Visual Arts

Visual Arts

Toy manufacturers have outdone themselves with all those big bright plastic shapes and colors. I suspect that, long before children can speak, they are bored with the garish simplicity of them all.  They are born with a capacity and appetite for nuance, detail and patterns. Let’s feed that hunger.

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One of the earliest ways children express their individuality is by picking their favorite color. Although we know those preferences are often culturally driven, nonetheless they take great pride in declaring choices.

Then it gets complicated quickly. In this loudly visual world – video games, publications, billboards, icons – our children are constantly exposed to cultural messages about sexuality, weight and how to be popular, to name a few. They are vulnerable to this onslaught because their need to belong and to be loved is great. As parents we need to help our children discern and quiet these forces.

By digging into the basics of visual literacy, we can help our children navigate in a more informed way. Concurrently they can learn to leverage the power of their visual world to better communicate their own stories. Let’s get started.


Banners - and Heraldry

Ask your child about these banners. It's obvious that the college thought a lot about the design and spent a lot of money to get them made. How does having those banners change the experience of people who pass by this building? They resemble banners that used to hang in castles. Explore heraldry. Consider working together to design a family crest. Photograph:




Confederate Flags

The power of visuals to tell a story - and provoke feelings.

Museum of you

The purpose of these conversation ideas is to encourage your child to identify artifacts in their life: stories, photos, favorite clothes, songs or food. These things carry meaning. And your child will engage with their own story. This can easily become a family project, perhaps in preparation for a holiday gathering.

  • After a museum visit, suggest that it would fun (and interesting) to create a Museum of (Name).
  • What sorts of things do we see in museums? What kinds of things do we learn?
  • Draw a picture of a museum facade with their name on it.
  • Let's think about the special categories or rooms that can help a museum visitor understand and celebrate you. A room of favorite songs from when you were little til now? Favorite pictures? A room to explore our family tree? Books? Pictures of friends? Other ideas?
  • Create a scrapbook or online document with headings for each room. If possible, you might want to clear space on a shelf for hands-on exhibits (like first teddy bear, old binky?)
  • Suggest that, over the next week, they think about ideas, gather pictures or create drawings to include.
  • If your child is old enough to work quite independently, you can create your own museum at the same time.
  • Every few days, sit down together to review ideas and encourage them to tell you why each item is important to them. You can share your stories too.
  • Encourage them to share with friends and family.
  • As a family, consider a project to do museums for grandparents. What a lovely way for your child to learn about their heritage and the special people in their lives. And the grandparents will love to share. 


The purpose of these discussions is to help children recognize and appreciate the intention and power of smart design. More than any generation, their surroundings are saturated with visual messaging, each one offering the potential to help them show coolness, belonging and individuality. Using brands as personal identifiers can seem like an easy solution to social challenges. Bottom line - it is important to understand that these logos are marketing - meant to sell.

Some discussion points when you see a Nike logo ...

  • What do you think of the Nike logo? What do you think of when you see it?
  • Does it tell you anything about what you can expect when you buy any Nike product?
  • If you had two identical sneakers, but only one had the logo on it, which one would you choose? Why?
  • Have you heard that the logo is called the Nike swoosh? What does that word make you think about?
  • Have you heard Nike's slogan, "Just do it!" What do you think the slogan means? Why do you think Nike chose that slogan?
  • Companies use logos and slogans to encourage us to buy their products. They want us to feel that, by wearing their logo, that we are telling the world something special about who we are and what we stand for.
  • Are there popular brands in your school?
  • Do you have any favorites?  Why do you like those brands

Boss of Art?

The arts are very powerful. So powerful that dictators fear them and do what they can to control what people see, the stories they hear, their music, even what people wear - everything. They know the arts can change people's feelings and even make them feel they can make a change in their government. The purpose of this discussion is to help your child recognize the reasons dictators fear artists and the messages they bring.

Definition: A dictatorship is a government or a social situation where one person makes all the rules and decisions without input from anyone else.

  • Why do you think a dictator would want to control the arts?
  • What might happen if people living under a dictator wore a t-shirt that was insulting to the dictator?
  • In free countries we often have protest songs inspiring people to make the world - and their country -  a better place. Do you think it takes courage to write and perform songs that criticize leaders in free countries?  In dictatorships?
  • How do you think other citizens feel or react when they see risky art? Do you think they look away because they are afraid? Do you think they try to protect the artist?
  • Dictators are afraid that people will come together and challenge them. How do you think the arts help people come together?
  • Let's try to find art in our country that might not be legal under a dictatorship.

Font fight

One of the most ubiquitous of the visual arts? Fonts! The purpose of these discussion points is to heighten your child's awareness of how much care goes into something so basic. Media and advertisers leverage every aspect of their visual messaging. And it opens up a tool box for your child to consider when they are crafting visual messages. Here's a fun article about a font-obsessed person.

