Madison is justly famous for its bicycle paths, lakes and world-class university. Money magazine named Middleton the best place to live in America in 2007, an award Madison took in 1997. Best Life magazine ranked Madison as the eighth best place to raise a family in 2007; if you ask parents why they love the city, chances are they will name the school system as a reason. In 1997 Utne Reader ranked Madison America's fifth most enlightened city to live in. But one aspect of Madison that is frequently, and unjustly, overlooked is the wealth of artistic opportunities for children of all ages.
Children are naturally inclined towards the visual and musical arts, and there are lots of artistic endeavors available year-round to kids in the Madison area - and parents who are interested in fostering artistic awareness, sensibilities and abilities in their children.
For toddlers and tykes
The Madison Children's Museum is a favorite spot for younger children, a hub of activity on the weekends. It's an experience suitable for even the very young: a 2-year-old can romp with the walk-in fish or the many hands-on installations. In the play-acting area, a 5-year-old can pretend to parent baby dolls, dressing them, rocking them, and putting them to bed in the crib. Older siblings can immerse themselves in the learning centers on the second floor.
Though it's geared toward the younger set, the Madison Children's Museum provides an opportunity to teach the basics of art and museum going: observation, connecting art installations to the world around them and esthetic appreciation of sensory input. A color wheel on the first floor affords an excellent opportunity to learn how colors interact: As you turn the wheel, light shines through two overlapping sets of stained glass. The grownups may even learn something about the behavior of light and color.
For the budding architect, there's a miniature and changeable model of the downtown area, with holes for kids to pop out from to plan their city (wooden trees, buildings, and trains are provided), a blueprint of the Capitol dome, and wooden blocks for building prototypes.
The music room is perfect for a spontaneous lesson on polyrhythms, and what child doesn't like banging on drums and joining in on impromptu jams with bells, African marimbas and even a rain stick.
An intermediate step
The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) hosts a variety of programs for children and families. MMoCA's Kids' Art Adventures are free drop-in art workshops held the second Sunday of the month from September through May. The activities are targeted to children ages 6-10, but the museum welcomes younger brothers and sisters.
The Art Cart, co-sponsored by MMoCA and Madison School & Community Recreation, is a traveling resource that provides free outdoor art projects for younger children up to age 8. You'll find the Art Cart at playgrounds and parks throughout the summer.
Families can also take advantage of MMoCAkids Learning Centers, ArtPacks and Let's Look guides for independent discovery within the museum, interacting with items from the permanent collection and with its many traveling exhibits.
Prepping the kids for adult museums
Before you ever set foot in a gallery, the first step is helping to make kids comfortable with museums and their conventions. "Parents should discuss 'museum manners' before the visit," says Anne Lambert, curator of education at the UW's Chazen Museum of Art. "A museum's purpose (to preserve and display art for everyone) and rules (no touching, no running) are quite different from, say, a playground. The primary rule is not touching the artworks." Lambert even has a fun way to really get the message through to the kids. "Explain why to the child by creating a math problem: "What if everyone who visited the Chazen in one year touched an artwork? If 60,000 visitors, each with 10 greasy fingers, touched an artwork, how many fingers would that be? Now imagine how dirty and worn it would become!"
Sheri Castelnuovo, curator of education at MMoCA, extols the importance of early museum visits. "Most museums have established education departments that develop programs specifically for families, including exploratory activities that families can use independently in the museum. Parents should introduce their children to museum environments early on, take advantage of the support museums offer to families, and recognize that museums welcome their involvement with exhibitions and programs. Parents who engage their children with a variety of art over time and view visiting museums as a natural and ongoing part of family leisure time lay the foundation for appreciating the arts over a lifetime."
Once young ones have learned museum behavior, foster appreciation of the arts in earnest: "Children and adults can savor the artwork by looking for its formal elements first and building a vocabulary: line, color, shape, form, texture," says Lambert. "These are common elements taught in early childhood education and elementary school art classes. Young children can name the colors and count the repeated shapes; older children can describe the physical characteristics of many sizes, shapes and directions of lines."
Graduate to the Chazen
Once the kids are ready, the Chazen is an excellent spot to learn about art, and admission is free. It's a wide-open space with a mix of objects from many eras, appropriate for different age groups. There are free guided tours for kids in grades K-12, with docents trained both in art history and how to excite children with art, offered for any size group. (To arrange a tour, call 608-263-2246 at least three weeks ahead of time.)
"Young people respond very well to non-objective, abstract art - often better than their adult chaperones," Lambert observes. "Art with tiny details appeals to them as well. They often interpret the human emotion in such movements as 20th-century expressionism accurately and viscerally without any art historical instruction." Lambert also notes that most artworks on the top floor of the museum (from the 20th and early 21st centuries) as well as ancient Greek and Roman coins and the Hindu sculpture of "Dancing Ganesha" appeal to grade school kids.
The large Russian history painting, "The Fall of Novgorod," which tells a story that unfolds as the viewer surveys the vast canvas, always fascinates middle school children. Preteens and teens won't be able to stop gawking at the incredibly detailed (down to the fingerprints and moles), painted cast bronze nude woman on the third floor. (If you are squeamish about nudity, avoid this one; for others it provides an excellent opportunity to discuss cultural taboos, art and censorship, and the mechanics of bronze sculpture.)
Indeed, art appreciation consists of much more than quietly looking at paintings. Exploring the social context and content of the art, the manufacturing skills required to make the artifacts, and appreciation of the beauty of the objects as well as fostering comprehension of the historical and cultural context from which they were generated can all be achieved through thoughtful discussion at a museum.
"Think about who made the artwork and its purpose," Lambert suggests. "An ancient Greek potter and vase painter made a vessel as a drinking cup; a painting showing 'Justice' and 'Abundance' by a 17th-century Flemish artist may have been painted to decorate a civic building."
Doing is part of learning
After leaving a museum, the young mind is filled with ideas and inspiration. A fun way to capitalize on this excitement is to create your own art. Pack an oversized pad of paper, colored pencils or inks and watercolors, and head over to the UW-Arboretum for some hands-on work.
The classic maneuver is to set up an easel and paint a landscape, but young children might have more fun stretching out on a blanket in the Longenecker Gardens with colored pencils and sketching whatever comes to mind. Bring a large selection of colors.
For older kids, sketching animals and plant life is an excellent way to understand more fully the biological dynamic at work. There are classes in butterfly walks, pond life and other elements that allow parents to combine hands on artistry with a science lesson.
It doesn't end in Madison, of course. Farther afield, the Milwaukee Art Museum, Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago all have a variety of offerings for families. The real goal is to open your children's eyes to the brighter and more interesting world that only those who invest time in art appreciation can see. Now go, teach, learn and enjoy - arty kids are more thoughtful kids.
Madison Children's Museum
madisonchildrensmuseum.org, 100 State St., 608-256-6445
Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
mmoca.org, 227 State St., 608-257-0158
Sign up for MMoCA Notes, email bulletins about upcoming programs and events. Website has a schedule for the Art Cart.
Chazen Museum of Art
chazen.wisc.edu, 800 University Ave., 608-263-2246