Madison is justly famous for its bicycle paths, lakes and world-class university. Money magazine named Middleton the best place to live in America in 2007, an award Madison took in 1997. Best Life magazine ranked Madison as the eighth best place to raise a family in 2007; if you ask parents why they love the city, chances are they will name the school system as a reason. In 1997 Utne Reader ranked Madison America's fifth most enlightened city to live in. But one aspect of Madison that is frequently, and unjustly, overlooked is the wealth of artistic opportunities for children of all ages.
Children are naturally inclined towards the visual and musical arts, and there are lots of artistic endeavors available year-round to kids in the Madison area - and parents who are interested in fostering artistic awareness, sensibilities and abilities in their children.
For toddlers and tykes
The Madison Children's Museum is a favorite spot for younger children, a hub of activity on the weekends. It's an experience suitable for even the very young: a 2-year-old can romp with the walk-in fish or the many hands-on installations. In the play-acting area, a 5-year-old can pretend to parent baby dolls, dressing them, rocking them, and putting them to bed in the crib. Older siblings can immerse themselves in the learning centers on the second floor.
Though it's geared toward the younger set, the Madison Children's Museum provides an opportunity to teach the basics of art and museum going: observation, connecting art installations to the world around them and esthetic appreciation of sensory input. A color wheel on the first floor affords an excellent opportunity to learn how colors interact: As you turn the wheel, light shines through two overlapping sets of stained glass. The grownups may even learn something about the behavior of light and color.
For the budding architect, there's a miniature and changeable model of the downtown area, with holes for kids to pop out from to plan their city (wooden trees, buildings, and trains are provided), a blueprint of the Capitol dome, and wooden blocks for building prototypes.
The music room is perfect for a spontaneous lesson on polyrhythms, and what child doesn't like banging on drums and joining in on impromptu jams with bells, African marimbas and even a rain stick.
An intermediate step
The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) hosts a variety of programs for children and families. MMoCA's Kids' Art Adventures are free drop-in art workshops held the second Sunday of the month from September through May. The activities are targeted to children ages 6-10, but the museum welcomes younger brothers and sisters.
The Art Cart, co-sponsored by MMoCA and Madison School & Community Recreation, is a traveling resource that provides free outdoor art projects for younger children up to age 8. You'll find the Art Cart at playgrounds and parks throughout the summer.
Families can also take advantage of MMoCAkids Learning Centers, ArtPacks and Let's Look guides for independent discovery within the museum, interacting with items from the permanent collection and with its many traveling exhibits.
Prepping the kids for adult museums
Before you ever set foot in a gallery, the first step is helping to make kids comfortable with museums and their conventions. "Parents should discuss 'museum manners' before the visit," says Anne Lambert, curator of education at the UW's Chazen Museum of Art. "A museum's purpose (to preserve and display art for everyone) and rules (no touching, no running) are quite different from, say, a playground. The primary rule is not touching the artworks." Lambert even has a fun way to really get the message through to the kids. "Explain why to the child by creating a math problem: "What if everyone who visited the Chazen in one year touched an artwork? If 60,000 visitors, each with 10 greasy fingers, touched an artwork, how many fingers would that be? Now imagine how dirty and worn it would become!"
Sheri Castelnuovo, curator of education at MMoCA, extols the importance of early museum visits. "Most museums have established education departments that develop programs specifically for families, including exploratory activities that families can use independently in the museum. Parents should introduce their children to museum environments early on, take advantage of the support museums offer to families, and recognize that museums welcome their involvement with exhibitions and programs. Parents who engage their children with a variety of art over time and view visiting museums as a natural and ongoing part of family leisure time lay the foundation for appreciating the arts over a lifetime."
Once young ones have learned museum behavior, foster appreciation of the arts in earnest: "Children and adults can savor the artwork by looking for its formal elements first and building a vocabulary: line, color, shape, form, texture," says Lambert. "These are common elements taught in early childhood education and elementary school art classes. Young children can name the colors and count the repeated shapes; older children can describe the physical characteristics of many sizes, shapes and directions of lines."
