Techniques for facilitating children’s learning in art museums: Demonstrating

This is the third post in a series on techniques for facilitating children’s learning with and through art in museums. The first introduced the broader ideas and debates underpinning facilitated learning, the second explored ‘suggesting’ and the third featured ‘questioning’. In this post the method of ‘demonstrating’ will be explored for its ability to extend, support and challenge children’s learning processes in art museums.

Each post includes a description of a technique in addition to how and when it may be useful. These should not be seen as all-conclusive methods of teaching and learning but more as different options to experiment with. I see these posts as thinking snapshots and hope they might generate deeper consideration around how others understand and implement methods in their context.


To demonstrate means to show or explain how something is done (Cambridge Dictionary online, 2017). In an art museum, demonstrating could be used to show children how they could experiment with a resource, pronounce a new vocabulary word, use an art tool or explore different ways of thinking through artworks. MacNaughton & Williams (2009) also suggest that demonstrating is a means of assisting children in learning alternative and more effects ways of exploring a problem. Demonstration can therefore be used to introduce both verbal and non-verbal skills that aim for learner’s to then be able to use them independently. Finding a balance between children’s self-directed explorations and an educator making a decision to intervene and demonstrate a new skill or technique can sometimes be difficult to find.

Demonstrating new skills and behaviours can support the construction of new possibilities that children can use to explore artwork meanings, materials and concepts. Like other facilitated learning techniques, demonstrating can help to encourage more complex ways of thinking with and through art.

Artists may bring specialised knowledge on concepts, tools, art techniques and ways of engaging with art that they can then introduce to children through the instructional process of demonstration. The need to demonstrate skills suggests that there are limitations to the deconstruction of instructional-based learning and that children’s learning with and through art can be facilitated further through the introduction of new knowledge by someone with more advanced understandings of a particular skill. Bolt & McArdle (2013: 14) elaborate on this:

“With mantras, then, of self-expression, freedom and creativity, art teachers may avoid providing much direct instruction about art making to children, all the while having ‘rules for breaking the rules’ and to ‘teach without teaching’ (McArdle, 2008: 367) which go unspoken and taken for granted. Many preservice teachers, having themselves been left in primary and secondary school to develop ‘naturally’, give the lie to this notion of ‘natural unfolding’, when they arrive at university with little or no skill or artistry and without artistic language or insight. The discourse of ‘natural unfolding’ is attractive to those who know nothing about art, and it is convenient in the contemporary era of bare bones educational funding. If there is no teaching to be done in the arts, then there is no need for an art teacher.’

As this quote implies, the demonstration of specific skills and techniques that assist children’s thinking with and through art may be useful in facilitating and complexifying learning. Demonstrating does not necessarily mean that children need to progress through a series of fixed developmental stages of understandings. In a facilitated learning environment, demonstration can alternatively be seen as a method that gives children further possibilities for experimentation and explorations. A child may choose to take the skill or technique further or they may choose not to. Therefore, whilst demonstrating does require a child to imitate an action or behaviour to learn something new, it does not necessarily produce a singular way of doing this.

For example, picture a four-year-old child walking into a material-based family activity in a sculpture garden. The activity features an array of ‘loose parts’ materials (leaves, sticks, twine, logs, stones and clay) laid out over the lawn next to an Andy Goldsworthy artwork. These materials can be explored in a myriad of ways and do not require a gallery staff member to verbally introduce the activity to the family. The child runs over to the materials and stack the logs onto of one another. After a period of time, an educator or artist may decide to start playing alongside the child, picking up small pieces of the clay, rolling it into small balls, sticking it to a log and then squishing sticks into the clay. The child may watch this non-verbal demonstration of the clay’s ability to act as a connecting materials and begin to explore this technique themselves or they may continue to stack the logs and ignore the demonstration. Either way, the educator has opened possibilities for the child’s further experimentation and thinking through the materials.

A second example could be if an artist wants to encourage parents to talk with children in a workshop, they may create a situation in which they can demonstrate asking a toddler a series of questions that encourages more complex thinking through an artwork. The parents may then extend off this demonstrating and start a conversation with their child asking similar questions to what the artist did. Once the conversation starts to flow, they may then experiment with variations of different questions or even construct their own. Alternatively, they may ignore the artists demonstration all together.

Extending upon these examples, demonstrating can further support children’s learning when an educator:

  • Uses clear, direct language to support their demonstration (MacNaughton & Williams, 2009);
  • Creates logical and sequential steps that breaks down how to perform the skill. This can make a complex skill easier to understand. The educator must be familiar with the steps themselves so as not to confused themselves or children while demonstrating it (MacNaughton & Williams, 2009);
  • Allows children lots of time to practice the skill, ask questions about it, discuss it as a group and seek further information if required;
  • Encourages children to experiment with the technique in new situations or contexts once they feel comfortable performing it as a basic level;
  • Gives further guidance or feedback in relation to how the skill could be used with other skills, materials and concepts.

Demonstrations can sometimes be an overly simplified version of an action or behaviour. This can be problematic if the learner does not understand that they have the ability to extend and expand upon the skills or techniques being introduced. Demonstration alone may be insufficient in facilitating children’s learning with and through art and may be more effective when combined with other techniques such as questioning, suggesting and giving feedback. Together these give children more options that can be combined with their self-directed explorations and experimentation.

I would love to hear your insights and feedback on demonstrating techniques to facilitate children’s learning with and through art in museums.

What is your experience of demonstrating skills to children and parents in art museums?

How do you allow for a balance of both instruction and children’s self-directed learning?


Bolt & McArdle (2013). ‘Young Children, pedagogy and the arts: Ways of seeing.’ In McArdle & Boldt (Eds). Young children, pedagogy and the arts. Routledge: New York.

Cambridge Dictionary online (2017). Cambridge Dictionary website. Cambridge University Press.

McArdle, F (2008). The arts and staying cool. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 9(4), p. 365-374.

MacNaughton, G & Williams, G (2009). Teaching young children: Choices in theory and practice. Second edition. Maidenhead: Open University Press.


One thought on “Techniques for facilitating children’s learning in art museums: Demonstrating

  1. Great read Louisa. Demonstrating is akin to lending a child a skill, by playing and experimenting with materials alongside. It is about sharing ideas, techniques and vocabulary, about commenting on processes, listening, revisiting and extending. An intimate sharing between learners.


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