Nearly all art books focus on white male artists (and usually the same ones, too), and so with these explorations I tried to turn that on its head and focus more on women artists and artists of color. Children will learn about van Gogh and Monet easily, and probably will learn about them many times over — and so although they might already know about some artists here, there are many that will seem wonderful and new and exciting to them (and hopefully to grown-ups, too).
What Kids Will Do
In these explorations, kids might…
- curate their own exhibition
- fill a museum with their own art and host a grand opening tour and party
- look at the world through viewfinders
- create a Yayoi Kusama-style room in their house
- make their own shoes
- make jewelry
- send art through the mail
- and do dot paintings, frottage, collage, sculpture, photomontages, automatic drawing, and self-portraits.
(Designed for elementary school children, though many materials and activities might be of interest to older children and adults, too.)
- You Are an Artist: Assignments to Spark Creation, Sarah Urist Green [Amazon | Bookshop] — This book sounds like a self-help book, or a simple book of fun projects, but it isn’t. Green looks at the work of contemporary artists and then presents assignments (and many variations, lots of them appropriate for use with kids) inspired by the artists’ works (some of the assignments were suggested by the artists themselves). It’s a rare book that includes loads of artists of color and artists of different gender identities. It’s excellent.
- Draw Paint Print Like the Great Artists, Marion Deuchars [Amazon | Bookshop] — Deuchars’s art activity books are the best I’ve seen. This one has very short biographies of artists, followed by pages of art ideas based on the artists’ works. This one is made for kids (though great for adults, too), and you can do the art right on the pages.
- Why Is Art Full of Naked People?, Susie Hodge [Amazon | Bookshop] — A pretty good introduction to looking at and thinking about art. Like so many art books, it uses examples primarily from white male artists, but, despite that, it has really clear discussions of major topics in art. I read this cover-to-cover with my 6-year-old.
- Henri’s Scissors, Jeanette Winter [Amazon | Bookshop] — A lovely book about Matisse’s pivot to collage late in life.
- Babar’s Museum of Art, Laurent de Brunhoff [Amazon | Bookshop] — I don’t love Babar, but this is one of the better and more entertaining introductions for very young children about what an art museum is. Inside, famous paintings are redone with elephants in place of people, and my kids were delighted later to come across the originals that the paintings in the book were based on.
- Little People, Big Dreams: Frida Kahlo, Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara and Gee Fan Eng [Amazon | Bookshop] — There are so many children’s biographies about Frida Kahlo, but this is a nice, simple one that can even hold a preschooler’s attention. (This book illustrates, in simple, cartoon-y fashion, the accident that changed Kahlo’s life, but knowledge of that is crucial to understanding Frida’s art and in my experience children can handle this information.)
- Yayoi Kusama: From Here to Infinity!, Sarah Suzuki and Ellen Weinstein [Amazon | Bookshop] — A solid biography of Kusama for kids.
- Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, Javaka Steptoe [Amazon | Bookshop] — A beautiful picture book biography of Basquiat, best for kindergarten+. (For preschoolers+, try the Little People, Big Dreams Basquiat book, which also describes his relationship with Andy Warhol [Amazon | Bookshop].
- Tate Kids — Kid-friendly introductions to artists, along with ideas for art-based projects and experiments. The site’s organization is slightly confusing, but the content is excellent.
- Royal Academy Family How-Tos — A great collection of art projects for kids, with loads of photographs to accompany the directions, and often with links to relevant artists or art works to find inspiration from.
Art Museum: Find a place in the home or teaching space with big expanses of blank walls. The goal will be to make this into an art museum, full of the kids’ art, by the end of the explorations. As they complete new works, you can add them to the museum, or you could save hanging everything until the end, when you put them all up at once. You might also plan to have a grand opening for the museum, in which the kids lead a tour and everyone has drinks and snacks.
Start reading: Why Is Art Full of Naked People?, Susie Hodge [Amazon | Bookshop] (for kindergarten+)
Read: Babar’s Museum of Art, Laurent de Brunhoff [Amazon | Bookshop]
Look: Joan Miró’s automatic painting (scroll down and click on “automatic painting”)
(Image of Joan Miró)
Activity: Automatic drawing
Have children close their eyes and move a pencil or marker or brush freely around the paper. After they open their eyes, they can color in the spaces made by their markings, or they can leave it as it is.
Activity: Blindfold drawing
Choose an object to draw and then, with a blindfold on or with eyes closed, draw the object. Turn the paper over before you look at it, or have someone set it aside. Draw the item again with your eyes open, then compare the two drawings. Consider displaying them together.
Activity: Blindfold drawing in 3 colors (from You Are an Artist)
Select three colors of pencils or markers beforehand, then close your eyes. Draw anything you like (perhaps a star or a tree or a face) first with one color, then with the other two, all without opening your eyes. It might be helpful to have someone hand you your colors when you’re ready for them.
Watch: Kids Think About Race and Art
Look: Lorraine O’Grady’s Art Is…
This link provides background for the artwork, and you can click “view gallery” for O’Grady’s photographs.
