Experiencing what is beautiful is a slice of joy in everyday life.
Be it a colorful sunset, the Nutcracker Ballet on a snowy December day, or classical artwork that leaves us in awe, beauty has a way about it—it takes our breath away and fills us with wonder. As I sat with my own appreciation of the arts in early motherhood, I thought about how I could more easily give my children the opportunity to know the great artists and to appreciate their work.
Fortunately, there are ways to do so that feel within reach even during the busy, exhausting season of taking care of young children—and even if you yourself don’t have a lot of prior knowledge of art and music to draw upon. (That just means both you and your children now have the opportunity to learn and appreciate beautiful works!) Here are a few ways that have worked well in our home.
Every few months we go to the library and pick out a basket’s worth of coffee-table-size art books from different time periods with photos of original pieces. From Van Gogh to Monet to Michelangelo’s sculptures, there are an array of art books to choose from. I don’t read all the explanations and captions in the books by any means; I use them for the photos. I start by telling my children about the artist: what time period they are from, what some of their most famous works are, where those works are today, and a little about the artist’s life.
After this initial introduction, I simply leave the books out for them to look through and encourage them to make their own reproductions of the prints. When they’ve decided which one to paint or draw, I help them to learn the name of the piece and its artist. This process has left us with a lot of artwork on the refrigerator! The Chair by Van Gogh has been a notable favorite.
This whole process is of course very slow, and I usually keep the same books for over a month when possible. For my babies and toddlers, I’ve found board books that show art originals, too. One of our favorites has been Renoir’s Colors by Marie Sellier. It’s a very simple way for an early introduction to art without worrying about those library book pages being ripped!
Hanging artwork at children’s eye level
I also love to hang artwork at the children’s eye level for them to look at, engage with, and enjoy. I began this process by literally going on my hands and knees around my living room and seeing what it looked like at their level. I wanted the children to have their own little world of beauty down low, just as I hope to create for us adults up high. This led to decorating specifically for them at a lower level. I find an original piece that I like and print out a copy, and then I use an 8x10 wooden frame with a thin piece of plastic covering the print (it’s easy to find frames like this online). Then I hang it at the children’s general eye level.
An eighteen-month-old might take it down, but I don’t mind, because she is engaging with it, and when she’s finished I simply put it back up on the wall. As children get used to having these pieces on the wall, I have found that they engage with it just as we adults do. They are attracted to it, they look at it, they talk about it, and then they walk away. I use these opportunities to ask questions: what colors do you see? Do you see any small details that are interesting? Can you make up a story about this painting? This last question would be for an older child of course, but a child of three or four will often be the one who catches certain details, or sees the small ladybug in the corner that I would never notice. It’s really amazing to see what their thoughts are and the details they notice that I don’t.
Art cards with facts
Over the course of the years I’ve collected various cards (which often come with facts about the artist and the work on the back) that replicate famous classical artwork for my children to have in their play space. These cards come in a pack that show a particular painting with information and questions about the artist and the piece on the back of each card. They are made specifically for children, so they tend to be cardboard and pretty solid.
I usually pick out 10 to 12 of these cards and place them in a little basket where the children can get to them. Sometimes we’ll read the facts on the back, but most of the time the children just look at them and play with them. The favorites usually get bent up, but I don’t worry about that: it simply means they’re well-loved! My children often ask, “Who painted this?” and soon begin memorizing different famous artists without much effort.
Taking children to art museums
Originally I was concerned that my children might not be quiet enough to go into an art museum and stay engaged. I was surprised to learn that when they are accustomed to seeing artwork at home, fine art becomes exciting!
This can be a great activity for children outside of the toddler phase who have been introduced to the concept of fine art, but who have never been to an art museum before. It’s so exciting for them to see originals and talk about the artist. I love to bring my older children (five and up) to art museums and walk through slowly. I have them bring notebooks and let them pick whatever painting they’d like to copy with colored pencils. At the end of the visit they have a whole notebook filled with drawings, and I am always amazed at their wonder and awe of just how large many paintings are in these museums.
In order to have an appreciation for the arts as a whole I like to engage with other beautiful creatives like poets and famous composers. Poets like Robert Louis Stevenson wrote children’s poetry that is magical and easy for young children to memorize. To start this, I purchased a book entitled The Harp and Laurel Wreath: Poetry and Dictation for the Classical Curriculum by Laura Berquist, who gathered hundreds of poems for children of all ages (there are also many resources for an activity like this that you might easily find online). In the front portion of this particular book are short poems that a three-year-old can easily memorize over the course of a few days, and as you move forward the poems become more advanced reaching all the way to what would be appropriate for high school children.
Once the poems are memorized, I ask the child to retell the story of the poem, and then I have them paint a picture of what the poem is about. If the poem is about rain, for instance, they might paint themselves playing in the rain. It has also been a marvelous activity for cultivating a healthy confidence when they practice reciting their favorite poems in front of family and friends.
Listening to famous composers
Finally, I like to introduce my children to composers starting at a young age. There are short informational videos you can find on YouTube about artists like Mozart or Vivaldi, and once the composer has been introduced, I play music by the artist throughout the day. Sometimes I stream a symphony on the television for the children to see the instruments and understand more how they work together to make such music. This usually goes on in the background while I’m making dinner and they are playing.
When I am intentionally choosing a composer for them to engage with, I ask them two questions each time I put that composer’s music on: who is this composer, and where is this composer from? They love to memorize things like this and see who can say it the fastest—it’s like a little game. My favorite composers to start them off with are Mozart, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Debussy, and Chopin.
It is amazing how naturally attracted children are to what is beautiful; they soak it up like a sponge and then move to create it themselves. My hope is that by introducing my children to the fine arts from an early age, they will be able to develop an appreciation for it, and to then have a broader view of world history and culture. It’s those small encounters with the great artists, poets, and composers that set the stage for the next generation who will build our future culture. To quote Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Beauty will save the world!”