The Toddler Tour: Part One, The National Gallery

The Toddler Tour:

The National Gallery of Ireland, Merrion Square

National Gallery: The New Wing


Family Friendliness:

As befits its status as a national institution, The National Gallery serves families very well. There has been a real effort to develop educational resources for young users, from the longstanding series of Family Workshops that have been running every Sunday since I was a child, to more recent developments of structured engagement with toddlers and babies. There are child-specific audio guides, which give age appropriate introduction to the work. There used to be a drawing area in the Atrium for spontaneous response, but the last time few times we have been there it has been closed. For the very youngest of visitors, there are buggy tours, which let Mum and Dad get a head start on culturing their children. Ask for an Art Pack at the Information Desk on your way in. We do, even though it is a bit text-heavy for an almost-three-year-old and most of it doesn’t get used yet. But the backpack, which is filled with crayons and colouring sheets, gives the toddler a sense of purpose, and this week we even stopped to do some scribbling when he noticed some older school children doing the same. Nothing like peer pressure, even when they are so young!

Accessibility of Art:

I really enjoy the diversity of the National Gallery’s collection. Because its brief is mostly historical, the work tends towards the representational, which I have found is a better starting point for my toddler than more modern abstraction. There are plenty of identifiable objects to reinforce language acquisition, and narrative based scenes that help with storytelling. Even the less representational pieces, like Picasso’s Still Life With Mandolin, play with form and perspective in a fairly accessible way. We have a game we play, where we choose one picture to theme our visit around and make a story up , sometimes based on the clues of the title, other times not. When he is interested enough, he chooses: this visit was all about the crucifixion!

The combination of sculpture and painting also works well for us at this particular phase of development. We love the three dimensionality that sculpture offers and in the park afterwards stand on rocks and try to copy the poses. As an adult user, however, I have been majorly irked by the limitations imposed by the ongoing renovations. Obviously they will make for a better gallery for the future, but  I dread to think what international users must think when they encounter such a paucity of paintings on display.


Excellent facilities. Clean and spacious changing areas. A cloakroom to leave buggies and paraphanalia while you browse. Lifts to access the upper levels. A well stocked, if slightly expensive cafe, which has just been taking over by the Itsabagel crew. A recent addition of a kids play area will make lunch for grown-ups more civilised but I try to avoid unless its tipping down outside. We have been tripped up by its attraction on occasion and failed to make it up the stairs.

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Working it Out at the Workshop

I am a big fan of the workshop model of cultural experience, particularly when it comes to visual arts. This is mostly to do with the fact that, despite my interest, I am uniquely incompetent with a crayon and, worse, more impatient than my two-year old. Over the last two weeks I have been to two different workshops with my boys, both in public institutions, one free and one paid. Both were centered on the same theme, but the difference between the two was so marked that I feel compelled to blog about it.

Tiny Tots at the National Gallery

Over the last 18 months, The National Gallery on Merrion Square have been running themed art workshops for toddlers. I have been to three of the Tiny Tots workshops at intervals of 6 months, and it has been interesting to see both the workshops and my two-year old’s capacity to engage evolve. On the first occasion, the workshop was designed to introduce the children to the idea of a gallery. We used finger paints, stamps and watercolour crayons to make pictures to stick into a folding card lined with frames, which we could take home. The activities were centered around several tables, which were taller than the children, who needed to be supported to climb onto stools and access material. My son, then 18 months, spent most of the time stacking cushions. The workshop took place in one of the exhibition rooms in the old part of the gallery, which was closed off to the public. The room was almost circular, large and high ceilinged. Crucially, there was art on the wall and you also had to pass sculptures and paintings to get to the space.

The most recent workshop was themed Under the Sea, and this time took place in the New Wing, in the space where the upstairs cafe used to be. The children were seated on cushions on the floor. Before the workshop began there was ample opportunity for rolling and stacking the cushions (again the two-year-old took full advantage). The facilitators began by gathering the children together underneath a large sheet (the sea), playing the theme tune to the Disney film The Little Mermaid and encouraging them to dance. The children were then showed how to make octopus creatures from handprints and they stuck their creatures on to a piece of coloured paper that they also decorated with torn strips of crepe paper (seaweed). The second activity reinforced the concept of shapes with the children. Using a circle and a triangle, we drew fish, cut them out and stuck them to the same background. The workshop ended with another listen and dance to Under the Sea, and we got to take our art work home. There was no visual stimulation at all, and it was possible to attend the workshop without engaging with a single piece of art.


The King of the Sea’s Party

A week later, we participated in a  workshop called King of the Sea at the Ark: A Cultural Centre for Children in Temple Bar, for a fee of 8 euro. It took place on the building’s second floor, and emerging from the lift, you were immediately immersed in a creative workshop environment. The workshop space was decked out dramatically: sea shells lined the wall, sea creatures were suspended from the ceiling, the floor was covered in textured rugs in blue and green, and big throne sat in the corner. Our facilitator, Joanna Parkes, began by asking the children to introduce themselves, which encouraged them to express themselves throughout the workshop.

Then she started telling them a story. The King of the Sea was having a party and his party planner was looking for some children to help her with some last minute decoration. Joanna then pulled on a costume and took out a clipboard, and enlisted the children as ‘star helpers.’ They hung seaweed from the walls with clothes pegs, made pictures for the walls using stickers and crayons, fake-baked a million cupcakes, practiced playing music for his parade, and then showed the mermaids how to dance (a challenge when they have no legs). When the King made his appearance he invited the children to try out his throne and take their picture home with them.

