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Use your imagination

How parents can fill the void when schools cut arts and music programs

By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / September 1, 2009

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One day, when Barbara Martin was 11 years old and lounging around her Tennessee home with her three siblings, their mother returned from a backyard foray with some unexpected marching orders.

“Everyone should spend five minutes in the hammock looking up at the blue sky through the yellow leaves,’’ she told them. The children complied. “It was an extraordinary visual effect,’’ recalls Martin. “The colors were so fabulous on that fall day, it had the power to feed your soul.’’

That maternal lesson on the importance of forging a connection to the visual world, of seeing the world as a work of art, evidently stuck with Martin: Today, she is the Alfond curator of education at the Museum of Fine Arts.

But what if you’re an average parent? How do you instill an appreciation for the arts in your kids, thereby enlarging their creative and critical-thinking skills while deepening their enjoyment of life?

The question has added urgency at the moment. The statewide education budget crunch has prompted many cash-strapped schools to cut back on programs in music, theater, dance, photography, and the visual arts. In February, a report by the Boston Foundation found that as students in Boston’s 143 public schools move into the higher grades, their access to arts programs of all kinds sharply diminishes.

For parents who want to pick up the slack and shoulder the role of arts advocate and educator, one place to start is exactly where Martin’s mother began: in the home. The first art to develop is the art of looking. Martin says parents should foster “a visual awareness of your surroundings’’ within their children. “Think of looking games as something to do when you’re walking. ‘How many colors can you find in this landscape? What story can we tell each other about this picture?’ ’’ she says. “Think about opportunities to engage your kids with the visual world.’’

While you’re doing that, stock an “art shelf’’ or an “art box’’ with plenty of construction paper, markers, fabric scraps, and old magazines (for cutting pictures out of). That way, when inspiration strikes your child, he or she will have the tools at hand to execute their vision.

The next step is to take them to a museum, so they can see how the pros do it. The MFA offers activity sheets for children, called “Art Connections,’’ that allow them to explore “Mythical Creatures, Powerful Figures, Flowers, Cats, or Writing.’’ Also available at the museum are art classes for kids, a visiting guide replete with “gallery games,’’ a family audio guide, and a “Family Art Cart’’ for children ages 4 and older.

Martin advises parents to build field trips with their kids around a theme. For instance, using the MFA’s self-guiding “Art Connections,’’ parents and children could follow the theme of “Writing in Art’’ from a cuneiform inscription dating to ancient Assyria to an inscribed golden bowl in the early-Greece gallery to the Egyptian funerary arts gallery.

“What you want in visiting a museum is a balance of focus and freedom,’’ says Martin. “Affirm your child’s observations. ‘Ah, so you’re noticing the brushstrokes are short and choppy. Oh, so you think the bird is about to eat the worm.’ ’’

An appetite for the performing arts can likewise be kindled at home, according to Kimberly Haack, director of student programs at the Boston Conservatory, which trains students in theater, music, and dance.

That’s how it worked for Haack: When she was a child, her mother would play the cast albums from “South Pacific’’ and “West Side Story,’’ and Haack and her twin sister would sing along and act out the scenes. “It started for me with the music,’’ she says. “Music is the one thing that sticks around through thick and thin. Instilling that in your child is hugely important.’’

A love of musical theater may grow from hearing the songs from cast albums of Broadway musicals like “Annie’’ or “Wicked’’ issuing from the home CD player. A love of dance may grow from watching TV shows like “Dancing With the Stars’’ and “So You Think You Can Dance.’’ If parents are watching a DVD of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid’’ with their children, they can call attention to the exhilarating music by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.

The next step, Haack says, is to take the children to a “starter show’’ like “Shear Madness’’ (on which she was an associate producer), then graduate to “Blue Man Group,’’ and then on to more challenging fare. “It really does start from the parents directly, in terms of what you take your child to,’’ she says.

Boston-area parents have an advantage, she says, because there are many colleges offering student recitals - from violin to dance - along with ambitious productions of classic musicals and plays at low cost. For instance, this year the Conservatory will stage productions of “Sweet Charity,’’ “Rent,’’ and “Strike Up the Band.’’

If there is an adventurous teenager in your household, the Institute of Contemporary Art may provide a creative stimulus. The ICA offers new media classes for teenagers that include animation and video, along with a video production program called Fast Forward. There are “art happenings’’ created by teenagers that are displayed on teen-only nights at the museum, and a Teen Council that organizes performances and workshops where young participants can watch artists at work and ask them about their process.

Many teenagers embrace the ICA’s challenging fare. Observes Donna Desrochers, the ICA’s director of marketing and communications, “Young people are very open to art.’’

And if they’re not, you can always order them to spend some time gazing skyward from a hammock on a colorful autumn day.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.