How to Explain Abstract Art to Children

Children working on abstract art in classroom
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Abstract art comes naturally to children who thrive on experimentation and creative expression. After years of being told to color inside the lines, students jump at the chance to express themselves freehand. An abstract art lesson plan for elementary students introduces a novel art form that children can appreciate. Children readily grasp the concept of abstract art when explained in simple terms and illustrated with visuals.

  • Samples of realistic art
  • Samples of abstract art
  • Paint
  • Paintbrushes
  • Paper

1 Discuss Realistic or Naturalistic Art

Explain what abstract art is not, by showing examples of realistic or naturalist art. These art pieces look like replicas of their subject matter and are easy to recognize. Use paintings of fruit, a house or some other object children can easily identify. Ask students to call out the objects in each painting or drawing as soon as they recognize them.

2 Instruct Children to Draw Pictures

Direct students to paint or draw a “realist” picture. Students might paint or draw a picture of their families, homes, pets, jungle animals or favorite cartoon characters. Reemphasize that realist pictures are images of real things that are easy to recognize.

3 Introduce Abstract Art for Kids

Abstract art for kids lends itself well to many types of hands on lessons. Show several abstract works of art, one at a time, and ask the students to identify the subject matter. Students should be slower in responding to this question due to the obscurity of the art pieces. Ask students what colors and shapes they see in the painting. Ask them what emotions they feel while looking at each painting and how colors create that impression.

4 Explain Abstract Art Definition

Define abstract art in terms they can understand. In simple terms, abstraction in art is a non-lifelike portrayal of real world objects, people and scenes that are usually difficult for other people to recognize. Explain that abstract art portrays what an artist feels and thinks, rather than what he or she sees. An abstract artist uses colors and shapes to express his or her emotions and ideas. Just as we do not know other people’s thoughts, we do not always know what abstract art portrays but if you ask the artist, he or she can explain the painting to you. Briefly explain abstract art history when teaching abstract art for kids to give them a deeper understand of how abstract art evolved.

5 Create and Discuss Abstract Art

Children's attempts to copy what they see onto paper often results in art that looks little like the original and is therefore unidentifiable to others, though the child can explain it easily enough. Instruct students to paint or draw a work of abstract art. Tell them to think about what they are going to draw and consider what colors and shapes will express their emotions and thoughts. Have students discuss one another's paintings, saying what they think each art work is about. The artist can then explain his or her work of art.

Nadine Smith has been writing since 2010. She teaches college writing and ESL courses and has several years experience tutoring all ages in English, ESL and literature. Nadine holds a Master of Arts in English language and literature from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, where she led seminars as a teaching assistant.