In the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Museum Looks and Picture Books program—geared to ages 3 to 5—books serve as a way to link art works to young children’s experience as well as tools for exploring works in the museum collection.
The program activities are developed around themes, such as shapes and colors in art, clothing and art, and chairs and art. The activity shown in Program 2 of Art to Heart—reading Who Is the Beast? and looking at the sculpture Lunar Bird by Joan Miró—was part of an exploration of animals and art.
Each session begins with the book. Teachers planning to bring their classes receive a copy in advance, so the class can read it several times before the museum visit. “When children arrive at the museum on the day of their visit, they have something they’re familiar with to bring them into what’s probably a pretty unfamiliar setting and a new setting for most of them,” explains Sarah Cardwell, coordinator of the program.
Books as a Frame
In addition to functioning as an “anchor” for the museum experience, the book becomes “sort of a frame for the artwork that we look at,” Cardwell says. “So there may be a theme presented in the book; the artist who illustrates the book may use certain colors or shapes that the children then look for in paintings or sculptures or other art works at the museum.”
After re-reading the book at the museum, children take part in related hands-on activities. “We can’t just sit children that are ages 3 to 5 in front of a painting and talk to them. We have to have activities that link the child to the work of art. Children are very object-oriented. They’re used to being able to physically interact with the world around them, and they gain a great amount of knowledge through touching things and experiencing the textures and shapes of objects in a tangible way,” Cardwell says.
With that in mind, the museum offers activities that encourage touching. For example, children may look at a painting of sheep and then get to feel a piece of fleece. Or, as seen in the Art to Heart segment, they might look at an imaginary creature an artist created in a sculpture and discuss what it might be, then make their own creature. “Without telling them at first that Joan Miró thought he was creating a lunar bird, we had them talk about the different parts of the animal. And some of the children really saw different animals, like a cow or a bird because of the wings. They saw a person because the wings looked like arms to some of them. And then they may learn more about what the artist thought he was creating.”
Then the children become the artists by building their own creature, using different parts of a variety of animals—a frog’s leg, an elephant’s ear, the tail of a monkey. These pieces are cut out of felt in advance, and each child receives a piece to place on the creature. “It allows each child the ability to participate,” Cardwell explains, “so those who haven’t felt comfortable talking with the group can participate and become drawn into the activity that way.”
More Art in Books
Aspects of this activity are similar to one at the Early Childhood Enrichment Center at the Smithsonian. There, children begin by reading Eric Carle’s The Very Busy Spider. Then they talk about spiders and their experiences with and ideas about them. The class seen in Art to Heart went to view Louise Bourgeois’ Spider in the National Gallery Sculpture Garden and talked about the artist’s view of spider as a protector. Then, using Model Magic molding material and pipe cleaners, each child made a spider amulet. The lesson encompassed ideas in science (spiders and how they live), spatial awareness (most spiders are very small, but the spider sculpture is very large), and creative expression (each child made aesthetic decisions about his or her amulet, from the colors used to the placement and number of legs).
These examples can be adapted to bring together books, art work, and art making in your home or classroom. For another book and art activity, Make a Painting with Dots, see Arts Activities.