Five-year-old Ruhee Lalla of West Hartford sat at a table recently making a little terrarium with a plastic globe, moss, sticks, rocks, shells and twine. All around her at other tables, other children made terrariums while their parents watched. The site of this craft project was Avery Court of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford: The children and their families were surrounded by Picassos, a Dali and other priceless artworks.
"I love the art museum, but just to show a painting it's not as accessible as an art project," said Ruhee's mother, Priya Phulwani. "You can stand in front of a painting and see a landscape, but this way she can create something of her own and take pride in it."
Phulwani and Ruhee are regular attendees at the Atheneum's Second Saturdays program, a series of free events, which was launched in 2009, designed to bring children into the museum and get them to like it enough to want to come back again and again.
"Someone said to me 'this is the first time my wife and I have been here with our child, I didn't know I could come in here'," said Marta Bentham, the ombudsman and director of family services for Hartford Schools, who helps bring city families to the Second Saturday events. "A lot of people don't think of the museum as something to enter. To them, the Atheneum is a bus stop. But they make you feel really welcome."
Second Saturdays is one of many family-oriented regular programs organized by local museums to bring in children. New Britain Museum of American Art has free Community Days four times a year. Every Sunday from April to December the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme has Make-A-Painting Sundays, free with museum admission. The Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London has Free First Saturdays with drop-in art projects all year long. Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, which always has free admission, has a drop-in storytelling program the second Sunday of every month. Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury has monthly "Family Free Days" on the second Sunday of every month.
During those events, all the museums offer craft projects, storytelling and tours geared toward different ages of children and sometimes music and live performances.
At the recent Second Saturday at the Atheneum, docent Lauren Toppin gave a tour to Sarah Oles, 7 3/4 years old, and her mother, Lisa Muller, a K-8 art teacher at St. Christopher School in East Hartford. Toppin started her brief tour, which focused on only four artworks, at "The Charter Oak" by Charles de Wolff Brownell, from 1857. Toppin asked Oles what she saw.
"I see that little tower," Oles said, pointing to the landmark blue onion-shaped Colt Dome.
Directors of education at museums say that Toppin's approach — asking rather than telling, and letting the child's answer lead the conversation — is the right approach to a children's tour. And Oles' response is an example of how children and adults see art differently, as they see many things differently.
"An adult might look at a golf course covered in snow and say, that's a shame, but a child would see the perfect sledding hill," said Jessica Sack of Yale University Art Gallery.
At its storytelling Sundays, and other times families bring children into the museum, Yale hands out felt-and-yarn kits, similar to Colorforms, for kids to make their own versions of the things they see in the galeries.
Families who just want to drop in will find things to make their stay more pleasant in most museums, and longer such as kid-centric gallery guides and kids' reading rooms.
Adrienne Brown of Real Art Ways said that venue offers private tours for families. Staff members who lead the tours prefer to spark discussion and questions among the kids and adults rather than give a lesson about the artworks.
"We start by explaining what the artwork is about, with subject matter rather than the process itself. The subject matter hooks students in the first place if it is provocative and interesting," Brown said.
Stephanie Coakley of Mattatuck said during "Family Free Days," half-hour tours are followed by art projects. "We select works of art families can appreciate and relate to, ones that depict food, or sports, or the ocean," Coakley said.
Linda Mare of New Britain Museum said that museum's gallery guides help kids talk about the elements of a work of art: line, color, shape, texture. "We also have an art lab, a self-directed space where kids can read a book or create a work of art," Mare said. "It's not an organized program, but it does enhance the museum experience."
Lyman Allyn places reading areas inside the galleries, with the artworks. The current exhibit about whaling has a little bench shaped like a boat, filled with books about the ocean, and a rope-tying station to teach sailors' knots.
Mollie Clarke at Lyman Allyn said the museum hands out "I Spy" cards so kids can look at artworks to find items on the cards. "We also have scavenger hunts. Kids take a pencil and a clipboard and a list and go through and find objects," she said. "We change them monthly, to keep it fresh."
David Rau at Florence Griswold in Old Lyme said that museum also has "can you find me" cards and scavenger hunts. "Visits that would have been 10 minutes turn into quite lengthy visits," Rau said. "When you turn it into a game most kids feel challenged and won't leave until they find everything." Other museums have scavenger hunts and find-me cards.
"Kids will remember arts being a part of their education. It wasn't a chore, they didn't get yelled at and they had exposure," Rau said. "People will feel that art is an important part of their life even if they don't all grow up to be artists."
For detailed information about organized family activities at museums around the state, visit museum websites: www.flogris.org, www.nbmaa.org, www.lymanallyn.org, www.thewadsworth.org, artgallery.yale.edu, www.realartways.org, www.brucemuseum.org and www.mattatuckmuseum.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun