You Teach Art History to Preschoolers?

Written by Carrie Heflin

Art History

The lesson on emeralds.

Twenty five thousand years ago our rapidly-evolving ancestors discovered a network of caverns in the region currently known as Lascaux, France. What they did there made an indelible mark on our species and our planet.

For most of our early years, man was focused solely on our own existence. But these images on the walls of the caves at Lascaux were created by human hands. We don’t know why they were created or by whom. All we know is that, as our most ancient ancestors spent hours in the dark musty interior of the caves at Lascaux recording the world around them in a way that would preserve their thoughts and feelings for thousands of generations to come.

Today we seem to have lost sight of this earliest vision of our forefathers. As we slash budgets, we often do so at the expense of museums and their programming, art classes in schools, and extracurricular activities. Art and its history are not just some frill belonging to the upper one percent of modern society. They are an element of our most basic nature- a calling in our souls.

I am in my third year as a pre-kindergarten teacher at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center and I use my art history degree every day as part of the curriculum. I teach my children to be critical thinkers and careful observers from early on.

The Wizard of OzLooking at a pair of emerald earrings.

One of the first topics we explored at the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year was Frank L. Baum’s timeless classic, The Wizard of Oz. We talked about everything Oz, from men made out of tin, to things that melt when they get wet. At the end of the unit I had two anecdotes that reaffirmed for me that the way that I implement art as an educational tool in my classroom is vital. The first was from a mother who had spent the weekend trying to design her family’s annual Christmas card with her two sons. As they sat in front of the computer trying various filters on the images, her older son became intent on using the dreaded sepia tone filter that makes everyone look like they’re in an amusement park Wild West saloon shoot. To appease him the mother clicked on the sepia option and her younger son (who is my student) immediately pointed at the screen and yelled, “Hey, it looks like we’re in Kansas!” This comment refers back to the first week we studied Oz almost a month prior when we went to the Hirshhorn Museum to look at two Wall Drawings by Sol Lewitt. One piece was in color and the other on the opposite wall was in black and white. We explored the art and how it was created and then we talked about how different color schemes make us feel and how the filmmakers in the Wizard of Oz used this concept to show viewers how Dorothy felt in Kansas.

The second comment was made during a morning circle on the letter “B.” We asked the students to think of words that started with “B” and one boy called out “beryl!” We asked him if he remembered what beryl is and he exasperatedly explained that everyone knows it’s the main ingredient in emeralds. He is four. Did you know what beryl was before you read this paragraph?

As much as I would like to tell you that they are, my students are not all geniuses. They are not smarter because their parents read to them in utero or played Baby Einstein movies in their nurseries. They are able to process and retain knowledge because they have learned critical thinking skills the likes of which I was still honing in high school. They answer open-ended questions with thoughtfulness and clarity that floors me on a daily basis and they remember what they have learned and apply it to their future endeavors. These are the skills that we as educators strive to instill in our students because they are the tools to success. Being able to analyze and apply what you have learned is the only thing that makes knowledge useful.

Conquering the climber with our hand-crafted emerald vision spy glasses.I firmly believe that the work we do in the museums is the key to unlocking these skills at such an early age. Every day I see my students connect with art and with objects. I see their eyes light up when I tell them stories of people who felt and questioned long, long ago and who made beautiful wonderful things that we can see and explore today. I hear their questions as we wander the halls of our nation’s most expansive art collections- “Why is that so blue? Who made those statues? Is that a sculpture or a painting? Is that Hermes or Zeus?”- and I watch them implement their knowledge in their play. My students have used dress up to be French flaneurs and turned our climbing structure into a ship sailing to see Claude Monet and Edgar Degas. They can tell you who the Neanderthals were and what their favorite Shakespeare play is. They are sensitive and passionate and insatiable learners. My greatest fear is that they will leave our school and become less curious and more focused, less passionate and more dedicated to trying to memorize information and facts.

Final ThoughtsLooking at Elizabethan clothes at the beginning of the Shakespeare unit.

As we rang in 2014 the Smithsonian was preparing itself for budget cuts that may have required our nineteen museums to close one day a week for an indefinite period of time. One day a week, we were told, we might not be able to go see the art. While it was only one day, it felt like the beginning of something very big and very bad. When the largest and most renowned museum network in our country is forced to consider closing its doors it seems like only a matter of time before other institutions must follow suit. It didn’t end up happening, thankfully, but it did make me want to sit down and put my thoughts to paper. I didn’t write this article to protest government budget cuts.