  • Notice and discuss the fonts you see in movie ads and billboards. Compare a few posters.
  • Go through this list of fonts and imagine the word X-Men in 'I miss your kiss' font.  Would it work just as well?  Why or why not?
  • Would the 'Rush' font work for a Happy Birthday card?
  • Go through any periodicals you have and notice their cover fonts. See if you can figure out why they chose that font.
  • Go through a font list and try to think of the kinds of topics they would match.
  • As you ride in your car, notice any special fonts on billboards.  Get in a "font kudo" habit.  When you see a special font that really works - you both say "font kudo to (name of the company)!" Then a high-five?

Soap Sculpture

Project: fill a glass canister with small soap shapes. Buy lots of different colored bars. Small paring knives and a standard manicure set can get you started. Ask your child to help.

Cut a new bar into quarters. Make a list together of the shapes you will both try to carve - geometric shapes, little duckies, crescent moons? They can use a full bar too. (Creamy soaps are better than transparent.)

Logo or Crest

Have a conversation about logos you each like. Later ask your child to design a family logo for an upcoming event or invitation. Provide time to explore the bookstore or library for information on logo design. Spend an evening together trying out some ideas.

CD Cover Design

Notice a couple of their CD covers.

I'm not sure I understand the imagery in this. Could you explain it to me?

Tell them about some of your favorites from when you were their age.

Doodle Power

If your child is a "doodler," try giving their work a little more visibility.

Although not a diary in in the conventional sense, a child's doodles do capture a (happy) history of distractions. It seems to simply feel good to put pen to paper and draw (and repeat) designs. Consider using plain white paper placemats. Buy school notebooks without lines.

Notice! Everything!

When you visit someone's home, notice their artwork and start a conversation with them about it with your child present.

  • Notice buildings during the day and at night - how the light shapes them differently.
  • Notice the leaves - how heavy they are as they struggle to hold the rain.
  • Notice cars in front of you at night. Rear lights come in so many designs. Can you tell the maker by the tail light?
  • Notice how the colors all change at dusk.
  • Notice shadows and how they change the geometry of the buildings around you.
  • Just notice and appreciate. Share moments.

Family Photos

These conversation ideas can help give kids an appreciation of composition and purpose in photographs.

When revisiting old photos, notice composition. Ask if they can find some that best capture a brother or sister or a friend's real spirit. Discuss the advantages and otherwise of the posed vs free form. The advantages of super close ups vs full figure.

Put them in charge of capturing pictures at an outing. Review & discuss.

Consider giving them a specific project - perhaps for the holidays. Or supporting a family newspaper.

Why do you suppose…

  • cups are round
  • bread is square
  • forks don't seem to have more than 4 tines
  • pillows are rectangles
  • televisions aren't round
  • etc.

The purpose of these lighthearted conversations is to see that design choices were based on aesthetics and utility.

Don't be square

What do you think that means?

"A man paints with his brains and not with his hands."

What do you think Michelangelo meant when he said that?

Mix things up in your home

Stack sheets/towels with like colors - then alternate. If they notice, "I'm just not sure which way I prefer them." Change how pillows sit on the sofa or bed. Rearrange things on your counter - sometimes clustered, sometimes against the wall. Table top?

You get the picture. No need to bring the changes up. The important lesson for your child is that we all have preferences, and changing things around can be a bit energizing. And it keeps their environment more visible to them.

Blue Sun

If someone were to paint a blue sun, what might they be trying to tell us?

Alright, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up!

- Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard

Find two photos of the same person: one close up and another more in the distance, showing landscape in the background. When is it better to be very close to the subject? Or far away? Is there such a thing as too close?

What Do You See First?

Asking "What do you see first?' helps children realize that artists and designers can control where your eyes go. Have discussions about why something stood out more from the background: looking at a magazine page; after meeting someone for the first time; entering a room for the first time.

They will eventually be able to apply the concept to their own work.

You eat first with your eyes?

What might that mean?  Share a memory of a meal that was surprisingly beautiful.

Matching & Balancing

Notice how items are distributed on mantels. Barretts in hair. Columns on a building. Shrubs.

Discuss why balancing seems to be so important in the way things are designed. What if people always wore different socks. Or if one side of a car was red - and the other side was white? Haircuts?

Billboard Retort

Fight advertising images by teasingly talking back to a billboard or television ad.

  • See if your child can tell you what the poster images are saying. Have fun with faux arguments - taking turns speaking from the bilboard's point of you.
  • "I'm trying to get your attention! I want you to buy pepsi! I want you to think that pepsi is fun!"
  • "I don't need soda to be happy! I can have fun with my friends with WATER, you silly billboard."

