Figuring out how to study art with kids doesn’t have to be complicated. This free, no-strings-attached printable provides art history discussion prompts you can use with any piece of art you encounter in your homeschool studies.
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Art is important, especially in a classical education dedicated to the pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness. “An art work can be a doxology in itself”, penned Francis Schaeffer — and he’s right, of course. But since art elicits such a subjective emotional response, it can often be hard for kids to move past the initial “I like it” / “I don’t like it” reactions when they’re introduced to a new work of art. This printable list of questions will give you, as the parent instructor, concrete ways to guide conversation and provoke discussion about the art you’re studying, regardless of whether you adore or dislike the artwork at hand.
Want a little more insight into how this discussion template works? I developed it to use in my art history class at our local co-op, with students from grades two through five. Naturally, these discussions function best if you have access to some background information about the art you’re studying, so you can accurately answer inquiries or direct additional independent research. You’ll probably want a book, like the approachable 13 Paintings Children Should Know (that’s one painting each month for just over a year!) or the Usborne Children’s Book of Art, but you can use digital images from the internet, too. As I’ve used this method, here’s what I’ve found. To begin, the four anchors of this approach are as follows —
- Be curious
- Be a detective
- Be a thoughtful
- Be creative
So let’s start at the beginning, with curiosity.
In the pursuit of any topic, but especially art history, curiosity is key. Curiosity can lead us beyond the surface into a vast, hidden world of previously-undiscovered stories surrounding the art, artist, historical period, and genre.
Ask: “What does this work show you?”
When introducing a work of art for the first time, I like to ask kids, “What does this work show you?” Depending on the age of the students, answers to this question will be either extremely literal (“it shows me a person”) or more abstract (“it shows me how hard life was in this era”.) Neither type of answer is incorrect, and any response can be used as a springboard for further discussion.
Ask: “Why did the artist create this work?”
Sometimes we’ll be able to uncover the answer to this question (“this portrait was commissioned by the king”), while other times, the reason behind the work’s creation remains a mystery. As the instructor, you’ll want to guide this discussion. It’s is a great time to fill in the details about the artist’s life, and provide a sense of historical context.
Be a detective.
Essentially any work of art presents a bit of a mystery, and kids love to act as detectives.
Ask: “What hidden secrets can you find?”
This prompt encourages close observation of the work at hand, inviting kids to take in all the little details — figures hidden in shadows, small inscriptions on books or boxes, delicate brushstrokes indicating texture, and subtle expressions. In my experience, kids love this step, and don’t even realize how closely they’re studying art.
Ask: “What colors do you see?”
This is another favorite! Often, I make this an interactive question, by pulling out a large set of oil pastels, and ask the students to set aside every color they can find in the painting.
At this point in the art discussion, students have gathered — through their own answers and through your direction toward truth — a great deal of information about the featured artwork.
Ask: “How does the work make you feel?”
Sometimes, the artist created the work specifically to elicit a certain response in the viewer, or to convey a specific message. Other times, the art is free to be interpreted any way at all. Regardless, answers to this question will vary more widely than those to any other discussion topic so far.
Ask: “How might the artist have felt when creating it?”
We won’t always know the answer to this, but historical and autobiographical information — and the contrast between the work at hand and the artist’s other pieces — can give us clues. Encourage children to use this type of information to support their answers.
In my art history classes, every discussion about art ends with some sort of hands-on project. While it isn’t always possible to transform inspiration into a tangible application — or do every project a student wants to undertake — discussing the link between art which already exists and the creation of new art is important.
Ask: “How does this work inspire you?”
While this question seems similar to “How does the work make you feel?”, you might notice the answers will probably be more centered around action, and creation, rather than emotions.
Ask: “What does it make you want to create?””
I love this question, because the answers are as unique as the individuals themselves. Just as a lover of words may be called to sit down and write, while one who loves the outdoors might be drawn to create a new path through a rugged wilderness, art will speak to each person in a different way. An architect may be inspired to create a building; a chef, a mouth-watering meal. The answers to this question can, but don’t necessarily need to, involve the creation of art in the traditional sense — so don’t be surprised when kids answer this question in ways you didn’t expect.
Introducing the study of art history isn’t an intimidating endeavor. You don’t need any special qualifications, or even any artistic ability. All you need is a love of beauty, a sense of curiosity, and either one really good art book or a collection of digital images (the National Gallery of Art collections are immense, and many of the image pages include background information, too).
P.S. Want more resources ideal for homeschool co-ops? Join my closed Facebook group, Homeschool Co-op Teachers, an online community of like-minded parent-teachers.
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