Taking Kids To See Art Might Be The Worst – Or Best – Idea Ever

I'll never forget dragging my daughter away kicking and screaming because she "wanted to touch the paintings".

This half-term, in an effort to expand my children’s intellectual horizons, I decided to take them to an art gallery.

Parents – we do this, from time to time, don’t we? We seek out something ‘cultural’ to do, partly to give CBeebies a break, partly to expose our kids to new experiences. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it backfires.

When my daughter was just six weeks old, I took her to Yayoi Kusama’s blockbuster show in London, because I thought she would enjoy the bright, vibrant colours and textures of the Japanese artist’s work. I’d forgotten about Kusama’s famous red-and-white-spotted, stuffed fabric penises.

Then there was the Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum. I went with my son, at 18 months, who found it so unspeakably boring that he lay face-down on the floor, arms by his sides, and refused to move; while hordes of OAPs and bemused tourists stepped carefully around him to look at wave pictures.

Exhibition gallery visitors viewing trendy abstract paintings pictures in modern art gallery vector illustration
Artis777 via Getty Images
Exhibition gallery visitors viewing trendy abstract paintings pictures in modern art gallery vector illustration

And, of course, the time we went to see Matisse’s famous painting, ‘The Snail’. My little girl was giddy with excitement – she had a book with that painting in it! She had learned about it at school! She wanted to... touch it! (The tantrum after being told she wasn’t allowed to, by security, still gives me shivers to think about.)

Nevertheless, this half-term, a friend and I decided to take our charges – four of them, ranging in age from three to seven – to see Antony Gormley at the Royal Academy. We’re fortunate to live in London, close to galleries famous across the world, where most of the art on display is free to view. But we wanted to see the Gormley exhibition, so we paid for tickets. Which meant that we actually paid close to £20 for our children to use the handrail next to the toilets and cafe as a climbing frame. For hours.

This isn’t anything new – if you’re a parent or carer of young children, and you’ve been to Tate Modern, you’ll be familiar with its piece de resistance: the Turbine Hall. Otherwise known as a massive room, with a sloping floor, that kids love to run, slide and roll down, while you sit down for the first time that week, drinking a takeaway coffee.

But, here’s the thing: most of the time we worry our kids will break the art – when actually, they might just make it.

After we’d finished with the handrail, we went to look at Gormley’s work, and the kids loved it. It helped that it was interactive – that there was an entire room made of bendable metal rings, which visitors were encouraged to climb on, in, through and around. There was also a pitch-black tunnel, so dark you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, leading to the inside of an even darker cube. We all queued up for it. Twice.

In one room, faceless sculptures walked the walls and ceilings. My three-year-old was transfixed. He gasped and ran around, joyfully pointing and shouting, “I can see his PENIS!”

Kids and art. They don’t – can’t – appreciate it quietly. If they’re excited by something, they’re usually shouting about it. And isn’t that the point? Art, really beautiful art, moves you. Gets you excited. Makes you want to dance and shout and run around.

But if you want to know the lasting impact seeing more art has had on my children, here’s an insight: I recently walked into my living room, with its calm, white walls, to discover a giant yellow sun – with mandatory smiley face – drawn across the length of one of them. In permanent marker.

When I asked my son about it, his face lit up. “It’s got a happy face!” he said proudly. And when I asked him gently if he thought he “should be drawing on walls”, he clapped his hands to his mouth, and giggled.

“No!” he crowed. “But – it’s a painting! And you like it!”

And he’s right. Sigh. We do.