Talk about homes

These conversation ideas  can help your child explore the concept that every home is different.

  • Which homes do you think are most like ours? What makes you think that?
  • What did you notice that was different from our home?
  • Some homes are bigger than others. Why do you think that is?
    • And here you are in a discussion about family income.
  • Can you imagine what it would be like to live in a smaller home? A larger one?
  • Does living in a smaller or larger home make a person different? Do you still have things in common? What are they?
  • Each family has things that are special to them. They might be photographs, or items on a mantle. Special pillows on the sofa or bed. If someone new came into your home, what might they think is special to you?
  • Let's think about when someone visits our home. What do we think they will notice? What do we want them to notice?

Manners meals

The purpose of these conversation ideas is to explore the rituals of serving a meal - how design and choreography make a difference.

  • Playing with a tea set or picnic set can be an easy way to introduce the rituals around preparing a table for a meal. If you don't have a play set, you can cut out cardboard shapes they can play/practice with.
  • Try setting a play table (or real one) with one side set with a random stack of dishes and silverware all in a pile - and a second setting set up carefully.
    • Does it make a difference to you? Does one setting make you feel more special than the other?
  • By setting the table the same way each time, you always can see that everything is there - and it is even easier for diners to find what they need.
  • Part of the ritual is for all to begin together. Eating together is a very special time. You can make sure you pass food so everyone is taken care of.
  • Discuss other table manners and why they are important.
  • Plan a special meal - and well in advance - get your child's help in planning the table setting.
  • Make their efforts special by having some cut flowers they can use.
  • Begin the meal with a thank you. Encourage them to talk about how they decided to do things the way they did.
  • Practice best manners - as posh as you can be.

The Power of Flags

Discuss the role of flags in national identity. What is their purpose? What rituals use a flag? Basketball games? Schools? Parades?

The flag represents something bigger. Do you think it's okay to be disrespectful to the flag? Explore the consequences.

Is it still a flag if it's on a shirt? What is the difference?


Help your child explore the symbols all around them.

Geometric shapes

Cut shapes out of sponges to make prints. Try designs and repeating patterns. Try making houses. Faces.

After the paint dries, see if your child wants to trace the shapes with a crayon or pencil. They can draw lines connecting shapes.

Learning Circles

The World of Elly

How to draw a turtle

From kids camp

The Wonder of Symmetry

Celebrate with your child as you discover all the examples of symmetry in their lives.

Faces. Leaves. All the amazing designs when you cut fruits and veggies. Chairs.

"Reading" Artists

Routinely sit and share the work of an artist. Try to bring the artist to life - with their story to tell.

Paul Klee painted this. What do you think he was thinking about when he did this? What kind of feeling do you get when you look at it?

If he used words instead of painting, what do you think he might have said?


Cut felt into shapes to form faces. Big circles, squares, triangles. A series of shapes and colors for features.

Join your child in making fun faces.

Find a picture of someone they know; ask if they can find the best shapes to match.

Capturing Rainbows

Place a prism in a window that gets good light. When the rainbows appear on the floor, help your child get a piece of white paper and place it "under" the rainbow. Then use crayons to color in their own rainbow on top of the one on the paper.

It's a way of keeping it for later.

Pillows (Pre-school)

There are many lessons to be learned from simple pillows. Can you find the thick or flat pillow. Square or round? Color?

When you snuggle down to sleep do you like the tall pillow?

Firm and soft?

Which color pillow do you want on your bed? Is that your favorite color? If you have a few pillows, ask if they can arrange them in different ways? Why do you suppose we always put the extra pillow near the head of the bed? What if we piled them onto the middle of the bed?

Think about a pillow project for the next season. What would they like to see on their beds?

Super circles

These questions can build awareness of the special properties of circles.

  • Drop something into still water and notice the concentric circles. See if they have the language to describe what happens when the circles meet. Can they draw it?
  • Notice how water goes down the drain? What shape does it follow?
  • Notice nature-made circles - bubbles, oranges, eyes, planets, banana (slices?) .....
  • Explore man-made circles. Why are balls circles?
  • Circle dances - and sitting in circles can be very special. No beginning or end, everyone faces one another.

What if doors were round instead of rectangles? What might happen?

Shapes & Colors

The purpose of these conversations is to build your child's awareness of shapes in action - shapes in their daily life.

  • Let's see if we can find 10 circles in the kitchen - in 1 minute?
  • Hold a glass upright in front of them. Can they find the circle?
  • Why do they think plates are round?
  • Can you find a green square?
  • Think about having mealtimes with a shape or color focus. Have foods cut into the shape, napkins folded into the shape. Let your child pick the shape or color the day before and spend some time thinking about it.
  • Notice tires on cars and bikes, halos
  • Why no round buildings?