Screen Time and Canvas Time: Using Film and TV to Your Advantage in Museumschooling

We aren’t screen time police in this family. Elliot doesn’t spend his days with his face glued to any screens, and we’re certainly mindful in what we allow him to watch, but he definitely does watch stuff. Never did I think that a cartoon he enjoys, though, would earn him wide-eyed gazes of wonder at an art museum.

Amazon and Netflix have some good quality kids’ programming these days, and one of them that Elliot likes is called Creative Galaxy. The show takes place in an animated universe apparently liberated entirely from the laws of thermodynamics, but that’s okay, because there’s a whole planet for painting. On this painting planet, kids learn about various techniques and famous artists (whose artwork ostensibly transcends time and space). In the very first episode of the show, we see this:

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Here Arty (the main character) is learning about the technique of pointillism used by Seurat. You may recognize the painting behind him as A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. Anyone who’s seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off knows that this painting is permanently housed in the Art Institute of Chicago, and thus can probably tell where this post is going.

Yes, Elliot loves Creative Galaxy, and he loves pointillism. He loves it so much that he does it with markers until their poor little foam tips collapse. On our last trip to the Art Institute, he was enjoying the main staircase, the rows of stained glass and the bronze sculptures when… gasp. There it was.

He was drawn to it like a moth to light, walking with the slow steps and folded hands he’s learned to use in an art museum. Eyed by wary security staff who seemed certain this small child was about to put a fist through a Monet, Elliot made his way steadily to A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. It’s huge, and so when he sat on the floor in front of it, legs neatly folded, he looked tinier than ever.

“Pointillism,” he breathed, as though praying to the icon before him. Suddenly the security guard who had seemed skeptical of him upon entrance to the room was engaging him in conversation. Elliot informed the guard that the painting had been done by a man named Seurat, that he had used pointillism to do it (“Like this – dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, dot”). The whole painting was made of dots, Elliot told everyone around him and some people three rooms over. It was all dots, all pointillism, all by Seurat.

In another section of the museum, we came to Paul Gauguin’s masterful paintings of Tahiti. Elliot had already seen the new Disney film Moana (which takes place in Polynesia) several times, and I knew he loved it. I was still somewhat surprised when he excitedly declared, “That looks like Moana’s home” when he saw Gauguin’s Why Are You Angry?

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On this trip to the Art Institute, I learned several things:

  1. No matter how many times your kid has been to an art museum, if they’re young enough, everyone will remain convinced they’ve come to destroy a masterpiece.
  2. Not all screen time is useful, but some of it is very helpful in making connections.
  3. Sometimes the best thing to do in an art museum with a small child is to merely follow and listen as their brains piece together what they know, what they observe, and what they find interesting. Chiming in from time to time with new information for them is great, but I was most fascinated just to watch Elliot’s gears spin.
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