Thursday: The Importance of the Arts—Raising Cultured Children

By Kathy Bishop & Julia Whitehead, authors of The City Parent Handbook

Early grade school is the sweet spot for broadening your kids’ cultural horizons. Why? Well, kids of this age are often as much into learning as they’ll ever be. Their attention spans have lengthened, so slightly more sophisticated fare isn’t out of the question. Exposure to cultural activities provides great fodder for parent-child conversation and a wonderful medium for shaping values. And finally, parental opinions still count for a lot, so if you say culture’s cool, they’re likely to believe that it is.

Art museums

They work better than you might imagine for this age group. Modern art, for example, can be surprisingly appealing to younger kids who get a kick out of the color, size and media mix. More traditional museums can also be worthwhile if they offer enough variety to keep childish interests from waning. Few six- and seven-year-olds spend a lot of time on the Impressionist exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; however, they can happily while away quite a few moments visiting the Temple of Dendur and associated mummy tombs, running through the Arms and Armor exhibit, and throwing money in the pools at the English Sculpture Garden. If you’re worried about your ability to play tour guide:

Use museum literature. It’s designed to help families wend their way through galleries. Some require kids to navigate the galleries by solving a series of clues. For example, the The Getty Museum in L.A. has Art Detective cards and NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art hands out museum hunts.

Don’t ignore “family” programs. The most successful combine a tour or lecture with other activities: story-reading or -telling, an art project, sketching, even a full-fledged theatrical production related to the art being viewed. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has a series of workshops for 6 to 12-year-olds which integrate gallery visits with music, dramatics and art projects. Their studio art programs mix gallery walks with art experimentation for kids as young as five. In a nod to the busy parent, some of these programs are offered at night ?- like the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Art Evenings for Families, at which parent and child spend an hour talking about and sketching museum art.

Put your child in the hands of a professional. Consider someone like Judith Shupe of Manhattan’s Art Smart Adventures, who takes children on her very popular themed museum tours (“safaris” where kids look for claws and jaws, scales and tails in African, Ancient Egyptian, Medieval European and Southeast Asian works). If you can’t find someone like her in your neck of the woods (ask the staff at your local museum), check her website at for themes you can build a trip around.

Places to consider: Family programs at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, Los Angeles’s Getty Museum, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago.

(Photo: Hands-on museum exploration with Judith Shupe of Art Smart Adventures. © ArtSmart Adventures)

Science museums

Kids are really curious about the world, so these institutions are right up their alley. What? You’re worried your child might be bored? Little chance of that. Perhaps more than any other cultural mecca, science museums have changed dramatically from when we all grew up. No more fusty old dioramas ?- today’s science exhibits are kid magnets, remarkably effective at drawing children into scientific learning by playing on their natural inclinations. Much of the stuff you’ll see is hands-on (if not full-body-on), encouraging kids to do everything from making giant bubbles to conducting symphonies through hand waving, competing against robots in virtual reality sports exhibits to walking through a larger-than-life underground soil ecosystem (which kids at The Field Museum in Chicago just love to do). Don’t ignore any lectures or demonstrations given by museum staff members either. If they’re designed for kids, they’re usually fun and funny. You’ll be surprised at how much your little sciencephobe takes in.

Many planetariums, too, have upgraded their space shows to play to a generation of kids who grew up expecting massive special effects ?- and kids tend to find these shows pretty cool. Try a planetarium “night sky” show, which projects and describes the stars twinkling over your own locale. Of course, if you live in a city, you won’t be able to see a lot of these stars with the naked eye due to light pollution, but that’s okay; most kids are pretty content just to be able to pick out Sirius.

Places to consider: New York’s American Museum of Natural History and the New York Hall of Science, Jersey City’s Liberty Science Center, San Francisco’s Exploratorium, Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute Science Museum and Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

Performing arts

• Child-focused performing arts centers and groups are ubiquitous these days. There are education-oriented ones like Discovery Theater in Washington, D.C., which does a fabulous job of presenting history and multicultural themes in dramatic formats that really captivate the six-and-up crowd. Many more focus on the presentation of classic tales or even newly created works that resonate with children, including D.C.’s Adventure Theater; New York’s Paper Bag Players, Manhattan Children’s Theater and Theaterworks (which also runs touring companies across the country); and Dallas Children’s Theater.

• Adult-oriented institutions offering family fare are also pretty common nowadays. Whether it’s a small performing arts center, like the Alex Theater in Glendale, CA, Symphony Space in Manhattan or Actors’ Playhouse in Miami, or a major one like the Kennedy Center in D.C., the inquiring parent can usually find exceptional age-group-specific family programming. Duration and movement are key. That means shortened performances with healthy doses of humor and action mixed in.

• Orchestral music can work for this age group, too, but you have to know your child. Groups like the New York Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony Orchestra generally hold a young people’s concert series, where an edited, often narrated, performance is usually preceded by an interactive session with musicians, games or art projects.

Other stuff

Experiences that mix learning with a little action are perfect for this age:

• Local landmarks with an interactive flavor: St. John the Divine Cathedral in Manhattan holds medieval Saturdays, during which kids can make stained-glass art in a Gothic environment.

• Short guided and semiguided tours: A three-hour jaunt on a sightseeing bus might be a little much for this age group, but more abbreviated tours in more unusual vehicles can be a big hit. Consider a horse and buggy ride (sometimes the driver can provide a worthy history) or a Duck tour, a hot tourist ride that lets you travel in an amphibious boat. Duck tours are offered in Philly, Boston, D.C., Chicago, Austin and Singapore ?- and are coming to more cities soon.
• Sleepovers at zoos or aquariums: Kids love that behind-the-scenes peek at how creatures spend the night, and they’ll remember it as a fun parent-child bonding experience too.

• Urban “factories”: Even if you don’t have a big industrial factory near you, your kids may be even more intrigued by what can be produced by manual labor on a smaller scale. Many cities have local favorites, like the Jelly Belly and Golden Gate Cookie factories in San Francisco or Eli’s Cheesecake Factory in Chicago, but if you can’t find anything along those lines, think smaller: Chinese noodle factories, chocolate factories and glassblowing centers can be found in many areas.

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