What do you get for the child in your life? That’s the big question for so many people around this time of year. If I can make a suggestion for a gift that keeps on giving—for a lifetime—give the gift of art. I recently took my older son to experience a child-oriented activity at our local museum and he came away from it with a new joy in the simple acts of looking and making something with his own hands. If you’re trying to teach a child the alphabet of life, you can do no better than starting with “A Is for Art Museum.”

Actually, my son Alex’s new fascination with art, and the catalyst for our trip to the museum, was a book titled A Is for Art Museum. Written by Maria K. Shoemaker and Katy Friedland in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s education department, A Is for Art Museum uses the museum’s amazing collection to build an alphabet of imagination and wonder. After I had reviewed the book in 2008 (which you can see here), I gave the book to Alex, who was only 2 years old at the time. He asked us to read it to him now and then, but it was only recently that he took a greater interest in the pictures that went along with the words. He took a special interest in “M is for musicians,” which featured Pablo Picasso’s Three Musicians (shown above). It was instantly his new “favorite” painting. It was clear that it was time to take him to the museum to introduce him to his favorite painting in person.

Before beginning our search, we attended a reading for children as part of the PMA’s family program. The teacher briefed the kids on the rules first, including bringing their “walking feet” rather than “running feet,” using their “inside voice,” and making sure to wear their “listening ears.” I especially loved how the teacher explained to the children how their big person wants to touch the art, so the kids need to hold that big person’s hand to restrain them. My Alex dutifully held my hand throughout, knowing that it’s absolutely true that I want to touch the art, too.

We then moved into the gallery for Michelangelo Pistoletto’s exhibition From One to Many, 1956–1974. The kids immediately connected with Pistoletto’s “Mirroring Paintings” and “Rags” sculptures. The book, SimmsTaback’s Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, took on a whole new dimension in that context. A follow-up craft activity with fabric and coloring was the perfect ending to the experience.

With Alex’s beautiful craft in hand, we began wandering around the museum—Alex in the “lead” as I nudged him gently into areas where he’d “find” works he’d recognize from the book. He loved the museum’s armor collection, where he picked the piece from “H is for helmet” out of a lineup of dozens of helmets. With a little help, Alex found his way down a corridor where he found Edgar Degas’ statue of the Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen (“D is for dancer”), Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (“F is for flowers”), and Claude Monet’s Japanese Bridge (“B is for bridge”). When we finally made it to the gallery where Picasso’s Three Musicians, Alex was ready to really enjoy the experience. Aside from the sheer size of the work—bigger and bolder than on the page—the aspect that struck Alex the most seemed to be the idea that someone made this, and that he could make something like that, too. That moment was worth waiting for, for the both of us.

When I hear people cry “What about the children?” in regards to controversies such as that currently surrounding the censorship of David Wojnarowicz’s 1987 video “A Fire in My Belly,” I mentally respond “Yes, what about them?” What does such censorship teach children? Intolerance? Close-mindedness? Fear of the “other”? Museums and art should be teaching children possibility—for tolerance, for imagination, for themselves. I’m so happy that I can offer my son that gift of art and all the possibility it brings. Every child should experience that gift. Sadly, schools seem to be making the disastrous choice to steal that gift away from the children who need it the most—those whose lives seem closed to possibility by poverty. Art can’t save the world, perhaps, but at least it can give hope to children that someone, maybe them, can save at least a little corner of it. A is for art museum… It’s a start along a path that every child should have the chance to travel.

[Image: Pablo Picasso. Three Musicians. Oil on canvas, 80 ½ x 74 1/8 inches, 1921. Philadelphia Museum of Art: A.E. Gallatin Collection, 1952.]