Watch: Lorraine O’Grady talks about Art Is…
(Images of Lorraine O’Grady)
Activity: Lorraine O’Grady “Art Is…” homage
Take an empty picture frame (remove a picture from an existing frame if necessary!) and use it to frame yourself somewhere — or frame something else and take a picture of it!
Alternate activity: Make a viewfinder
Make a viewfinder out of a piece of card or cardboard and hold it up around the house and yard — photograph your favorite views. One set of instructions here.
Read: Who is Barbara Hepworth?
(Images of Barbara Hepworth)
Look: Barbara Hepworth’s Sculptures
Watch: Barbara Hepworth: A New Form for Sculpture
Activity: Make a Hepworth necklace and mini-sculpture
Using Sculpey or a similar material, craft a viewfinder necklace. Instructions here. After you finish making your viewfinder, consider using the leftover Sculpey to make your own Hepworth-inspired sculpture, even if it’s just the size of a ping pong ball. You might look at Three Forms (1935), Nesting Stones (1937), Two Figures (1968), or Pendour (1947) for inspiration. Having a pencil to poke holes in your clay might also help! A huge list of her sculptures here (click in the sidebar to view).
Read: Emily Kame Kngwarreye
Look: Some of Kngwarreye’s dot paintings
Activity: Dot paintings
With (plenty of) cotton buds or pencil erasers and acrylic paint, make a dot painting.
Watch: Frida Kahlo: The Woman Behind the Legend
Read: Little People, Big Dreams: Frida Kahlo, Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara and Gee Fan Eng [Amazon | Bookshop]
(Images of Frida Kahlo)
Activity: Self-portraits in fancy frames
Kahlo often painted while looking into a mirror, and you can use a vanity mirror for this or simply buy some flexible mirrors and prop them up (these mirrors can be quite handy for various experiments and projects, too). Kids could paint their own frame if they like, or you can simply use a blank frame template (like this or this)
Activity: Life-sized self-portrait
Have the kids lie on a long strip of craft paper roll (such as this) and then trace around their bodies. They can cut it out, color it in, and even send it to a friend, if they like! (Many children in preschool-1st grade will still fit on a strip of craft paper roll, but if it isn’t working, you can always cut a series of strips off of the roll (each suited to the child’s width), line them up, and tape them together.)
Read: Who Are the Guerrilla Girls?
Look: Guerrilla Girls
Dearest Art Collector
When Racism and Sexism Are No Longer Fashionable
Guerrilla Girls’ Code of Ethics
Read: “Kim Beck,” You Are an Artist: Assignments to Spark Creation, Sarah Urist Green [Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch: Do a Surface Test
Activity: Frottage (from You Are an Artist/Art Assignment)
Set out a variety of materials with good textures (like coins) and make rubbings with newsprint paper. Then take the newsprint paper outside and do surface tests on the ground. (Consider taking a photo of your rubbing on the ground where you made it.) Try doing a rubbing in one color, then rotating the paper and doing another on top in another color. Or arrange leaves in a pattern and do a rubbing that way. Kids might also enjoy making a rubbing at their house, sending it in the mail to a friend, and asking for a rubbing to be sent back in return.
Read: Who Is Henri Matisse?
And/or read: Henri’s Scissors, Jeanette Winter [Amazon | Bookshop]
Meet the Artist: Henri Matisse, Patricia Geis [Amazon | Bookshop] (a fun book with interactive elements, though suited mostly for kids 7+)
(Image of Henri Matisse)
Watch: Footage of Henri Matisse Making a Paper Cut Out
Look: For more amazing views of his studio, see this very comprehensive look from MoMA.
Or listen: MoMA’s audio tour for kids about Matisse’s cut-outs.
Activity: Construction paper cut-out
A classic: ripped or cut, anything goes.
There aren’t many Hannah Höch reading materials for children, so grown-ups might consider reading an article about her, Hannah Höch: Art’s Original Punk, or reading a short biography and then talking to children about her photomontages. (You might mention Höch’s interest in feminism and gender roles, her use of dolls, and her involvement in Dadaism. For a simple explanation of Dadaism for kids, see this article on Marcel Duchamp.) Many of Höch’s photomontages include images of the human body, and sensitive children might find some of them a little scary! In my own experience, children were interested in all of this, but use your judgment about what your children might find frightening. Some highlights:
Made for a Party
Little Sun (like the Warhol work below, this, too, makes use of Marilyn Monroe’s image)
(Images of Hannah Höch)
Activity: Hannah Höch photomontage homage
For this activity, you’ll need to think ahead: rip out photographs of heads from magazines. You’ll want quite a few, including some big close-ups). Spread out all of the photographs on the floor and let children mix and match. For younger children, it might be easiest to work with a “base head,” a picture to which they’ll glue other fragments.
Read: Who Is Andy Warhol?
(Images of Andy Warhol)
Activity: Make Art Like Andy Warhol
First, take a look at some of Warhol’s works: from Marilyn Monroe (and scroll to the bottom for installation views) and Lita Curtain Star [Lita Hornick]. Take pictures of the kids and yourself against a white wall, and then print them on a black-and-white printer by indicating on the print menu that you want six copies per page, filling the page. (For preschoolers, they might get the most enjoyment out of coloring a single big image.) We used good-quality colored pencils, and these came out beautifully.
