"I didn't grow up with the arts," my friend Shelley complained over coffee recently.
"I wish I had. I'd like to give my kids some exposure to art and music, but I'm not really sure where to start."
Shelley was asking me for advice, not because of any music or art degree (I have neither), but she'd noticed my kids either da-da-da-da-ing along with Beethoven's Fifth, rehearsing lines from Shakespeare, or studying a book of French Impressionism. Maybe she was struck that they seemed comfortable and unembarrassed?as though Mozart was as valid a teen choice today as 'NSync.
I was like Shelley once?intimidated by high-brow culture. I grew up in a home where country music and black velvet paintings were the rule. My mom was too exhausted from eking out a living to do much more than laundry on the weekend. I thought concerts and museums were only for school field trips.
But as a young mother, I was in a position to change that for my kids. From my Montessori training, I knew that the best time to introduce kids to anything was the early years, when all the windows of opportunity were wide open.
In 1998, Georgia, South Dakota, and Tennessee hospitals began sending parents of newborns home not only with disposable diapers but also with Mozart CDs. In Florida, legislation was introduced requiring government-funded child care centers to play classical music.
These innovations were spurred by studies showing that classical music improves academic performance. Now, just a few years later, parents and teachers can buy background Bach for study time. And the studies continue: one shows that 3-5 year olds improve their spatial-temporal reasoning (the basis for engineering and math) after 6 months of piano lessons.
Above and beyond these fringe benefits, though, classical music is a rich addition to any child's life. And the earlier it's introduced, the better.
Try a little Mozart in the morning, a little Brahms at night. You'll find that a background of calm classical music will even out the tone during those cranky times. If you thought of classical music as something for older folks, you'll be surprised at how even the youngest family members will perk up their ears at the first measure. If you're not sure where to start, check the music store's children's section for new classical CDs featuring works that hold the most kid appeal. There are even opera selections available with children in mind.
An added blessing for believing parents: some of the most inspired classical works are part of our Christian heritage. Handel's Messiah, for example, is a major work consisting solely of prophecies about Jesus and Scriptures from his life, death, and resurrection. Listening to these verses set to rich music and sung by the world's greatest voices can be a powerful reinforcement of your family's faith?especially at Christmas and Easter.
Out and about
Check your local symphony box office for concerts aimed at children?sometimes called Lollipop Concerts. These feature short, compelling works that paint a picture or tell a story, often with commentary on what to listen for.
Look also for performances by young musicians. And help your children make the most of their symphony experience by an advance trip to the library for books with pictures of the various instruments and tapes that teach how to recognize their sounds. If you know the concert program beforehand, listen to the selections a few times with your kids to familiarize them with what they'll hear.
And don't forget dance. The Nutcracker at Christmas is a wonderful way to introduce your children to classical music. The vivid visual impressions will draw them into the music not just the first time, but each time they hear it.
If pictures are worth a thousand words to us, they're worth a million to children?especially those without extensive vocabularies. Little ones' minds dwell strictly in the concrete. The capacity to understand abstract concepts develops gradually and is grounded in examples they've encountered. For instance, if a child does not understand the word bravery, he can see it in a soldier going into battle. Or if he doesn't understand the word devotion, a picture of the way a mother looks at a child will explain it. Along with exposure to lots of picture books, little children thrive on exposure to art.
For children, art education begins simply by seeing art in their own environment. As a Montessori teacher, I was taught to think of the environment through a child's eyes. Imagine taking a tour of your house on your knees. What surrounds your child at his eye level? Even if you have some interesting art on the walls at your eye level, it will be years before your children enjoy it.
One easy and inexpensive way to surround your child with art is to collect note cards with famous works, especially those that have a lot of kid-appeal, like Renoir's Girl with Watering Can or Winslow Homer's Crack the Whip. Buy small, ready-made frames, then group your mini works of art where your child is apt to spend time. If you have a reading nook, for example, hang pictures of people reading. Pictures of children playing outdoors could be hung by the coat rack.
Out and about
If you're not familiar with nearby art museums, now's a good time to get to know them better. If you are familiar, just rethink them through your children's eyes.
When you make plans to visit an art museum together, prepare your child. Explain why you need to wear comfortable, quiet shoes, to use quiet voices, and to look but not touch. Don't plan on seeing the whole museum in one visit and be sure to take a break for lunch or a snack. Let your child set the pace (unless you need to help her slow down). When she is interested in a particular picture or sculpture, read the label nearby for the title, the artist's name, the date, and the medium. At the end of your outing, let your child pick out a few postcards from the gift shop of the works she likes. These will be the first items in her own art collection.
Much of our Christian heritage is represented in classical art. There's something very gratifying about having your child instantly recognizing the subject matter of a painting straight out of the Bible.
If your children are of a certain age, they're likely to display some embarrassment over artistic nudity. I use the standard of the artist's intent. In classical Greek sculpture, for instance, the artist's primary motivation was interest in the human structure and form. Most familiar classical nudes are neither salacious nor vulgar. They are not manipulative, nor intended to arouse lust in the beholder.
I'll never forget the year five of my kids put on The Wizard of Oz for our family?their own production from the first idea to the last bow. Our family's big, so it lends itself to encouraging a flair for drama in our kids. For smaller families who want to expose their kids to drama, you'll need to seek out opportunities. Check the phone book's yellow pages or your newspaper's weekly events pages for children's theater?classes, auditions, or current productions. If your children like drama, they'll probably enjoy a high school production as much as a professional one.
Don't underestimate your kids' capacity to appreciate drama. I've found children as young as 9 to be very receptive to Shakespeare. Even if they didn't understand every word, they got the action and feelings.
Parents know that while most of us can learn more than one language, those who feel most comfortable with two languages were exposed to both from the earliest years. The same principle works in the area of the fine arts.
Early exposure, even the most casual introduction, will enrich your children's lives now and as they grow. They'll be comfortable in the arts and more likely to discover and explore the special gifts God may have given them.
Barbara Curtis is a writer and the mother of 12. She and her family live in California
Art for Children
(Harper Trophy), by Ernest Raboff, is a series of books about different artists including Rembrandt, Picasso, Van Gogh, Klee, Chagall, and more. These books are out of print, but still available at libraries and through out-of-print searches on the Internet. The books, for ages 4 and up, bring the artist's work down to a level kids (and art-deficient parents) can grasp.
With Open Eyes
(Voyager) is a CD-ROM highlighting 200 works from the Art Institute of Chicago. Highly interactive, it gets children involved with commentary, timelines, and related works.
(Voyager) is another CD-ROM that takes kids on a tour of the famous French museum with full screen images and close ups. For more information on these CD-ROMs, go to http://cd-rom-guide.com.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today Magazine.
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