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Art to Heart

Object-Based Learning

In the activity shown in Program 5 of Art to Heart, Joshua Beasley, kindergarten enrichment teacher at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center, connects a wide variety of artifacts from the Smithsonian to guided activities to provide children with a rich and exciting exploration of science, music, art, and art-making.

Each month, students at the center embark on a theme-based study of an artist. The activity shown was a study of Antonio Stradivari, the Italian violin maker of the late 1600s and early 1700s, framed with the themes of science, music, and nature.

“We try and connect through simple ideas, the way that we frame it,” explains Beasley. “We’re looking for ways that a story might remind you of a work of art and how that work of art might remind you of an idea in science.” For example, in learning about violin music and Stradivari, Beasley used a picture of an old violin from the National Gallery.

Questions and Explorations

In researching Stradivari, Beasley learned that he had lived during what was termed the “little ice age.” The children were curious about this: Did Stradivari ever meet a woolly mammoth or saber-toothed tiger? Beasley asked a scientist to bring in mammoth fur and objects from the time in which the woolly mammoth and saber-toothed tiger lived. The children learned that these animals were gone by the time of Stradivari, but wolves were still around. “And once they had the thread, they connected the picture and the art and the science idea. That’s when we made up a story about violins and wolves.”

Throughout the month, the class told the story differently. It began as a very brief, spontaneous story made up during a visit to the Natural History Museum. As the month went on, the children elaborated on it and acted out different parts. They brought in articles and information about violins. They learned about the kind of wood used to make violins. They also took a virtual tour of the “Forest of the Violins,” a real place in Italy that Beasley discovered in doing research on Stradivari. And each child was encouraged to explore further an aspect he or she was especially curious about.

A Leader in Object-Based Learning

The Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center is recognized as a leader in this kind of object-based learning. The center was founded to create a model of museum-based learning for young children as well as to provide on-site care for the children of Smithsonian employees. “In 1988, there were very few, if any, programs for preschoolers in traditional museums,” notes Sharon Shaffer, the center’s executive director. “The idea was to use the rich resources here in the Smithsonian complex. But no one was quite sure how that fit with preschoolers because preschoolers were not viewed as part of the museum audience at that time.”

What the educators at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center discovered was that using art and artifacts could be an extremely successful approach if grounded in an understanding of young children and how they learn: making it interactive, connecting it with the children’s own prior experiences, and letting them express their ideas.

Find Out More

The Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center shares what it has learned about museum-based and object-based education for young children through outreach programs for educators. Two training seminars are offered: “Learning Through Objects” and “Museum Magic: Using Museums To Teach History, Literacy, and Math.” The center also offers teaching kits. The web site has information about training seminars and resources available, including a downloadable article by Sharon Shaffer on “Looking at Art with Toddlers.”

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