There are already plenty of people doing that. I just hope that what I have to say can make my fellow educators stop and think about the enormity of the task before us and I want to offer a suggestion for a way to make it more manageable. Use the mistakes and triumphs of our species’ long and winding path to show your students a better way into the future. Don’t let those critical thinking skills that we worked so hard to develop be lost on a future generation of people with endless knowledge at their fingertips, because the more we depend on our gadgets for answers the less we will seek them ourselves. Instead, use the tools that you have been given- tablets, projectors, laptops, and yes, museums to encourage your students to seek out and interpret knowledge. Immerse yourselves in the passion of human creation and discovery and you will be amazed the places it will take all of you.

Sensory Learning – What and Why?

Have you scrolled through Pinterest lately and seen all the preschool or parenting boards related to sensory play? Usually it involves some beautifully crafted photos featuring a young child participating in a hands-on activity, but sensory learning is so much more than just getting dirty. As the name suggest, it is learning through the senses. Often times, it is related to the sense o

Sensory Play

f touch, i.e finger painting, water table, playing with sand. Sensory learning is not limited to touch and can encompass all the senses.

Why bother with all of this – children and adults learn best through their senses. Sensory learning also helps children retain information. Think about it this way: if you are cooking and your child inquires about the rosemary you are using you can, A: simply describe it as something that adds flavor to your dish or, B: hand some over and give them the opportunity touch, smell and examine it. I can guarantee that your child will be able to recount their rosemary experience better if they are given the sensory option.

Once a child begins to explore something through their serosemarynses, a lot of other things can happen. They can use the experience to practice and build upon their vocabulary. Ask them questions: “What color is it?; How does it feel?; What does it smell like?. A parent can also enhance this experience by adding objects that can be used for comparison purposes. , Add parsley, for example, and encourage basic math skills by asking them to find shapes or compare the size of the two herbs. You can also stimulate critical thinking by adding elements like, scissors or water. These elements prompt children to conduct experiments: i.e. “What will happen if I cut the rosemary – will it still smell? or, What will the rosemary feel like when I pour water on it? Adding these components not only gets them to investigate and hypothesize, it also gives them the chance to practice their fine motor skills. Cutting and pouring are everyday tasks that they hope to master one day and using these skills will also aid in developing the coordination required for writing.

You can take the sensory experience a step further by adding some art supplies too. Put out some glue and construction paper, but don’t give them explicit instructions. Let them be inspired to create what comes to their mind. You’d be surprised at what they can come up with! Finally, try including a friend or sibling in the experience, which will encourage social interaction and compel them to practice taking turns and listening to one another. It also encourages them to work as a team and build on each others ideas.penguins food

So the next time you see a beautifully crafted sensory experience pop up on your Pinterest feed, don’t feel daunted. Remember, sensory learning can happen organically during the course of the day and you can add to the experience by simply including common art tools and other found objects in and around the home. Too busy to clean it up? Don’t worry leaving it out for awhile and letting your child return to the materials will actually enhance the experience.

Parents Are Part of the Class Too

Besides being an educator for the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center, I am also a mom. I know all too well what it is like to be unsure of oneself as a parent. That is one of the reasons we have set up our programs with the parent in mind. We want to encourage your confidence as a parent and, as your child’s first teacher.

One of the ways we do this is by encouraging one-on-one _MG_4086interaction during the museum visit. Often we ask parents to lead simple activities in the galleries that are open-ended and encourage observation and conversation. For example, we might ask infant/toddler parents to find all the boats in a gallery space or simply describe an object. If it seems odd to talk about having conversations with your little one, remember recent research is making direct correlations between how much a parent talks to their child and their literacy.

_MG_0715_72dp_webiPreschooler families might be asked to create a story  or make a list of questions they have about an object. In both of these scenarios, we are encouraging independent thinking, literacy and providing time for you and your child to learn together. It is also giving the parent practice having  open-ended conversations and ideas of how to use museums when there is not an educator around.

All of our classes include a classroom component, where teachers have carefully thought out and prepared art projects, dramatic play areas and sensory experiences. The classroom experience is less structured and gives you and your child time to explore their interests. In order to help our parents make the most of their time, we make the following suggestions:

_MG_4125_web

1. Let your child choose the activity and how long they want to stay at that activity.
2. There is really no wrong way to do something – let them be creative and get dirty.
3. If they are frustrated, ask them if they want help. Otherwise, let them solve the problem on their own.
4. While you observe your infant, narrate what they are doing. Ask older children about what they are doing or why they made certain choices.

