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Strategies to Engage Young Children with Museum Objects and Artworks

Strategies to Engage Young Children with Museum Objects and Artworks

By Meredith Osborne, Museum and Early Learning Specialist, Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center and Brooke Shoemaker, Museum and Early Learning Specialist, Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center

As early learning and museum education specialists at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center, we believe in the value of using museum objects (including artifacts, artwork, specimens, etc.) to engage children ages zero to six in learning every day. Objects tell stories, provide opportunities for careful looking and critical thinking, and can help make abstract concepts more concrete. But what if you’re not near a museum? Alternatively, what if you are, but aren’t sure how to engage your child in the objects at the museum and at home? The Smithsonian Learning Lab provides the resources, and we’re providing tips for how to use objects in your home or classroom to explore ideas and concepts.

No matter what concept we’re learning about, or what object we’re observing, we have tried-and-true techniques to engage children in the object and create deep understandings of new knowledge. To illustrate this, we have detailed a lesson here in which we used The Girl I Left Behind Me by Eastman Johnson to explore the wind, what causes it, and how it is measured.

Careful Looking: When we first approach a museum object with a young child, we encourage them to look carefully at the object and list everything that they see. If the child is preverbal or needs some help getting started, we model this technique by pointing and listing everything we see. The exercise is a powerful experience for young children. Not only does it build vocabulary by introducing new words and phrases, it also teaches children the reciprocal nature of communication. Starting with labeling creates a shared understanding and helps builds the foundation for a richer conversation.

Learning Lab makes it easy to modify and even build upon this technique by using the Image Hotspot tool. The Image Hotspot is ideal for drawing attention to specific areas of the object. The Hotspot tool’s ability to highlight certain areas can help alleviate confusion that sometimes occurs in a museum where you are unable to touch or get too close to a piece, making it hard to show exactly what area you want to focus on. 

The Girl I Left Behind Me, by Eastman Johnson, with Learning Lab hospots


For example, when talking about the wind, we used the Hotspots to bring focus on three different parts of the image. In the upper two spots, the hair and the cloak are blowing freely. The fabric in the third Hotspot looks different. Children can work to create hypotheses about why the fabric and the hair are moving in the first two Hotspots (presumably the wind is blowing it) and why fabric seems still in the bottom Hotspot (perhaps because she is stepping on it with her shoe). This type of careful looking gives young children the tools they need to more clearly express their thoughts and ideas.

Songs & Books: After taking some time to carefully look, singing a song, reciting a poem, or reading a book that relates to the object can help deepen understandings and gain new knowledge. Songs, poems, and books are engaging to young children while they also build vocabulary skills. For example, while looking at The Girl I Left Behind Me, try singing W-I-N-D-Y, reciting the poem, The Wind is Full of Tricks or Who Has Seen the Wind? By Christina Rossetti, or reading Kite Day: A Bear and Mole Book by Will Hillenbrand, The Wind Blew by Pat Hutchins or In the Wind by Elizabeth Spurr.

Teachers on the floor of a museum learning about wind


Act it Out:
Play is how young children learn, and it is a valuable way to engage children in objects and extend their thinking. By incorporating play opportunities tied to the objects you explore on Learning Lab, a child is better able to process and experiment with new knowledge. For example, to explore the question, “How hard is the wind blowing in this painting?”, we used scarves to act as the girl’s clothes, and saw what happened when we blew “wind” on the fabric. We experimented with different wind strengths, first blowing on the scarves with our breath, then fanning the scarves with paper fans, and finally blowing the fans with automated hand-held fans. We found that we needed several strong automated fans to keep the fabric blowing horizontally, like the girl’s clothing in the painting. Through our play and experimentation, we realized that the wind must have been blowing pretty hard in the painting.

Wind strength is a complex concept, and while we might do this playful experiment with preschoolers, it would most likely prove to be a frustrating experience for younger children. For children under the age of three, we recommend simply acting out the wind – move a scarf (or tissue) around pretending to be the wind. Practice moving the scarf fast for a very windy day, and slow for a calm day. Then look back at the painting and either discuss or narrate how hard the wind might be blowing in the painting.

Children in various settings learning about wind


Connecting to the Real World:
Some children may not be able to explain the reason for the different movements of fabric when initially looking at The Girl I Left Behind Me. Rather than simply explaining the concepts, providing children with real-life experiences where they explore these ideas will help them make connections. On a windy day, children can go outside and experience the wind blowing their hair. Or they can play with a parachute and notice that wind can lift it up as long as nothing too heavy is placed on it. Adding other art pieces such as Delta Solar by Alejandro Otero and Untitled by Alexander Calder, and toys such as pinwheels, bubbles, kites, and fans can help children gain a concrete understanding of this phenomenon. In time, these experiences will help children create their own understanding of what is being depicted in the painting. Be sure to refer back to the Learning Lab image after your real-world experiences and see if you notice anything new.

We hope we inspired you to use objects with your children whether it be at home or at school. Would you like to try these techniques to learn about other weather-related concepts? Try Snow Field (Winter in the Berkshires by Rockwell Kent for snow, Umbrellas in the Rain by Bertha Lum for rain, and Rooftops and Clouds, Paris by H. Lyman Sayen for clouds.


The Girl I Left Behind Me

Image: The Girl I Left Behind Me (detail), by Eastman Johnson.
A girl stands on a promontory, her hair streaming in the wind. The path before her trails off, so she must either retrace her steps or try to find her way forward. Her wedding ring speaks to a commitment to her union and a husband who has gone to war. The split-rail fence below and the fog surrounding her speak to a world fraught with division and ambivalence. Johnson’s figure appears to be waiting for some sign of what will come next. The title comes from a Regimental song..
Smithsonian American Art Museum