Clothing and Textile Arts
Watch: Down to Earth by Anna Vasof
Activity: Making your own shoes
Template for slides
Template for mules
I’ll be honest: this is a difficult activity. All the same, kids feel undeniable delight at having made their own shoes. So if you want to try this project with kids under 8, here’s what I suggest: Measure their feet with the templates the day beforehand. When kids aren’t around, cut out the four soles and uppers. (Cutting through corrugated cardboard takes some strength. You could also make the soles out of card, but they won’t be as sturdy.) Cut the uppers out of card, like from cereal boxes, and be generous with it, perhaps a bit beyond what the instructions call for. You can then assemble the shoes with the kids and they’ll decorate it. Consider paint, stickers, washi tape, ribbon, buttons, flowers, foil… anything you have around.
Activity: Making rings, two ways
Method 1: Keep the pull tabs from cartons of milk or orange juice, and hot glue beads or gems to them. Method 2: Use pipe cleaners to make flower rings. Instructions here.
Look: Explore the Bayeux Tapestry online
Read: Tapestry or Embroidery? (fairly simple text about its production)
What Is the Bayeux Tapestry About? (longer)
Watch: The Animated Bayeux Tapestry
Activity: Make your own Bayeux Tapestry
And print it!
Read: Who Is Yayoi Kusama?
(Images of Yayoi Kusama above and here)
Yayoi Kusama: From Here to Infinity!, Sarah Suzuki and Ellen Weinstein [Amazon | Bookshop]
Yayoi Kusama — Obsessed with Polka Dots
Yayoi Kusama Interview — Earth Is a Polka Dot (short excerpt in which Kusama explains the significance of the polka dot)
A Vivid Message of Peace from Yayoi Kusama
Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration Room
Activity: Yayoi Kusama-style Obliteration Room homage in your house
Washi tape long strips of white butcher paper to a small space in your house. Consider covering furniture and lampshades, too, and if you have white paper cups and plates, put those out, too! You will need dot stickers in three sizes: 1″, 2″, and 4″. Set aside (and don’t use) brown, black, and white stickers. Then get right to it. It’s exhilarating.
Watch: Tucker Nichols: Flowers for Sick People
Look: Flowers for Sick People
Activity: Flowers for Sick People homage: Flowers for Friends
Use blank watercolor postcards (such as these or these) to make flower paintings for friends. If you’re working with younger children, consider painting solid-color backgrounds beforehand so that they’re all dry and ready for flowers. Help kids decide on a friend for each painting, then paint a flower or flower arrangement they think their friends might like. Finally, tuck them in an envelope and send them off (but keep a few for the museum).
Activity: Curate your own art exhibition
If you have a postcard collection, line up all the postcards on the floor and have kids pick postcards that they would like in their own exhibition. As many as they like! Kids will likely have opinions about how the images should be arranged, so ask them for direction as you tape them up on a wall with washi or painter’s tape. After, ask the kids to tell you about why they chose those images. If you don’t have a postcard collection, this set from MoMA has plenty to choose from (also: this set from the Met).
Jean-Michel Basquiat and Street Art
Read: Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, Javaka Steptoe [Amazon | Bookshop]
Or, for preschoolers: Little People, Big Dreams: Jean-Michel Basquiat [Amazon | Bookshop]
(Image of Jean-Michel Basquiat)
Look: Pez Dispenser
Watch: How to Be a Street Artist
David Zinn: Street Art That Washes Away in the Rain
Peace in Progress: An Interview with Eduardo Kobra
For more: Graffiti art definition and street art definition
Activity: Street art game
A web-based game from Tate.
Activity: Go on a street art tour in your city
Chances are, you can find street art in your city. Check to see if there are areas with murals, for instance, and go visit.
Activity: Create your own street art
Using sidewalk chalk (such as this), kids can create their own street art. Perhaps they’re already used to drawing with chalk outside, but framing it as an exhibit or a mural might give the activity some new life. Consider drawing on your fence, if you have one, or on the bottom part of your driveway. Kids can even draw fancy frames around their work. Perhaps you can mark out a word or a shape in painter’s tape and the kids can fill it in.
Art Museum Opening
Activity: Art museum tour
Display all the art the kids created during these activities in a relatively empty space. (You might consider the lower half of hallway walls, for instance.) If you have anything that could function as a plinth (such as a stool), display sculptures and other objects on that. Once it’s complete, have the kids guide you through their works. One great question to ask is simply: “Tell me about this.” Or just describe what you see and let them elaborate for you. After the tour is complete, celebrate with drinks and snacks, the fancier the better.
Read On, Grown-Ups
- You Are an Artist: Assignments to Spark Creation, Sarah Urist Green [Amazon | Bookshop] — As noted in “Read On” above: This book sounds like a self-help book, or a simple book of fun projects, but it isn’t. Green looks at the work of contemporary artists and then presents assignments (and many variations, lots of them appropriate for use with kids) inspired by the artists’ works (some of the assignments were suggested by the artists themselves). It’s a rare book that includes loads of artists of color and artists of different gender identities. It’s excellent.
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