Tours for Very Young Audiences

By Sharon Edlow, Docent, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland (May, 2018)

For many years, the Walters Art Museum has offered themed tours for children as young as kindergarten age. Young children really enjoy seeing pieces of art up close and walking around a large building with new surprises around every corner. Most are involved with art in their classrooms and looking for line, color, texture and shape in a museum piece helps them create their own art with a new understanding.

In the fall of 2016 Allie Smith, Museum Educator, introduced a new program for an even younger audience. This idea grew from previous partnerships with Head Start centers in Baltimore City.   Our Pre-K tours target children ages three to five who are attending Early Childhood Centers or Pre-K programs housed in schools. Before the program began, fifteen docents volunteered to attend three training sessions. We discussed Early Learning pedagogy and adapting current tours to meet the needs of young children. We then had the opportunity to model our new tours. Everyone who had the training remains very excited about guiding our young visitors on this new adventure. Our goal is to help these children feel comfortable in a museum setting and to create an engaging experience that will encourage them to want to make return visits and view art positively. Current Early Childhood Education research confirms that young children greatly benefit by being active learners -exploring their environment, manipulating objects, asking questions, and by being given the opportunity to follow their own interests. This belief forms the basis of our program.

The Walters Art Museum offers two Pre-K tours – Animals in Art and Stop, Look, Listen and Touch (covering the elements of art). The children go on a forty-five minute museum tour which features stops at three works of art. We begin by having them sit on the floor for a short discussion about visiting a museum. Museum manners, such as speaking in inside voices, walking and only touching items that we hand to them, are reviewed before we begin. The tour starts with the sharing of a short book to help the children focus on our theme. Then our adventure begins as we move from one stop to the next. At each stop, we encourage the children to really look at the work and talk about what they see. Every answer is valued and participation is encouraged by stating that when you talk about art there are no right or wrong answers. After our discussions there are related activities that allow the children to manipulate materials and create their own art. For example, after looking at the painting, The Ideal City, the group is given a large laminated poster of roads and green areas with a box of building blocks and asked to create their own city. Everyone is engaged and it is exciting to see what structures are important to them. After we visit all of the stops, the children go to the art studio where they have the chance to become the artists. The entire visit lasts for one and a half hours with plenty of opportunity for movement, participation and learning. As a docent who has been fortunate enough to lead many of these journeys, watching the joy and wonderment in the eyes of the children never gets old. Showing them that a museum can be an interactive space where imaginations can have free reign, slowly reduces inhibitions and we all end up having fun!

Our hope is that a program that meets the needs of a very young audience, and their sometimes anxious chaperones, will help to make the museum a friendly and accessible place to which they will want to return throughout their childhood and beyond.  

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