Because of the structured nature of the workshop, there was a real sense of momentum that kept the children engaged throughout,. The festive theme gave it a high energy feel, but Joanna never let the children’s focus wander. I was  really impressed by the way in which she integrated a variety of elements from different art forms. It was essentially an arts and crafts workshop, but it was highly theatrical too, and had the children miming, dancing and storytelling, as well as using their fine motor skills in their art work.

Working it out at the Workshop

As the descriptions probably attest, the second workshop was by far the more successful.

At the National Gallery, the long narrow room and the positioning of the facilitators, lent an instructive feel to events, which I don’t think is particularly useful for this age group. The children were told what the theme was but were not encouraged to engage with it in any meaningful or personal way. They weren’t really invited to put themselves into the workshop (to create pictures of their own experiences with sea creatures), nor were they shown any visual aids (different ways of representing sea creatures.) My experience, and that of several friends in attendance, was that we did the work for the children, which is useful in itself for me but doesn’t really take full advantage of the National Gallery’s resources.

By creating an immersive environment for the children at the Ark, however, the facilitator kept their attention, despite the varying age groups. Although the workshop was 8 euro per child, and the National Gallery’s workshop was free, the same level of imagination could easily be applied to a more formal visual arts brief for very little outlay. Indeed, most of the room was decorated with homemade/crafty props.

However, I wonder to what extent the success of the workshop at the Ark has to do with story. It gave the children a context from which to engage with both the arts activities and, by encouraging theatrical participation, in investing themselves in the experience too.

Of course, it could be my own preference, and my own child’s nature, but I genuinely don’t think you can underestimate the power of story to engage and/or teach young children.

Do Not Touch (No please do): Hélio Oiticica at IMMA

Art galleries are my go-to place for rainy day run-arounds. All those big empty rooms. All those long corridors. I am not going to pretend that my two year-old has any interest in the art that is hanging on the walls, but then again why would he? They sit two feet above his head. Contemporary art, sculpture, and multimedia installations, however, used to pique his interest. I remember following him around the Alice Maher exhibition, which was staged at Earlsfort Terrace while the Royal Hospital premises was being renovated. The gallery space was paradise for the curious child: light installations beckoned you into the small rooms that lined the long central corridor, and an enormous ice sculpture – like The Snow Queen’s chariot – sat in the middle of it all. Nearly all the pleasure of our visit, however, was spoiled by the vigilance of the invigilator, who followed us around barking, ‘don’t touch. Please keep the children back etc.’

So, it was with some astonishment to come across the work of Hélio Oiticica this week, at a fabulous retrospective at IMMA. I actually visited the exhibition first alone, on a rare child-free afternoon, and I was so absorbed by the opportunity to read the blurbs uninterrupted, that it took me a while to notice that the entire exhibition was a direct invitation to touch and experience the installations. I returned a couple of days later with a group of friends and their toddlers (all under 3), genuinely curious as to how the kids would react to the work, and also what the limits of participation were. Would the invigilators intervene if they started throwing the stones that lined the indoor beach?

The exhibition is called Propositions, and it compromises brightly-coloured architectural mobiles (kites, my toddler called them, and when I probed further he said one looked like a bird), geometric pattern paintings, and a series of installations. The first one that piqued the children’s interests was Penetrable, a wooden cabinet with sliding panels that was an invitation for hide and seek. Although the toddlers couldn’t move the panels themselves (their parents barely could), they understood implicitly that the work was designed to disguise and reveal. (We also had fun playing sardines and managed to squeeze three toddlers and two mothers, one heavily pregnant, into a double compartment).

Entrance into the next section of the exhibition was via what we dubbed The Jellyfish: a wide doorway from which dozens of long blue plastic cables hung like tentacles from the ceiling. This was terrifically sensorial. The plastic was soft not hard, and the toddlers swished and swashed and grabbed the cables, playing peekaboo and pretending to be monsters. My seven-month old buggy-buddy absolutely loved this. Apart from the teasing texture on his skin as we passed through, the cables created an attractive dappled light effect as you immersed yourself in it. Two more rooms offered the opportunity to parade around in costumes in front of a large mirror, and to view more hanging sculptures, but upside down, from the vantage point of mirrors on the floor.

The main corridor of the exhibition was dominated by Nas Quebradas, a deliberately unstable gravel hill, built upon unsteady bricks that loved underfoot as you mounted it. As my wily toddler navigated the “wobbly” mound, the invigilators made themselves known for the first time, providing a caution about slipping on the unsteady surface. However, they retreated as suddenly as they emerged, leaving us parents to supervise. (Incidentally, my little boy – who could climb Kilimanjaro but needs to be dragged to the local shop – was the only one who was interested in this particular exhibit). This precarious structure paved the way for Tropicália, an indoor beach, with a secret beach hut, a sort of large-scale be-ribboned sensory box, and two live parrots.

The undoubted hit with the toddlers, however, was CC2 Onobject, a dark room kitted out like a soft-play centre. To a Yoko Ono punk inspired soundtrack, against a backdrop of Nietzsche projections, the toddlers moved giant sponge cylinders, squares and triangles around, and generally went a little crazy. Propositions is an invitation to the viewer to interact and immerse themselves in his environmental artworks, and I cannot imagine a group more willing to throw themselves whole heartedly into the experiential possibilities of art than toddlers.

During the summer months, IMMA are offering hour long workshops to families inspired by the exhibition, although the workshops are geared for an older demographic than our party. We had an enormous amount of fun, but I was left wondering how to talk about our experience with my toddler: how to introduce the idea of art into the equation? Over dinner that evening we described our day for Daddy. We paid particular attention to texture, colour, sound, and I left it at that, not wanting to kill the spontaneous reactions the work itself inspired. Fun is probably the best incentive to want to return to the gallery context, but doubt we will ever find as exciting an exhibition as Oiticica’s.

Hélio Oiticita runs at IMMA until 9th October.