Graduate to the Chazen
Once the kids are ready, the Chazen is an excellent spot to learn about art, and admission is free. It's a wide-open space with a mix of objects from many eras, appropriate for different age groups. There are free guided tours for kids in grades K-12, with docents trained both in art history and how to excite children with art, offered for any size group. (To arrange a tour, call 608-263-2246 at least three weeks ahead of time.)
"Young people respond very well to non-objective, abstract art - often better than their adult chaperones," Lambert observes. "Art with tiny details appeals to them as well. They often interpret the human emotion in such movements as 20th-century expressionism accurately and viscerally without any art historical instruction." Lambert also notes that most artworks on the top floor of the museum (from the 20th and early 21st centuries) as well as ancient Greek and Roman coins and the Hindu sculpture of "Dancing Ganesha" appeal to grade school kids.
The large Russian history painting, "The Fall of Novgorod," which tells a story that unfolds as the viewer surveys the vast canvas, always fascinates middle school children. Preteens and teens won't be able to stop gawking at the incredibly detailed (down to the fingerprints and moles), painted cast bronze nude woman on the third floor. (If you are squeamish about nudity, avoid this one; for others it provides an excellent opportunity to discuss cultural taboos, art and censorship, and the mechanics of bronze sculpture.)
Indeed, art appreciation consists of much more than quietly looking at paintings. Exploring the social context and content of the art, the manufacturing skills required to make the artifacts, and appreciation of the beauty of the objects as well as fostering comprehension of the historical and cultural context from which they were generated can all be achieved through thoughtful discussion at a museum.
"Think about who made the artwork and its purpose," Lambert suggests. "An ancient Greek potter and vase painter made a vessel as a drinking cup; a painting showing 'Justice' and 'Abundance' by a 17th-century Flemish artist may have been painted to decorate a civic building."
Doing is part of learning
After leaving a museum, the young mind is filled with ideas and inspiration. A fun way to capitalize on this excitement is to create your own art. Pack an oversized pad of paper, colored pencils or inks and watercolors, and head over to the UW-Arboretum for some hands-on work.
The classic maneuver is to set up an easel and paint a landscape, but young children might have more fun stretching out on a blanket in the Longenecker Gardens with colored pencils and sketching whatever comes to mind. Bring a large selection of colors.
For older kids, sketching animals and plant life is an excellent way to understand more fully the biological dynamic at work. There are classes in butterfly walks, pond life and other elements that allow parents to combine hands on artistry with a science lesson.
It doesn't end in Madison, of course. Farther afield, the Milwaukee Art Museum, Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago all have a variety of offerings for families. The real goal is to open your children's eyes to the brighter and more interesting world that only those who invest time in art appreciation can see. Now go, teach, learn and enjoy - arty kids are more thoughtful kids.
Madison Children's Museum
madisonchildrensmuseum.org, 100 State St., 608-256-6445
Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
mmoca.org, 227 State St., 608-257-0158
Sign up for MMoCA Notes, email bulletins about upcoming programs and events. Website has a schedule for the Art Cart.
Chazen Museum of Art
chazen.wisc.edu, 800 University Ave., 608-263-2246
I think the first time in recent years that I've felt a real sense of shame, as both a parent and community member, was last Tuesday evening as I sat in a crowded elementary school LMC to listen to Ken Taylor, executive director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, and his colleague, Torry Wynn, present key findings from the 2013 Race to Equity report to our PTO group.
It's Wednesday morning at Allis Elementary School on Madison's east side, and 16 third-graders " 10 boys and six girls " enter into an open-space classroom in typical wiggly, giggly style. Some are making goofy faces at one another, some are bouncing around hand-in-hand with friends, and others are just trying to stay out of the whirling-dervish path of activity.
Of the 789 poorly-composed, way-too-dark and out-of-focus photos currently living on my iPhone, I can count on two hands the number that show my kids and me together. And my husband is in probably no more than three or four of those.
Something kind of magical has happened these past two weeks during the Sochi Olympics. There is no question, debate or disagreement on what will be watched on television once all homework is done. Everyone in the family makes time to sit down together to watch an hour of so of the primetime televised games.
