Parents & Children, Learning Together through the Arts

By Rebecca Gross
Two mothers building wooden sculptures with two children
Parents and children from the First Steps Little School create wooden architecture sculptures as part of the Katonah Museum of Art’s Arte Juntos/Art Together program. Photo courtesy of the Katonah Museum of Art
At the Katonah Museum of Art in Katonah, New York, the traditional relationship between museum and patron is undergoing a major transformation. Instead of visiting, viewing, and quietly appreciating, participants in the museum’s Arte Juntos/Art Together program are encouraged to talk, touch, question, and create. A bilingual, family-focused literacy program, Arte Juntos was developed in response to Westchester County’s growing community of Latino immigrants. But how best to engage them? According to the NEA’s 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, only 10 percent of museum and gallery audiences were Hispanic. With this in mind, the Katonah Art Museum decided to step beyond its walls, and partner with local schools to better reach their community’s newest families, many of whom come from low-income backgrounds. Working with preschool-aged children and their parents, Arte Juntos encourages parents to be their child’s primary teachers, and teaches them how the arts can be a tool for learning and discovery. In tandem, children learn concepts like shape, color, and texture, and develop their verbal and literacy skills as they talk through various art activities. Every year, the program reaches roughly 80 families, leaving children better prepared for school, and parents more connected with their community and more confident in their teaching ability. To learn more about this NEA grantee, we spoke with Katonah’s education programs manager, Margaret Adasko. An edited version of our conversation is below. NEA: How did the idea for Art Together/Arte Juntos originate? MARGARET ADASKO: We began meeting with educators and other people in our community and asking, where is there need? What can the museum offer to our greater community? At that time there was discussion about the quickly changing and quickly growing new immigrant community in our area. We responded to that growing change by developing a program that was geared towards parents of new immigrant families with the intention of using the arts as a way to teach and grow parenting skills [and] at the same time developing parents’ connection to local cultural resources and how those can be used in becoming part of the community. The program really started as getting these parents comfortable in the museum environment, comfortable making art, talking about art, talking about looking at art, developing language and all kinds of skills, and then sharing it with their children. That was the seed. NEA: What about art do you think makes it such a unique tool for learning? ADASKO: I feel like the arts, and visual arts in particular, open the door to different kinds of learning. If parents and young kids are being instructed in one kind of learning through their school environments, the arts offer an alternate way. And the arts offer a more expansive way of utilizing some of the skills that will be developed in schools. You can apply them in a very different environment with different strategies. We're dealing with kids that are around three to four years old, so all the skills they're developing are brand new: recognizing elements, whether they be shapes, numbers, letters, colors, or animals—just the act of recognizing these things and being able to verbally acknowledge them, and then taking that information and transferring it to something else. Or tactile things: how you hold and use utensils. We consider it thinking about the kinds of skills that are being developed in school but in an informal environment, so that both parents and kids realize that there are opportunities for learning everywhere. The more a parent knows they can use those skills, the more they are empowered to make every moment a potential learning moment. NEA: For parents that participate in this program, how do you think it might change their relationship with the Westchester community? ADASKO: We hope they feel a kind of inclusion after going through this process with us. And not only in the museum environment; we hope it will transfer to other environments. Before you step inside an unknown place, you just don't know what it's going to be like. That intimidation is maybe doubled or quadrupled if language is a barrier, or if you feel somehow outside of that cultural context. So if you feel like an outsider to that special resource, you might not even step in the door. If you did step in the door, you might still feel a separation between you and what's happening inside the space because of language, or because of other shared experiences that you feel are lacking. We hope by going through this process, they now have tools to use in any cultural resource in our community. We hope they'll be able to use these tools wherever they are.  NEA: Much of your curriculum involves teaching parents how to talk with their children about art and how to be their teachers. Can you share some of your tips? ADASKO: The number one tip is [asking] open-ended questions, so that you're creating opportunities for kids to use their language and develop their language. So not just, "Is this yellow?" but "Can you talk about the colors you see here?," and reframing any interaction with their kids with more of that open-ended dialogue. Especially at a very young age, and because these are primarily English-second-language learners, creating opportunities for that language development is essential. We might preface it with them at a work of art, but they may then do that while looking at a picture book or while being in a playground or a park or at the zoo. So that would be the number one tip. The second is to let their children be the initiators of the activity, and to act more as a support. This comes especially with the art-making portion, where kids are experimenting and trying and they're uncertain. We don't want parents to impose their knowledge. Let the kids initiate: "Which materials am I going to use? How do I use this glue?" Then their parents act as a support for their kids' process. 