With these guidelines, parents can feel confident that they are giving their child autonomy and encouraging their interests. They are also giving them space to figure out problems on their own – this will lead to more confidence.

Are there things that you struggle with as a parent when participating in classes with your child? Let us know, we would be happy to help.

 

 

 

What is a Smithsonian Early Explorer?

Recently SEEC and the National Museum of Natural History formed a new partnership. We are already lucky enough to have two spaces inside this amazing museum and now, we will be offering a very special program in NMNH’s Q?rius jr. Discovery Room. This brand new early learning initiative, Smithsonian Early Explorers (SEE), builds on SEEC’s 25 years of success combining the best in early learning practice and the rich environments of the Smithsonian Institution. A small cohort of young learners, together with their caregivers, will have access to the best of the Smithsonian Institution and a curriculum focused on STEAM: science, technology, engineering, art and math.

Here’s a small taste of what to expect.

Museum

Classroom

Free Play

Learn More

Smithsonian Early Explorers FAQ’s
Registration
Cynthia Raso: rasoc@si.edu or 202-633-0121

Fountain Fun

DSCN3881Pools, beaches, lakes, sprinklers…it’s that time again! Children all over the US are enjoying summer-time to its fullest and likewise, parents are looking for water-inspired activities. Here in DC, we are lucky enough to have a number of public fountains that are both beautiful and refreshing. Fountains capture the imagination of children, so why not take this opportunity to create a learning experience?

Duckling FountainInfants
Infants often have mixed feelings about water, it can be both scary and exhilarating. Why not introduce them to water through their senses, especially sight, sound and touch. Simply draw their attention to different aspects of the fountain.

  • Do they hear that sound? Mimic the roar of the fountain.
  • Describe the color of the water.
  • Connect the fountain to the actual feeling of water by getting their hands wet.
  • At home, identify other places where you might find water and remind them of their visit to the fountain.

Toddlers

Toddlers are excited by new things and fountains are no exception. Take the time to explore the fountain and ask simple questions about its design:

  • What direction is the water moving?
  • Is there water that is still, where?
  • From where do you think the water is coming?
  • What else do you see besides water?
  • Do you see any pictures or decorations?
  • Try making your own fountain at home with a hose and baby pool.

Preschool and UpFirefly Fountains

By now your child has seen a few fountains and you can begin to investigate the concept further. Here are some fun multidisciplinary ideas:
  • Rainbows, light and water. This blog has some nice experiments you can easily duplicate.
  • Experiment with force and getting water to move in a certain direction. You can even perform this experiment at home if you are feeling adventurous.
  • Discuss why fountains are used: are they pretty, do they help us remember something, are they for cooling off, do people seem to like them?
  • Ask them to choose a location in your community and design their own fountain.

Favorite DC Fountains

Fountain at the Hirshhorn

Fountain at the Hirshhorn

  • Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
  • National Museum of American History (Constitution Ave. Entrance)
  • US Navy Memorial Plaza
  • National Gallery of Art
  • National Museum of the American Indian
  • Senate Fountain
  • WWII Memorial Rainbow Pool
  • Bartholdi Fountain
  • What is your favorite community fountain? Leave us a message!

    Upcoming Teacher Workshop

    LTOWell, we have made it to January. That delightful in between month—the month where we leave the stretch of holiday breaks behind and take a deep breath before the chaos of spring begins. Our students are settling back into familiar routines but experiencing the expected adjustments that time away from school brings. As educators, we too are experiencing the adjustment, searching for renewed inspiration in the face of the winter blues, unpredictable weather, and in my case, growing preschoolers. It seems almost daily one of my students leaves early for their five year preschool check-up.

    We are also in the period of resolutions: Join the gym. Use your phone less. Sleep more. Build up your savings. Be more creative in the classroom or museum. In the midst of the screaming gym ads and hyper students, come join us for some respite and rejuvenation. SEEC is offering a space to renew your creativity, collaborate with peers, and take some deep breaths. Our premier seminar, Learning Through Objects, is almost upon us (February 27th & 28th). This seminar brings together educators from a diverse set of learning environments such as classrooms, museum galleries, and cultural centers. Presented by our staff and representing work from our 25 years of learning with young children in museums, LTO may be the perfect antidote to the winter doldrums.

    A LTO alum wrote of her experience, “I walked away not only refreshed and inspired, but also with a variety of ideas for how I can incorporate museums, objects, and artist studies into my classroom teaching. I am looking forward to sharing the lesson plan and field trip ideas I learned with my colleagues and of course to sharing the activities themselves with my students.” Additionally, for those in the DC area, LTO is accredited by the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education and counts as CEUs. Come be renewed, come be refreshed, and check one or two of your resolutions of the list. We look forward to seeing you.

