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Teaching Art Appreciation, One Platypus at a Time

How hard could it be chatting about famous artists and their paintings with 5-year-olds? The 20-minute session seemed to swim with possibilities for great encounters and one-liners from innocent minds.
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I'd been talking a mean game about being an art docent in my son's kindergarten classroom. When I first signed up to volunteer once every few months, I thought, how hard could it be chatting about famous artists and their paintings with 5-year-olds? The 20-minute session seemed to swim with possibilities for great encounters and one-liners from innocent minds.

What would they say, I wondered, about Degas's ballerinas? Or Van Gogh's wild brushstrokes? Would they even care?

A few mothers who'd done the drill already warned me not to mention when the artist lived and died. One parent had made this very mistake and the rest of her 20 minutes was spent fielding questions about how, exactly, the artist had died. "Was it a car accident? A heart attack?" Curious minds wanted to know. So, I'd nixed any mention of the artist's life from my lesson plan, if that's what you can call a few scribbles on a white sheet of paper. When January 1 rolled around, I eagerly awaited the email that would tell me what pictures I'd be discussing.

Luckily, they were circus paintings. Perfect for 5-year-olds! Georges Seurat's "Circus" and John Marin's "Circus Elephants." I knew Seurat from my college art history class, but John Marin was new to me. A quick lesson online filled in the gaps: Marin, a popular artist of the early twentieth century, worked largely in watercolor, venturing into the abstract, and was close pals with renowned photographer Alfred Stieglitz. This is cool, I thought. I'm learning about art while I prepare to teach 5-year-olds.

I'd also been warned to have a back-up plan, or three back-up plans, in case the kids got bored. This seemed like a sensible idea. What could be worse than having 19 kindergarteners staring up at me with bored expressions and nothing to say? So, the night before I'd hit the craft store and bought hundreds of foam shape stickers and foam pads. I figured if Seurat and Marin weren't a hit, maybe I could heighten the kids' interest with the circus theme. The more I thought about it, the more promising it seemed. We could talk about artists and the tools they used, about the importance of imagination, and then they could fashion their own circus animals out of foam.

When the big day arrived, I changed outfits twice and checked to make sure nothing was stuck between my teeth. It would be fair to say that I was suddenly nervous; I've never been a fan of public speaking, and there was no question that my pint-sized audience would call things as they saw them. I imagined the girls asking why my hair was sticking up or a boy pointing out that I had a piece of dental floss stuck to the bottom of my boot. As any parent or teacher knows, 5-year-olds can be tough, heartbreakingly honest critics.

I headed to my son's classroom, the big black art folder tucked under my arm. Approximately 20 little cherubs sat calmly on a rug, legs crisscross applesauce style, while their teacher finished reading a story. The class welcomed me with smiles, some exuberant, some shy. My son squirmed. I'd teased him earlier that I might perform a rap song. His mortified, "Mom, don't you dare," was charming in its own way. No doubt he was holding his breath, waiting for me to embarrass him in front of his friends.

But I played it cool and took my seat, giving him a wink while the teacher introduced me. I explained we were going to look at some pictures and then make our own. A few children nodded their heads, eyeing the multi-colored foam shapes in my bag. When I held up the Seurat and asked what they thought was going on, hands shot up in the air. "It's a circus!" one boy yelled. This was going to be easy. "What else do you see?" I asked. "A horse! Acrobats! That man looks like a clown." These kids were smart. Admittedly, there were a few segues: "I can do one thing like in the circus," volunteered a boy. "What's that?" I asked. "Juggle."

When I called on a girl in the back, she asked, "How do you know my name?" I had to think for a second. Nicholas, my son, had talked a fair bit about his classmates, and I felt as if I already knew each one of them a little, their personalities blooming in front of me like a field of wildflowers. I explained that Nicholas had told me all about the great kids in his class. Suddenly, everyone else wanted to know if I knew their name. "How about me? Have you heard about me?" pressed one boy. "Of course," I said. "I've heard a lot about you."

We moved on to the Marin. "More elephants" seemed to be the consensus, though they agreed we couldn't really make out the elephants' faces. "That's called abstract painting," I said enthusiastically. About half the class was now pulled into a tight semi-circle around me; they were busily trying to pull my son into the middle. I'd lost them with styles of art.

It was time to break out the foam.

The students filed back to their tables while the teacher helped hand out the foam rectangles that would serve as the kids' canvas. Pink, the most popular color with the girls, disappeared in a nanosecond. I panicked about an imminent pink mutiny, but these children had the manners of English aristocrats. I heard "pleases" and "thank-yous" and a few "I need more eyes."

The creativity on display was remarkable, really. There were purple dogs and red fishes. One penguin and a fly-eating frog. Another boy came up with a platypus. I mean, really, a platypus? I don't think I knew what that was until I was about 15. I was impressed, and I watched in wonder as they shaped beautiful art out of a few foam squares, circles and rectangles.

The 20 minutes flew by, and as we gathered in a circle on the rug so everyone could talk about his or her picture, I was struck again by all the little personalities on display. Some bursting with confidence, others a bit timid, and still others who described their pictures as if they were art professors themselves. I was amazed by how comfortable they seemed with one another, and all the while their teacher listened patiently, nodded and encouraged as needed.

And then it dawned on me: What the students were creating here, each and every day with the help of their teacher, was their own colorful painting, one brimming with energy, bold streaks, and flashes of brilliant color. I took in the vivid scene, the splash of personality here, the subtle chiaroscuro here, the outline of an afternoon sky through the window in the background.

The room seemed to shimmer with artistry and feeling. It was a picture worth looking at again and again, worthy of any museum.