For many children, an art museum, concert hall or theatre can be stifling -- not at all conducive to exploration and discovery. However, with the right context, you can ease them into enjoying these venues early so that when they are ready, they possess a deeper appreciation of the arts as a medium for communication and expression.
Fine art. Many art museums offer free family days and hands-on activities for kids. Age-appropriate programs for kids offer an opportunity to explore a theme or a specific aspect of an exhibit. For example, after viewing an exhibit entitled “Impressionists in Winter”, my daughter turned a shoebox into an “ice museum” complete, paper snowflakes, cotton snowballs, and ticny posters of "impressionist works". And my son adorned himself with glittery regalia he fashioned out of foil paper and mardi gras beads before he toured an exhibit of King Tut artifacts. As kids get older you can ask them to observe lines and shadows, evaluate mood and color, compare works or observe differences between media, but it might be tough to get kids excited if you wait until high school. Best to make them feel at home in these spaces early – then the learning moments will come.
If kids programs aren’t being offered, you can still make a visit fun by turning it into a game. Pick up an exhibit brochure on your way in, and ask your child to find the art pieces or paintings in the brochure – like a scavenger hunt. Or I let them look at the postcard in the gift shop, pick a favorite, then have them read the map to figure out where they can find the real thing. Don’t worry if the game only lasts 30 min before they start asking for the café. Follow their lead and make the experience enjoyable. Curiosity will get the better of them if they are allowed to wander freely and explore at their own pace.
Symphonies and Operas. Family concerts tend to be shorter (some are offered at reduced prices or free), and include pieces that appeal to children. I would introduce the instruments to my kids ahead of time, so they were familiar with the sounds and styles of music played by them. Or we would read up on the story, characters or the life of the composer. Before a piece started, I would ask them to listen for something – a particular instrument or melody. Or afterwards, I would ask why they thought a composer created this particular music, what story he was trying to tell or how he might have wanted to make people feel. When kids are older, you can engage them in a discussion about major and minor keys, and compare/contrast styles of music, but in the beginning, plant the seeds of enjoyment by letting them enjoy an afternoon at a magnificent concert hall.
Live Theatre. We are fortunate to have free Shakespeare in the Park in our neighborhood every summer, and we’ve made it to a performance at least every other year. Usually held in a park with plenty of open space, the venue allows squirmy youngsters to run around without penalty (to you or to them) when their attention spans start to wane. They can return when they’re ready for a rest, and have the capacity to be more focused as a result. While young children may not yet be ready to understand the entire story, the costumes, sets and actors may garner enough interest for an enjoyable family evening out. As my children got older, we would borrow the text or DVD from the library beforehand, casually previewing any of the most popular lines or scenes. My children were delighted when they saw a familiar scene, or observed similarities or differences between the live performance and the movie. And the early exposure made school assignments feel much more accessible.
Enjoy the arts as a family. When the kids were young, we often put in all types of music into the CD player (classical, pop, jazz, Broadway) and have “dance parties”. Or we would let the kids put on shows in the living room. But my favorite moment of enjoying the arts as a family was when we painted on the rim of the Grand Canyon. We set up easels, chairs and gave each child a canvas, a palette of acrylic paint and a selection of their own brushes. And we painted what we saw.