And sometimes… a visit to the gallery doesn’t work, and you’re better off in the soft play area in the foyer! It is hard work taking toddlers to galleries. At that age, they resist being corralled and held back, while still too young to imagine how their movements might affect other people. Instead, the adult has to do this empathy work while diverting the child to less noisy or disturbing activities.
Naya at 21 months enjoyed walking on the beautiful wooden floor of Christchurch Art Gallery and being in the wonderful starry lift. What spoiled our visit was a warning from an over-cautious attendant not to touch anything, and being followed to check we behaved ourselves – I would like to have been trusted not to let her cause upset or damage.
Later, she had fun climbing (quietly and gently) on and off the (empty) sofas, but the best I could manage in terms of looking at art was to direct her attention to paintings with ships or grapes, in between climbs. She paid most attention to another visitor who was looking at the paintings, copying her stance with hands clasped behind her little back and feet apart. She’s learning what people do in art galleries…
She was scared by a contemporary exhibition with life-size figures, but quite intrigued by the shapes and colours in some of Gordon Walters paintings, and started to look at patterns – “blue square!”
We then retired to the soft play area, where she made towers of bricks. It was good fun but it was placed far from any artworks, and we could have been in a supermarket.
This less-than-successful visit made me think about how galleries might learn from and encourage toddlers’ openness to art. If I take Naya to the swimming pool, we are made to feel welcome, with free entry, a family changing room, and a warm shallow pool that works for her size, plus lessons if we want them. I wondered what the equivalent might be for experiencing art…
How about a time in the week when little people are especially welcomed into the gallery with their responsible adult, who is also welcomed and given suggestions for how to direct the child’s attention and talk about the art? Other visiting adults would know what to expect during that time; some might even enjoy sharing the pleasure and delight of children being excited by art.
During this time slot, toddlers could move around in their own way, fast or slow – having just mastered walking, they are still intrigued by the sound of their shoes on hard floors and excited by the wide open spaces of public galleries.
Some artworks might be chosen each week for special looking, with some kind of steps and little viewing platform so that toddlers can get to see the paintings at their eye-level and fully experience them. Postcards of these ‘paintings of the week’ could be provided for children to take home and continue looking at.
The lovely soft play area could be positioned inside a gallery so that there’s more chance of something ‘catching the eye’ and being talked about. Less valuable, but still interesting, paintings might be hung in the café (as is done in the Friends’ Room in the Royal Academy, London), and in educational spaces where toddlers come for activities organised by outside groups.
Visual art is for looking at, for everyone to look at, however small they are.