’s website to learn more about each of these objects.

The animals in the center of the gallery are a perfect height for your infant and toddler, especially those who are in the stroller and struggling to see what is around them. I like the idea of pairing these objects with Sandra Boyton’s Are You a Cow or Doreen Cronin’s Click Clack Moo. I am also very fond of the Crinkly Worm and pairing it with one of my all-time favs- Inch by Inch by Leo Lionni. Whichever literary direction you go, you can also choose to bring photos, stuffed animals, or even watch a short video featuring one of the animals. Head out to the nearby terrace and see if you can imagine moving like a bull or a worm.  If worms, cows, and bulls aren’t your thing, then focus on the elephant. This sculpture is a playful interpretation of the animal and is certain to capture your child’s attention. Enjoy an elephant hunt though the 3Smithsonian and stop by the Sackler Gallery to see the Seated Ganesha, the rotunda of the Natural History Museum to see Henry the Elephant and of course, the Zoo. Take a photo of each visit and display it somewhere at home where your child can see it (you could make a mobile if you want to stay true to the Calder theme). By documenting their experience, it will help them connect events and see their own learning.

Threes and Four

I was recently in this gallery with a group of adults as part of a workshop and I was asked to work with a partner to create something Calder–inspired with paper and some scotch tape. We don’t often think about it, but museums, with the right materials, can also be art studios.  I love these types of activities not just because they support creativity, but because they encourage young children to look carefully. Here are a few gallery-safe ideas:

  • Sketch the shadows on the walls2
  • Use pipe cleaners to make shapes and forms.
  • Add pieces to a mobile that you have started
  • Have them tear a piece of paper into one of the shapes they see  (just remember a trash bag).

Enjoy, have fun, and don’t forget to share your ideas with us too!

Looking Back: Family Workshop Review


In early November, we wrapped up our first round of family workshops for the year and the last few weeks have been spent reflecting and sorting through evaluations. We received positive feedback about the types of activities we provided in the classroom, the rapport teachers had with the children and the overall quality of the program. Our families were very thoughtful in the type of feedback they provided – really allowing us as educators to dig deep and see a different perspective.


Last week we met to discuss the evaluations and while we had a lot to talk about, the focus of the conversation was on the museum experience.  Many of our parents indicated they wanted more time in the museum. The art historian in me was excited to hear that parents were craving more of the museum! The early childhood educator, on the other hand, was challenged: How do we develop a longer museum visit without jeopardizing a positive experience.


When we develop our museum visits we think a lot about what is best for the child and what is developmentally appropriate. For example, with each age group we know about how much time they are comfortable and engaged during museum visits and try to plan visits that match the developmental stage of the students. We provide multiple exposures to a single concept in order to help them fully engage in the learning process.

This museum framework is also based largely on our experiences at the lab school. We work in an environment where our students visit the Smithsonian museums almost daily. When we plan our museum visits this ease of access is paramount. Our teachers are great at responding to the needs of the children from one moment to the next and can easily shorten a museum visit or cancel it altogether because they can always return. If there is a protest on the Mall or the weather is bad, there is always tomorrow. Not so with the family programs.

On the weekends, tables are turned; the museum visit has to work that day. We don’t have the option to return. We have to make it work!


Unlike the lab school experience, the parents are present and therefore, are also a key part to the workshop experience. They want to learn and explore the museums. For many this is chance for to visit museums they may not normally get to. They also see the workshops as a time of connection with their children where they can encourage, teach and engage. What they don’t want is a child who is starting to get antsy and is feeling frustrated. We have to carefully consider what works best for both the child and the parent.


In the past, we’ve experimented with a hybrid model that includes a group learning component with a guided exploratory activity.photo (5)

For example, my colleague used a flip book for a toddler lesson on fire trucks. First families were asked to find the parts of the wagon and then came back to the group to share. Matching the photos encouraged families to look closely and the group portion gave everyone the opportunity to connect and share what they had learned.  This is a great example of how we can make the museum visit more focused and detailed, but it doesn’t work in every situation. Another colleague did a lesson with no group component for our infants at the US Botanical Gardens in which she planned four caretaker-directed activities. There was no group component and the class remained entirely at the Gardens – omitting the classroom portion because the walk was too long.  My co-manager is also excited to try out another model: adding a second object. By and large we only visit one object per a museum visit, but having had experience with toddlers using 2-3 objects, she is eager to see if this model might also prove effective.


I believe that all of these models have real value. As early childhood educators we often have to take the temperature of a group and make adjustments on the fly.  What works once, doesn’t always work again. Part of our challenge is being able to read those signs and being prepared with additional content (early childhood educators do a lot of content research just for this purpose) and being ready to present that content in a variety of ways. Sometimes all the planning in the world can be for naught the day of a lesson because no matter how good we have gotten at anticipating a child’s needs, they are still unpredictable.

I really look forward to experimenting and growing these family Javasa at Hirshhornworkshops. If you are an educator, post your ideas and thoughts. If you are a parent, come and check us out. Our next set of classes begins January 31st when we are offering infant, toddler and pre-K classes. Don’t be deterred by the weather families – what we lack in warmth we make up for in ample parking during this time of year!