We’ve all seen them: kids sulking at the symphony or playing on smartphones on a museum bench. Some of us have even been their parents.
We know it’s important to expose kids to art – studies have shown that it can improve academic achievement, cultural awareness, critical thinking and more – but sometimes you wonder if the kids are really connecting. It may not be enough to drag your child through an exhibit or to a concert hall. Luckily, many arts organizations in the Triangle offer programs that put visual art, music, dance, theater and more at a child’s level and help spark a lifelong love of seeing, making and experiencing art.
The N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh offers a “What’s in the Box?” activity with cards that point out interesting themes and things to look at for kids 2 to 5; a story time for ages 4-6 twice a week with books inspired by artwork on display; and weekend 30-minute family tours tailored to kids age 5-11 – accompanied by an adult – and based on themes that help kids relate the art to their own lives.
Workshops and camps entice kids who want a more hands-on experience.
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For most of the offerings, parents are asked to stay and participate, and there’s a reason for that, says Michelle Harrell, the museum’s chief educator and acting director of education.
“Parents don’t need to be qualified with special skills to encourage their children in art,” she says. “Just the idea that they are joining their son or daughter in the art-making experience or for a free family tour on the weekend, that really shows them that you’re learning together and being present in the moment.”
The museum’s programs, as with most arts organizations’ kids offerings, aim to meet kids where they are.
“It’s not important that the 5-year-old knows what time period that this was created in or exactly what was the method and technique or contextual events in the artist’s life that might have influenced it,” she says. “[Program leaders are] really trying to develop a positive, fun experience for that young child and develop the lifelong ability to enjoy art and feel comfortable in an art museum.”
Personal connections are what really capture kids’ attention, Harrell says, which is why the museum often organizes programs around themes like “family” to make sometimes complex works more relatable.
The N.C. Symphony similarly strives to gives its programs a “hook” to make classical music kid-friendly. Before its Young People’s Concerts at Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh, aimed at children 4-12, families can visit an instrument “zoo” in the lobby that lets kids get a close-up look and hands-on experience with instruments most have never seen in person before. During the show, the conductor and musicians will interact with the audience, teaching form, for example, by having kids raise their hands when they hear a certain part of music repeated. And to help in the fun, each concert is built around a theme.
“These concerts engage kids by connecting symphonic music with other elements that they’re already familiar with, like a movie, or a storybook, or animals or fairy tales,” says Sarah Baron, N.C. Symphony’s director of education. (The next Young People’s Concert series, in Raleigh Oct. 28-29, features music from “Star Wars,” preceded by face-painting and a costume parade for kids.)
At kids’ programs all across the Triangle, educators are on hand to help you take the lessons home – with all the fun intact, of course.
“Between concerts you can work with your kids, you can have them sing back songs, you can create songs, you can have them practice rhythms, clap to their favorite songs on the radio – things like that to really engage their imaginations and keep them involved in the music,” Baron says.
Plays based on children’s stories are a good way to introduce children to the theater. It’s always a good idea to read the story to the child first (or have them read it). They’ll be able to follow along better and won’t be worried that something bad might happen to a favorite character. You may want to explain that not everything in the book will be on stage.
If your child is already a teenager, it’s not too late to create a love for art, or to revive one that’s flagging. By that stage, “it’s less about what they’ve learned and more that they have this informal, interactive fun experience,” Harrell says. “Sometimes it’s just giving them unstructured time to be here and be present. Riding their bike in the park, having an iced coffee in the [café], being dropped off with a friend on a Friday night and having a little bit of time away from their parents. I think [it’s] creating that space for them to make their own connections, stepping back to let them find their own connections, that unobserved independence that they need to [make things] make sense to them.”
You might wonder, as a parent, whether all these trips to the museum, to concerts, to the theater are doing any good. Are the kids paying enough attention to remember the experience by next weekend?
The symphony’s Baron thinks so, and she’s got some evidence:
“We meet people in their 60s and 70s who remember exactly what the symphony played when they went to visit their classrooms” she says. “We call them ‘Symphony Kids.’ ”
▪ Kids need to learn how to behave as part of an audience (otherwise they might grow up be one of those people who annoy you by eating, drinking, talking and texting during shows). At the same time you need to be realistic about what your child can handle.
▪ Look for shorter performances and community theater options that are cheaper than big venues because you may need to leave early. Have a conversation ahead of time about expected behavior, such as staying seated, not kicking the chair in front of them, not talking, not whining, etc. Make clear you’ll need to leave early if they don’t live up to the rules and then follow through.
▪ Have a prearranged signal to use for a bathroom break so the need isn’t announced for all to hear.
▪ At concerts, bring hearing protection.
▪ Take advantage of any intermission to let your child walk (not run, unless you’re outside) off some pent-up energy.