A canvas to our imagination

The 1960s classic, “Do you see what I see?” written by Helen Borten introduces children and adults to art and the beauty of the world around them.
“Lines can bend like rows of wheat when a soft wind blows…lines can be as thin and delicate as a spider web or as heavy and black as the bars of a lion’s cage. A circle…can roll like a ball or float like a bubble, or turn like a ferris wheel. It can be as calm as the moon, as gentle as a curled up kitten, or as fat and jolly as Santa Claus.”

Everywhere we see lines and shapes and colours that influence our daily lives. The important link between seeing and feeling is the basis of visual arts and an indispensable key to understanding and appreciation. A concept of “visual thinking strategies” (VTS) a type of visual literacy originated in the US more than 20 years ago and is well known in the arts world, used in museums as well as schools and universities.

VTS, founded by Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine, Professors of Art Education, is a method initiated by adult facilitated discussions of art images and documented to have a cascading positive effect on its audience, be it adult or child. The founders believe that by discussing with children what they are able to see, children use their visual and cognitive skills, developing confidence and experience, connecting new information with knowledge they already have.

The visual thinking method generally asks three questions of children: What is going on in this picture? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can we find?

This approach shows children how to take the time to observe closely, to describe what they see in detail and to provide evidence for their observations. Ultimately children become able to look at an image and impart their own understanding of it, not simply react to it.

Traditionally, art galleries and museums may have been regarded as places of quiet contemplation, a domain of those seeking a cultural experience and an environment neither accessible nor welcoming to children.

In recognition of the principles behind the image of the child canvassed by Loris Malaguzzi, these domains, through methodologies such as VTS, are now being opened up to a new generation with the aim of providing public spaces where art and history can be explored in positive and meaningful ways.

Two excellent examples of public spaces located in London which are focused on welcoming in children to their core are the Tate (a family of four art galleries in London, Liverpool and Cornwall) and Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Early Years Exchange

During the summer the Early Years and Families team at the Tate began hosting monthly sessions with a view to exploring different approaches for introducing children to art. Each monthly session is advertised as a way early years practitioners can learn to lead children through the gallery, encouraging dialogue, and engagement with the artworks on display.

The sessions have been developed from early years education philosophies and they encourage discussion that supports each child’s personal and individual creative learning journey.

Leading each session is a member of the Tate Early Years and Families team who provides the group with ways in which to engage with children in terms of the artwork on display. Example questions include:

What is your first reaction to the work? Why does it make you feel or think like that?
What is it made of? Why has the artist chosen those materials?
Does the size of the work affect your experience of it?
Where is the artist from and when did they live? How has this influenced them?
What do you think the work is about?

The Tate uses many age appropriate tools to enable children to directly interact with the collection.

Collection cases include curious objects and trigger words to encourage exploration; originally designed for children and adults to embark on a creative exploration of artworks in the Material Worlds display at Tate Modern.

Family welcome cards provide suggestions relating to which room or artwork to visit; introducing themes and activities to explore artworks together as a family.

Swatch pieces allow children an opportunity to discover the architecture of Tate Britain, to look through filters to view the artworks in a different way and to order and re-order the images to make new connections.


Mini Masterpieces

Designed by a team of art educators and consultants based out of Colombia University (New York), the mini masterpieces sessions hosted by Dulwich Picture Gallery aim to provide both adults and young children with a meaningful artistic experience where they explore and learn in partnership. Each session is split between time in the gallery and time in a studio, the latter providing physical and sensory stimulation. Sensory booklets containing contextual information relative to the art or theme being explored are provided and in each aspect of the design there is a clear emphasis on how a child’s artistic experience, play and interaction with the world are interlinked.


Both the early years teams working at the Tate and with Dulwich Picture Gallery employ forms of visual thinking strategies to give children a new language of expression which is contextually relevant and in a digital age, allows children time to begin reading images as well as words. Visualisation also has benefits to children in the areas of literacy and numeracy.  A child who can visualise what they are reading will generally progress more quickly than a child reading word-to-word. The same is true where a child is able to visualise a mathematical graph or use visual techniques to problem solve.

According to the proverb “seeing is believing”; until we see something we do not believe it exists. Young children do not have preconceptions of what to expect, to think, to see or to believe. The image of the child is full of potential and consequently, they often have a deeper perception of what they are seeing.

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