Hands-On Learning: Not Just for Kids

Written by Jessica Fuentes, Center for Creative Connections (C3) Gallery Coordinator, Dallas Museum of Art

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” – Pablo Picasso

Reposted from the Dallas Museum of Art’s education blog DMA Canvas, where the museum’s fantastic education team writes about creativity, community outreach, technology, and insights into the field of museum education. 

The Center for Creative Connections (C3) at the Dallas Museum of Art is unique because we focus on learning by doing. That means we design activities for people of all ages to learn about works of art from the collection by participating in a hands-on way. The activities we create to accompany works of art prompt visitors to engage in ways that are different from the standard didactic approach of a wall label. In C3, we want to provide experiences where visitors can make personal connections by drawing, writing, making, and discussing works of art with each other.

This kind of active engagement carries a certain stigma; many people assume that it’s only for kids, mainly because we are used to seeing activities like these in children’s museums. Part of our design process is to evaluate visitors’ experiences by observation, interviewing and counting. We’ve learned that half of our participants are adults and that there is a reoccurring theme in their comments regarding why they participate. So, why do adults flock to C3 to draw, write, make, and talk about art? Because it connects them to a childlike curiosity and creativity which, as an adult, often takes a backseat to other responsibilities and tasks.

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In January 2014, we installed a large table in the middle of the C3 Gallery, that hosts three activities that rotate on a monthly basis. As a part of the evaluation of these activities, we interviewed visitors about their motivations for participating, their past experience with art making, and their view of the value derived from participating in a making activity at the Museum. I was repeatedly intrigued by the responses of the adult participants.

For example, I spoke with a couple participating in a portrait drawing activity which encouraged close looking at the proportions and scale of the human face.  The couple, in their mid-thirties, each claimed to have no artistic experience. Through our conversation, they divulged that they both graduated from arts-based college programs. “I went for fashion, like a BFA in Design, and he went for Graphic Design. We don’t really draw in our free-time though, I mean, he does for work,” the woman stated as she looked over at the man who accompanied her. He added, “Yeah, but just on the computer.” Then the woman broke in, “And I do for work, but it’s not the same. Like, I do fashion sketches, not this kind of drawing.” I prodded them a bit to understand what “this kind of drawing,” meant. “Well, it’s like… it’s fun. Like drawing before was so serious and it had to be perfect, cause you were doing it for a grade. But this is just for enjoyment.”

This idea was reinforced by further conversations with other adult participants: drawing, making, and discussing in C3 is fun in a freeing kind of way. I interviewed another thirty-something couple drawing at a light box activity designed to assist in the making of hybrid imagery. The man began with, “I’m guessing this was made for children? It’s fun and different and I didn’t expect to see this here.” The woman with him agreed, “Yeah, it’s like that spark of creativity, kind of… childlike. I didn’t think I’d spend as much time or get into it like I did.” A sixty-something man participating in the portrait drawing activity remarked, “I used to take art classes, but it’s been so long ago… it’s like I forgot that and I saw this and I remembered.” This feeling of nostalgia for something that is no longer a part of someone’s everyday life was also a common response from adults. Many adults responded that they enjoy drawing or making but, “don’t do it enough.”

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Aside from drawing-based activities, the Center for Creative Connections also has a drop-in art making area with large communal tables called the Art Spot, which we say is the place for “anytime art-making for everyone.” We invite visitors to explore their creativity by making creations out of unexpected or everyday materials. Every two months we change the materials and provide a prompt to inspire ideas. Each time I’m hesitant and wonder, “What will people make with this?” But, I am always delighted and surprised by the imaginative creations that are made and left behind. Children often come to C3 and head straight for the Art Spot, while adults can be a bit more tentative. However, regardless of age, most visitors stay anywhere from 5 minutes to two hours, with an average of about 20 minutes. Once they gather their materials they become immersed in their creation. For some it is a hands-on problem solving activity while for others it is about manipulating materials. How can you combine these objects (cups, spoons, paperclips, wire, egg cartons, cardboard, etc.) into something unique and surprising? This kind of open-ended activity, reminiscent of childhood playing and pretending, is not often made available to adults. I frequently watch my eight-year-old daughter take something like a toilet paper roll and turn it into a piano for her dollhouse, or repurpose a cardboard box to make an enormous rocket ship. This nostalgia for childhood play was brought perfectly into perspective by a recent Art Spot creation.

