We were particularly interested in the first segment with the Smartboard presentation. Smartboards are essentially large computer monitors that the user can control by touching the screen, much like a self checkout at the grocery store, except way more fun. The gallery has recently purchased one of these boards and some volunteers put together a presentation for school aged children, based on their elementary school curriculum. Today was the first day the presentation went to the test on a real tour. There were a few glitches that need to be worked out, but the technology is new and that’s to be expected. Overall, the experience was a success and the children likely learned a thing or two about primary and secondary colours. Perhaps just as important, their attention stayed firm the whole time.
After half an hour at the interactive station, the guide took the children to view some of the paintings they had seen on the Smartboard. These included a couple of Paul Peel paintings from the 1880s which are the pride of the gallery.
This little lady was the star of the show, and if it hadn’t been for a quick-thinking guide, this image might be the only surviving record of the painting. Kids like to touch. Especially seven year olds. Especially seven year olds who have just been encouraged to touch a Smartboard for the past half hour. And especially seven year olds who are being asked to stand within arms length of a very tactile-looking painting, in a big room with nothing else worth touching.
Nicholas, dear, please don’t touch that.
Even with a lesson to start the tour, reminding students not to touch any of the art, they just couldn’t remember. Any time they were asked a question about the painting, it was accompanied by pointing, far too close to the actual painting for comfort. Even after three warnings to the same child to stand back, the threat loomed. For some of the students, the notion that they weren't allowed to touch it seemed to mean they thought the guide was asking them to get as close as humanly possibly to the painting without actually making contact.
Nicholas, what did I ask you to do with your hands?
I don’t pretend I could have done any better at controlling twelve seven year olds, and I commend the volunteer guide for her efforts and patience. I also don't blame the kids; they were just doing what came natural to them and I imagine I was much the same way at that age. But, I have to wonder if looking at fine art is age appropriate to that group. I think the kids benefited from their experience with the Smartboard, and I’m sure they had a blast in the studio section of the tour after we left, in which they got to mash their hands in paint. But, these kids were clearly bored with the notion of standing around and looking at a painting – which happened to be the only thing all day they weren’t allowed to touch.
If anything, today reinforced to me the importance that when designing educational materials for children, you must be very careful to choose activities and learning experiences that are appropriate to their age, and attention spans. Maybe keep the fine art preserved for those of us who appreciate it, and let the kids spend a little more time interacting?
Nicholas. I’ve asked you not to touch the paintings!