The art of family fun

The National Gallery of Canada offers families plenty of room to play, learning opportunities for adults and kids, and a surprising variety of ways to engage with art. Angela Counter has what you need to know to make the most of your art gallery visit.

ngcIf your kids are under 10, you probably rely on indoor places to spend cold, rainy spring days. However, some of the city’s treasures can be overlooked by families afraid to bring children into “grownup” environments.

When you think of an art gallery, you probably imagine long, quiet halls filled with beautiful, untouchable artwork, and maybe think you can’t go with a child. But Nathalie Mantha, manager of Youth and School Programs at the National Gallery of Canada, wants to reassure parents.

“You should feel comfortable,” she says. “The gallery is a great place to make the most of quality time.”

The National Gallery of Canada welcomes families by offering lots of room to play, learning opportunities for adults and kids, and a surprising number of ways to engage with art – no matter what age you are.

Mantha advises families plan short, repeated visits to the gallery, and remain open-minded. “The key with a visit is not wanting to do it all.”

That’s not to say you’ll move slowly through the gallery.

Mantha says the first visit is bound to be exciting while kids navigate the space. She likens it to travelling to a foreign city, rushing from landmark to landmark, trying to see everything.

Once kids know what to expect, they slow down. Families are encouraged to do things at their own pace and on their own terms; in addition to stroller rentals for small kids, the gallery provides safe places for kids to move around and be creative, as well as quiet nooks to rest.

Mantha also offers advice for parents worried about their kids touching the artwork: sit down to observe it.

What if you don’t know how to talk to your kids about the art? Staff are available to answer questions on everything, from painting techniques to where to have a snack. Self-guided tours are offered, and the National Gallery has designed Artissimo, a set of activities for families to complete together.

Each of the activities is designed to engage kids in learning about art through imaginative play, dress-up, sound, and hands-on creative experiences. Further, the activities are accompanied by brochures with questions to ask your child, and information about the art.

The attention to detail in the Artissimo activities is impressive. Dress-up clothes are more than just that: they’re costume reproductions from the art, researched and designed for accuracy. Kids can borrow “Art Buddies,” dolls fashioned to resemble characters from artworks in the collection, to find their match in the gallery.

Art From Above allows families to take part in making a massive fabric copy of a masterpiece from the gallery’s collection, then view it from the balcony above.

One of the gallery’s newest programs is Family Sunday, an event that brings dance, theatre, and storytelling into the gallery, aimed at families with children ages 0 to 12.

Families can choose which parts of the event they want to attend, according to their schedule and interests.

The first Family Sunday, held in January, attracted almost 2,000 participants.

The National Gallery has made family programs a priority, Mantha says.

“Art is a really important tool for working on skills such as visual literacy, problem solving … when you expose kids at a younger age, you’re making them more curious about art.”

She says families are most successful when they plan to focus on having fun. “It’s more about experiencing and exploring art in different ways.”

The best part about the National Gallery? It’s not just for kids, any more than it is for adults. Mantha says the gallery is committed to helping parents have a good time; a welcome difference from programs where kids can play, but families are left observing.

“We want a meaningful experience for everyone.”