Contemporary art can be thought of as any recent art that follows and extends the trajectory of art history. It can be very confusing, so helping children learn about it is often a daunting prospect. But there are so many contemporary artists and even more ways of producing art, that there is plenty for children to be inspired by. In fact, children’s learning and artists’ practices often include the same distinct phases: questioning, experiencing and repeating.
Contemporary art is so full of mysteries and surprises that there really is something for everyone. Model an inquisitive attitude by asking children the same open-ended questions you would ask yourself of a contemporary artwork: What could it be? What do/don’t you like about it? How did she/he make it? Why do you think they chose that shape/colour/material? What might it feel like?
While there are many fantastic children’s books on the topic,* contemporary art is better experienced in real life. Artists everywhere host open studio events now and then which are a brilliant opportunity to see their workspace, materials and to talk to them about it. Many galleries have education programs that include early years workshops, too.
For children, the best experience of contemporary art is of course a hands-on experience, so if you can’t get to a gallery workshop, nurseries might want to book a visit from an artist educator; a practising artist who can provide learning experiences inspired by their own work or in response to particular themes. You can also get many ideas for designing your own activities by reading about artists’ processes and finding safe ways to do them yourself.
I try to plan art-making sessions in response to repeating patterns in children’s play. Starting with observations of any particular schemas, I then look for artists who work with similar processes. Most artists have a few different ways of making art so there’s often plenty of material to build a whole series of projects around. Here are a few simple examples:
- Bridget Riley’s wobbly stripes, Gerhard Richter’s checker patterned pieces and Damien Hirst’s spot paintings can be inspirational for children who enjoy shapes or have positioning schemas. Artists use pattern for many different reasons – to make our eyes feel funny, to link ideas, or to present beautiful combinations of colours. You can print spots with lids, make checkered collages with coloured card squares or use colourful insulating tape to make massive stripy patterns directly on the floor.
- Phyllida Barlow makes colossal sculptures using ordinary DIY materials. If your children demonstrate connecting schemas, have a look at the sculptures she makes by joining things in elaborate frameworks. You could build similar art out of sticks, straws, pipes, planks or tubes held together with sticky tape, blue tack, clay or string.
- Niki de Saint Phalle’s Shooting Paintings were made by placing bags of paint between layers in her paintings and shooting at them. When the bullets pierced the bags the paint flowed out in streams of colour. Children with an interest in superheroes, “shooters,” “ptchooo-ers,” (and other synonyms for guns) and with trajectory schemas love making paintings by shooting watery paint at a sheet with water pistols. Alternatively, dip scrunched up newspaper in paint to throw instead. The whole-body action of throwing makes this a fun, physical method of painting. If you don’t mind getting really messy, put some paint in balloons and inflate them just till they start to stretch. Lay them out on a sheet then take turns to pop them. The balloons will explode with colour all over the place!
About the author
Matthew Kay is an artist educator specialising in Early Years. Alongside making his own work he facilitates contemporary art inspired learning experiences for nurseries and pre-schools in South West London as Eyes Pie Arts (eyespiearts.com).
* A few of my favourite art books for using with early years groups are:
What is Contemporary Art? by Jacky and Suzy Klein (Thames & Hudson, 2012)
The Art Book For Children; Book One (Phaidon, 2005)
The Art Book For Children; Yellow Book (Phaidon, 2007)
The Usborne Art Treasury by Rosie Dickins (Usborne, 2006)
The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds (Walker Books, 2003)
Ish by Peter H. Reynolds (Walker Books, 2004)
Sometimes the text can be too complex for very young children, but it explains the art so clearly that you can easily summarise it for the children.
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