    LTO_2

    Full registration info can be found here. Keep that “save money” resolution as well, register before February 14th for our Early Bird Rate and plug in discount code SEECPD14 for an additional 10% off!

    Onwards!

    Kindergartners and Exhibit Design, Part II

    exhibit eval page 1

    Kindergarten Exhibit Survey, Pt. 1

    exhibit eval page 2

    Kindergarten Exhibit Survey, Pt. 2

    In our last blog,  we discussed the first part of our experiment with SEEC kindergartners visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of American History Golden Books exhibit.  When we left off, they had just concluded their first visit.  The following week, they went to the museum again and like the previous time, we split them up into small groups of three.  Each group had an adult and walked through the exhibit with an educator and were given a “survey.”  After these were completed in the exhibit, they headed out to a small circle to discuss their observations with another educator.

    The Results

    1) Look at the other people do they like this exhibit? Visitor Graph
    Comments:

    • Looking closely
    • Beautiful
    • Pretty good
    • Really liking it
    • Liked it
    • Enjoying everything
    • Looking at computer
    • Looking at all sorts of books
    • Enjoying it
    • One person was normal, so…so-so
    • Some were in to it, some were not
    • 1 vote for all 5 choices
    • All the people were different

    2) Look at the objects; do you like how they are displayed?Objects
    Comments:

    • Lots of color, some were dusty
    • Loved them
    • They books were having a good time because they were safe in the glass and no robbers were breaking in
    • Could not see, too tall
    • Pretty good
    • Pretty good, a little bad though because it only showed one page of the book
    • Didn’t like, hard to see

    3) Look at the lights; do you like how they are used?
    Lights Graph

    Comments

    • Dark but good
    • Pretty good
    • 1 vote for Liked
    • Orange, it was ok, and I liked it
    • ok

    4) Look at the colors; do you like how they are used?
    Colors Graph

    Comments

    • The ceiling was green, there were good colors
    • A lot of white

    5) Look at the signs, are they helpful?

    Signs Graph

    Comments

    • Really focused about creation, someone worked very hard

    6) Look at the computers; do you like how they were used?

    computer Graph

    Comments

    • I clicked on two books
    • You could look at the books, I pressed the button and it read the story to us
    • Really cool
    • I touched it
    • I didn’t get to touch it
    • I chose different books, it was awesome, and not too tall
    • I liked pressing buttons
    • Zooming in was cool
    • It shows the books

    7)  Look for things you can touch, did they help you enjoy the exhibit?
    Touching Graph

    Comments

    • Only one thing to touch
    • Touching the computer
    • Computer was just ok
    • I wish there was more stuff to touch, more computers with newer books
    • No touching uhhhhh

    Outcomes

    I was surprised that they found the lighting and signs appealing.  Like any exhibit featuring paper, it is a dark space, and I assumed that would be unappealing.  Interestingly when the exhibit designer talked to the students during their first visit, he mentioned that the low lighting help protect the books. I wonder if that made a difference.  I also wonder if it was the spotlighting to which they felt drawn.  Despite the overall darkness, light was strategically positioned to make the cases pop. There was minimal distraction.

    I was also intrigued by their positive reaction to the signs.  Many in the group are emergent readers and I thought the labels would have been of little or no interest to them.  I wonder if they were responding to the fact that the educators, many of whom were not familiar with the exhibit’s content, used the labels to help add to their conversations.

    That they responded positively to the colors and book illustrations was no shock.  Children are naturally drawn to strong, vibrant visuals.  They are also naturally drawn to things they can touch or tinker with.  The opportunity to play with the computer at the end of the exhibit got them very excited and made them notice more about the objects in the cases, encouraging them to revisit objects and think more deeply about some of their conversations.  Interestingly, the computer engaged many of the children, but not all.  Some of them were frustrated  because they weren’t certain how to work it, but I guess usability for young children is another topic entirely!

    Although we didn’t measure this in the survey, its important to note that the children responded to the content of the exhibit.  They were familiar with Golden Books and could make connections to the illustrations, many of which depicted children playing.  At SEEC, we encourage our educators to utilize familiar objects or themes when teaching.  Finding this thread can be difficult when considering the often nuanced and complex nature of many exhibits. Still, I would encourage museum staff to consider how they can incorporate familiar elements as a way to engage a young child’s interest in new content.