Take a Closer Look – Examining Visual Art with Preschoolers

I’m rushing to finish up the posts for the Arts and the Senses unit, so that I can start posting the next unit I’m excited about!  Check back on the unit theme page, where I’ve explained several activities in quick notes and links rather than a full post!  This activity, however, warranted a little more explanation!

Whenever I talk to young children about visual art, I love to have several famous pieces of work to use for examples.  Of course, I don’t have any originals myself, feel free to use those if you do! 

I tend to get ideas about 12 hours before I need them.  24 on a good day.  I’d like to think that’s a sign of genius, but I have a feeling it’s more likely attributed to procrastination.  At any rate, the first time I decided I absolutely had to have some examples of fine art to show a group of children, I rushed to a few book stores and teacher supply shops looking for a kit with teaching samples.  I’m sure such a kit exists…somewhere.  But I certainly couldn’t find one in my frenzied search.  What I did find works just as well and is probably cheaper.  I love it when that happens.

I purchased this art book from the clearance table at Barnes and Noble or Borders.  It was about $10.  I took it home and took a razor blade to it, releasing the pictures from the book.  I selected some of my very favorites to show to the kiddos and laminated them.  I used construction paper to cover some of the more “mature” pictures (read: “nude” or “gory”) before laminating.  These laminated book pages are fantastic because they offer wonderful art samples while also including a bit of information, like the art era, the artist’s name and time period, as well as a short biographical sketch.  The book also includes information about each art movement through history.  So much information, which is really helpful when you’re only a hobby artist and not a trained one!


When I talk to young children about art, my objective is to expose them to great works, but also to help them see themselves as artists and to think critically about art.

I usually start by showing a few pieces from the Modern Era and talk about how the artists use shape and color.  We look through a few pieces by artists like Piet Mondrian, Barnett Newman, and Sonia Delaunay.  And I always love to show the little ones the action paintings by Jackson Pollock!  Looking at these more abstract works makes it easier to focus simply on lines, shapes, colors, and intensity.  We talk a lot about how their work is similar to these  pieces!

From there, I begin showing a few other works, talking about how some artists like to paint nature, flowers, and scenes.  Some like to paint people in many different ways.  I show a variety of paintings- as long as the children are still interested- and we talk about what we notice, like, or feel about the paintings.  It may just be that one of the girls likes Degas’ ballet dancers!  Or it may be that one painting makes us feel warm because there are flowers and light, and another makes us feel cold because the colors are dark and it looks like the wind is blowing.  Sometimes I hand out magnifying glasses and we look at the types of strokes that were used. 

I use a lot of the concepts I addressed in this post.  The idea is to give a broad look at the different ways art can be done and the different experiences viewing it can bring.  It is very effective to use pieces that show contrasting components – bright/dull, reality/fantasy, warm/cold, etc. 

Depending on the attention span of your group, you may want to break these viewings up into several sessions with different emphases in mind.  One day you may look at the color and form of the Modern Era, and then create some similar works.  Another day, you may look at the different ways artists portray plants, and another day people.  Or you may look at a series of “blue” pieces, and a series of “red” pieces and compare and contrast them. 

There really are so many ways to examine visual art, and they go far beyond just memorizing artists and titles.  Ditch the flash card approach to art.  Get closer, get talking, and turn your little ones into critics! 

More from the “Exploring the Arts through Our Senses” unit here!

Top photo by tullosmark.  Painting in top photo by Robert Rouschenberg.



Filed under Create, Learning through Play and Experience

4 responses to “Take a Closer Look – Examining Visual Art with Preschoolers

  1. farol nelson

    Great art tips, Mandy! Here are some more ideas…I love to check out museum websites for books, materials and ideas. The Metropolitan in NYC has a great site and wonderful store to eshop and soooo many choices for children, books, materials, games, etc. wide range for different ages, too. The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) is a good source as well. Don’t forget to check out local museums and exhibits no matter the size. We recently saw a small but impressive exhibit at the SLC Art Center by Jamie Wyeth depicting the ‘Seven Sins’ as seen through seagulls on an island in Maine. It was amazing and one that you could visit with children with a little explanation and moralizing (hee,hee) as desired. The movement, color, texture and presentation through these birds was just incredible! I would not shy away from the human form and nude depictions when discussing art with children, just choose carefully and appropriately for the age and background of the child. Remember children process knowledge and form perceptions from what is NOT presented or talked about as well as from more overt information. Oh my, I could go on and on about this subject! Keep up the good work! Farol

  2. Mariah

    Mandy — I have some questions unrelated to art. Is it best to post them here in the comments?


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