In this last year, we used the NEA grant for evaluation purposes. We had parent interviews at the end of the program where parents were able to speak about how they felt the program had impacted them. The things they said in that moment were awe-inspiring. Things like not realizing that art could be used to enhance learning; thinking about art as this side thing that you only do when you have some extra time, or when you're trying to distract the kids, [and now] instead thinking about art as another essential way of spending time and developing skills alongside your child. It raised their perception of the usefulness of art in their lives, [and gave them] a broader sense of where they can find art and how to incorporate it into experiences with their children.

Parents, by going through this process, were also really opened up to some of their kids' skills; kids that might be slower in language development might still be extremely creative in their art-making, and that might spark all kinds of words. So the parents seem to learn a lot about their kids through the process. 

NEA: We've talked a lot about the benefits for parents. What are some of the benefits that you see working with these children? ADASKO: At this age, there's a lot of talk about school readiness. [The program] really raises a kind of confidence in the kids about how to make sense of the things they see in front of them, and the tasks that are being asked of them. It raises both their ability and their confidence in that process. NEA: How do you think museums can better reach underserved communities? ADASKO: Talk to them. Make connections with communities and find out what kind of programs, ideas, activities, and skills would help build a shared dialogue and a shared experience. I don't think you can do it by guessing what they might need, or what they might find useful, or what has meaning. It takes a dialogue. And then considering [that dialogue] in every step of the museum process. If there are communities around a museum that are not being engaged, and you want them engaged, then they should be considered in every aspect of the museum, from the kinds of exhibitions that are considered, the style of the exhibitions, and then how the exhibitions are communicated. Once you've gained interest from your broader community, making sure once they come to your museum, you have real engagement opportunities that are enjoyable and create a meaningful experience. NEA: Can you give me a few examples of some of the lessons from your curriculum that you think are especially effective or powerful? ADASKO: We introduce every season with a general idea about what a museum is. We have pared it down to its most simple concept, which is: it's a place that presents a collection of some kind. It's a very simple idea. These families might have very little idea of what a museum is, or how it compares to other cultural resources. For example, families may have gone to a zoo but never a museum. The idea is that these institutions have these awesome collections and they're presenting them to you, to the public, to come look at and learn from and experience. And in that way, a zoo is not so different than paintings on the wall. They each have something to offer. From that, we have kids work on sorting materials that we've collected to think about how different kinds of groupings can be made of objects and items and even ideas. This introductory activity kind of sets the tone for the parents and the kids of generally what can be appreciated in a museum or other institution, but it also gives them a chance to experience one of the very basic early learning strategies of being able to sort materials and group things. We definitely try to include picture books as often as possible, both to make sure whatever content might be within our exhibition has a pathway to the kids and the parents, but also so parents gain the understanding that picture books [are a] kind of art form that is very accessible.  NEA: Do you have anything else you’d like to add? ADASKO: It is an absolute joy to think about capital-A "Art," and how it has meaning for a young three-year-old and their family who are new to a community, who are intimidated or scared, or just working hard to have the best kind of life they can. As the educator, to think about all the possible connections between these two sides of the spectrum, is empowering and powerful and challenging. But in the end, it feels like it has really resonated. In the museum, it feels like it brings a new energy and intention to how we think about our exhibitions, and how they will connect to our broader community. For the families, it has opened up this broad sense of what's around in their new community and what opportunities they have for enjoying this experience with their family while learning. It's fun and very powerful. It takes a lot of effort. It doesn't happen by itself. It's not because there's a gorgeous, awesome exhibition at our museum, any family who is aware of it is going to jump in and love it and learn from it. It takes a lot of effort to really make that a meaningful experience for everybody.