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At the DMA, learning can take many approaches and forms. We strive to be inclusive so that we can reach visitors with a multitude of interests and experiences and preferences for learning. In the Center for Creative Connections, our mission is to engage visitors of all ages with works of art and the creative process of artists. We hope that by designing participatory ways to learn we will provide fun and playful activities for all of our visitors, regardless of their age.

How Are You Engaging Adults in Unexpected Ways?

As museum education steps further away from a traditional didactic style and more towards an inclusive approach that attempts to reach a multitude of interests and learning styles, the question of how to engage adults is at the forefront of many educators’ minds. What if our adults want a lecture? What if they shy away from participatory activities? Will we isolate a large population of our adult audience by trying a new approach? These are valid questions to consider, and making a change does not imply that you have to make a 180-degree turn, but rather consider offering varying opportunities including these types of child-like playful activities. How are you engaging adults in unexpected ways? What successes and struggles have you come across as you experiment with offering new adult experiences?

Read more about the Dallas Museum of Art’s education programs, community outreach, and explorations in creativity through their educator blog: DMA Canvas.

About the Author

JfuentesJESSICA FUENTES: Center for Creative Connections(C3) Gallery Coordinator, Dallas Museum of Art.  Jessica received her MA in Art Education from the University of North Texas.  Her thesis was a collaboration with her then six-year-old daughter to explore self-guided family experiences in art museums.  Jessica’s daughter remains an important resource in her work developing interactives and activities which provide opportunities for visitors of all ages to engage with works of art through drawing, making, and discussion. Jessica is also an artist and a member of 500X Gallery, one of Texas’ oldest, artist run cooperative galleries.  In her down time, she can usually be found with her daughter enjoying an art museum or making art in their home studio. Jessica’s postings on this site are her own and don’t necessarily represent the Dallas Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

8 thoughts on “Hands-On Learning: Not Just for Kids”

  1. Great post (see Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney Au for their studio hands on programme (which attracts established artists and gen public kids and adults work together in same studio projects… Highly reccomended there are also seperate progs for kids ,YMHS Ian

  2. Nice post. Your visitor’s comment that art is something good for them that they don’t do enough reminds me of going to the gym. What would happen if adults viewed creative practices and art making the same way they view exercising – something that isn’t integral to many people’s daily lives but that they make time for anyway because it’s good for them? What if art studios were like gyms with memberships, personal training, group classes, incentive pricing, and fun snack bars?
    Gyms make it “okay” for adults to do silly dance moves, kick and punch, contort, and be vulnerable. Could art studios do the same?

    1. Thanks Alli, definitely an interesting train of thought… art museums as part of a balanced, healthy life!

      I think in a lot of ways the environment we foster impacts our audiences’ willingness to engage. For example during our Late Night events at the Dallas Museum of Art, we notice adults are more open to participation because the whole evening promotes that kind of active engagement throughout the museum through music, tours, studio activities, and other events.

  3. Thank you for sharing such exciting programs to get adults to engage in ways they don’t expect.

    This is a big focus for me in my work with teachers at the Brooklyn Museum. I’m working on creating a balance between things they’ll find concretely useful in the classroom and things that will push them out of their comfort zone and hopefully inspire them as individuals.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that I no longer have to do the bit of the program where I offer suggestions about how to use the participatory strategy we’ve just done back in the classroom. Now I facilitate the activity and then step back and let the teachers come up with their own creative connections. They come up with lots more ways than I ever could to use the unexpected, interactive museum experiences with other audiences.

    It’s exactly that sense of fun and childlike curiosity that I aim for, and the fact that teachers can respond to it as adults–enjoying themselves as individuals in the museum–and then turn around and come up with ways to do the same thing with their students is very encouraging.

    1. Rachel, it sounds like you are doing some great things at the Brooklyn Museum! Before working in museums I was a middle school art teacher for 4 years. In my experience, having the opportunity to learn in a hands-on way and then take ownership of that learning-by making connections between the new knowledge and my personal classroom experiences-was the most beneficial kind of professional development.

  4. We noticed that a lot of adults were using our Exploration Station and have begun to put activities and resources that are more challenging out. We are on a college campus, so this gives us a chance to engage a particular segment of our visitors.
    Another favorite engagement activity for our adults are post it walls,a wall painted for dry erase markers (drawing and writing) and a wall that was painted with chalkboard paint (not in a collections area – in a reading room0>

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