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CURTAIN UP! ON THE ARTS FOR KIDS

Strategies for introducing children to the world of high culture

LAST SUMMER when "Annie" was at Artpark, Kenmore grandmother Alice Webster snapped up tickets so she could introduce her grandchildren to the theater.

Six-year-old Alicia Thomas left humming, "The sun'll come up too-mar-rah."

Grandson Ricky Thomas, who was not quite 3, wriggled through the overture, then bolted for the outdoors.

For two hours Mrs. Webster and Ricky hiked the Artpark grounds (while her daughter and granddaughter watched the show). Out many dollars and disappointed about missing the play, she wonders what is the best way to connect children to the arts.

Many other adults wonder, too.

"I don't think it's ever too soon to expose children to works of art," said Margaret Foster, executive director of the Arts in Education Institute of Western New York. "Anything that broadens their view of the world is good," she said, adding that parents have to judge what their child is ready for.

"I think what's important for the child is to be in an environment where they are able to question and know that their own experiences are valid," Ms. Foster said.

There are no particular age guidelines for introducing the young to art; experts say it depends as much on the child's interest as on particular performances.

"You may think that taking a child to the opera at 4 or 5 is too young," said Ms. Foster. "But there's lots of color, movement, and the sound is beautiful. So who's to say it wouldn't be enriching? Maybe they wouldn't get all the subtleties, but they can build on what they see."

Before you plunk down money for tickets, though, art aficionados offer some suggestions about melding children and culture.

If it's a trip to Shakespeare in the Park, review the story in a simplified form.

If it's a first trip to live theater, talk about how people will be acting on a stage.

For a musical, you could play tapes from the library ahead of time so the music will be familiar.

Theatre of Youth sometimes offers written material before its productions, as it did with "A Thousand Cranes," so parents can help interpret the play and place it in historical context.

That was especially important with "Cranes" because it deals with the illness and death of a young Japanese girl as the result of bombing during World War II.

"You don't want to just drop off a play in their laps," says Meg Quinn, TOY's artistic director.

It's also a good idea to stay if there's audience talk-back after a play, she said. "It gives some kind of closure if they talk about it."

Though many shows are packaged as "children's entertainment" -- those audiences filled with noisy, excited kids -- some question whether this environment teaches children proper concert etiquette.

"I don't necessarily think the best place to bring a kid is to a room full of kids, because they are with other people who don't know how to behave," said Kathleen Rooney, director of public relations at Artpark, who has taken her 7-year-old son to such performances.

"A family might be better off coming to an event where they have to act like grown-ups for a couple of hours and still have fun."

And it's important that adults be sprinkled among a group of youngsters, said Ms. Quinn.

"Sometimes a whole group of 4-year-olds together isn't good," she said. "It's a different experience if they sit next to Mom or big brother and can whisper a few questions."

One hour is about as long as a body under age 5 can be expected to sit still and pay attention, she said.

But if children are in the production, youngsters will be far more attentive.

"My first experience with theater was seeing 'The King and I,' " said David Midland, Artpark's executive director. "My mother loved seeing Yul Brynner, but I remember the kids."

And it's a boost for a fledgling musician to hear a pro in performance.

For a child who is studying Suzuki violin, for instance, it would be a wonderful treat to see Itzhak Perlman perform on a local stage.

"Going to hear someone else do it is important," Midland said. "It makes the picture more complete."

Introducing a child to fine arts may be somewhat easier because you can adjust to the child's level of interest.

"You can bring a 3-year-old into an art exhibit and as soon as he gets antsy, you look for the nearest exit," said Reine Hauser, associate director of the Anderson Gallery.

When a group of preschoolers visited that gallery recently, they toured the first floor, then went outdoors for a juice and cookie break before returning to see the second floor.

"Fifteen minutes to half an hour is enough for a 4-year-old, because they want to touch," said Alison Murphy, assistant curator at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

"It can be a bad experience if they reach the end of their attention span or the guard says something to them."

But once they reach kindergarten, they can start learning about line, shape, value and texture so they have a basic vocabulary to become critical thinkers, said Mary Giglia, coordinator of the children's and family program at the Albright-Knox.

She says parents often don't feel prepared to talk about art. But what could be less intimidating than slipping off your shoes and gliding across the floor of the mirrored room? Or standing in a gallery to soak up geometric designs or paint-splattered canvases?

For the youngest, nothing more needs to be said or done.

"Parents really do set an example," said Ms. Murphy. "If they are excited, that can make all the difference in the world in developing a lifelong interest. There are a lot of studies that say exposure at a young age brings them back as adults."

With summer at our doorsteps, it's a perfect time to see dance, to hear music, to admire art.

Artpark is especially suitable for children with its outdoor seating.

"The customary rules don't necessarily apply," said Julia Kirchhausen, public relations manager of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, which has its summer quarters there.

"They can ask questions and they don't have to sit perfectly still," Ms. Kirchhausen said. "It's what families do it Europe -- they come to a park to spend time listening to music."

Families can buy grass passes (this summer Artpark has a deal that season grass pass holders can bring in a child under 12 free). A blanket, a picnic basket and a six-foot square on the back hill should keep most children happily occupied for an hour or more.

"If a kid conks out, it's no big deal," Midland said.

i DICK BRADLEY/

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