What Our Youngest Learners Can Teach Us

KATIE COGGINS, Museum Educator 
Hood Quarterly, winter 2024

Before we had even entered the galleries, one preschool visitor emphatically announced, "I'm feeling very explorious about this museum." Whether she meant curious, excited, or ready to explore, her creativity and enthusiasm set the tone for the entire visit.

Last summer, preschoolers from the Child Care Center in Norwich visited the Painter's Hand exhibition several times. During the visits, we read stories about art, made art, looked at art,
and shared how we felt about art. The children grew more confident as they engaged with new ideas and became empowered to trust their own judgment. Our time together in the galleries fostered a sense of belonging in the Hood Museum that I hope will endure.

Looking at walls filled with abstract art, the children made connections with their own experiences, telling me how a Helen Frankenthaler work reminded them of painting they did at school or how a Louise Fishman work reminded them of saltwater. The children used their minds, senses, and bodies to respond to the art. They lay on the floor to look at a John Walker painting from a new angle, then did a wiggling "rain dance" movement to demonstrate how the glistening, dripping painting by Pat Stier made them feel. The whole visit felt open and spontaneous in a way that I have rarely experienced. Not yet hampered by conventional thinking, the children seemed to see the world as artists do, in ways that are fresh and utterly original.

Each child approached the paintings differently. Some ran right to what caught their eye with no hesitation. Others, not wanting to commit to a favorite too hastily, meandered shyly around the gallery. Their hesitation was not the same as that I once felt about abstract art. My hesitation was fueled by embarrassment that I did not "get" it—that I wasn't cool enough to understand what abstract art was all about, and somehow everyone else was. The children instead seemed to start from a position of strength: "I wonder which of these will be my favorite?" With no preconceived notions to work against, they just needed time to get to know these works, to see what these paintings had to say and share, like meeting a room full of new friends.

How great would it be if all museum visitors stepped into the Hood Museum with the spirit of a four-year-old?


Tags: Quarterly

Written January 01, 2024