Truth be told, though, this month I'm feeling a bit cinematically fried. In some ways, I already feel like I've spent the last week or so at a film festival. A festival specializing in minute-long glimpses of ordinary lives all ending with credits that feature the ubiquitous blue thumbs-up. Yes, it's been the February of the Facebook movie.
Just last week, on precisely the same day the Momastery post was getting over a million well-deserved views, Madison mom Suzanne Buchko was telling a similar story. Not on a blog but instead in the confines of the modestly circulated Franklin-Randall Elementary School weekly newsletter.
Late last month, the Madison Metropolitan School District adopted a five-year, $27.7 million technology plan calling for all district students, including those in the primary grades, to have significantly increased access to their very own tablet or notebook computer by 2019. Some parents, as well as education professionals, questioned whether elementary-aged kids, especially kindergarteners who aren't even able to read or write yet, will gain much benefit from introducing yet another screen into their lives.
This past Monday, had winter's unrelenting weather allowed, Middleton Cross Plains School District teacher Andrew Harris would have once again been at the helm of a classroom. After nearly four years of fighting his dismissal from Glacier Creek Middle School for viewing and passing on sexually explicit material on district computers, MCPSD has been legally forced to reinstate Herris, this time as a seventh-grade science teacher at Kromrey Middle School.
In a study published last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, academics have found that the 16 and Pregnant series may have played a significant role in the recent decrease in U.S. teen pregnancies.
In our house, sad but true, we've rarely spent the Martin Luther King holiday discussing race, social justice or the power of non-violent civil disobedience. Instead, the third Monday in January has historically been treated as just another day off school, just another long weekend. And it's been a missed opportunity.
It's not something that happens very often, but last Friday, as news of the impending arctic cold snap reached our house, my kids were rooting for Governor Scott Walker. They were rooting for him to take Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton's lead and cancel school throughout the state. They couldn't care less if he had the authority to do such a thing -- if he called off school, he'd be their hero.
Late last semester, as students were packing up their backpacks one final time before winter break, Middleton High School principal Denise Herrmann and assistant principal Lisa Jondle were co-authoring a note home to parents informing them of a widespread cheating scandal involving nearly 250 calculus students at the school.
Breathe in, breathe out. Have you ever been in the heat of a parenting moment with these words ringing through your head? Then you're on the right path toward mindful parenting.
The week between Christmas and New Year's is famous for all sorts of things. Malls are packed with folks exchanging those holiday sweaters that don't fit just right. It's the week those same folks pledge to never again eat another frosted sugar cookie or candy cane (hence the sweater issues). It's also the week the media saturates the public with dozens of "Best of Year" lists.
This will not (although it could) be a treatise on the value of "alone time" for a healthy marriage, though. Nor will it be an ode to how nice it was for me to have a few days off from lunch-packing, carpool-driving and homework-nagging.
For those of you who haven't yet seen it, the eight-week-long transit campaign, placed both inside and on the outside of buses, features a photo of an orange tabby with a stainless steel bar drilled into its head accompanied by the line "I am not lab equipment. End UW cat experiments!" Just as PETA hopes, the image is shocking and demands an immediate response.
If I had my druthers, I'd sit out the entire shopping week that follows Thanksgiving. Black Friday, for starters, has corrupted the fine art of bargain shopping and turned it into a gladiator sport. There is no percentage off that is worth losing sleep, or even worse an eye, over. Especially if you have kids in tow.
When you shop for toys, there is always the conflict between what you think is appropriate/adorable and what the child being shopped for might actually want/play with.
Many of the pop-culture seasonal touchpoints of my youth are completely lost on my kids. You see, while I may have memorized every word to both the Snow Miser and the Heat Miser's songs from The Year Without a Santa Claus, I'm pretty sure the only Rankin-Bass stop-motion Christmas special my kids have ever seen has been Rudolph.
I am so thrilled that the United Way is sponsoring a Teen Gift Drive this holiday season. Sure, teen "wants" often aren't as fun to shop for as precious baby dolls and sweet Lego sets. But middle and high school kids still "need" to feel valued and loved during this time of year. And helping a family in need to provide this for their child is a wonderful way to get in the spirit.