Today I took a field trip to the Allen Memorial Art Museum. Or, to be more specific, Mrs. Peter’s second-grade class took a field trip to the museum, and I tagged along. I wasn’t exactly sure how an hour in the art museum was going to go over with a bunch of 7-year-olds, but I was interested to find out.

It was even more interesting than I imagined. Our guide, Lucy, had the class hang up their coats, then led them into the gallery. She sat them down on the floor in front of this painting:

I was a little surprised at the choice of a religious work for a public school class of very young kids. How was she going to explain this to them?

Revelation of the day: she didn’t. After asking them to examine the painting for a moment, she said, “So tell me what you see here.”

“It’s a bunch of guys, and they’re having a party.”

“So what do you see that makes you think they’re having a party?”

“They’re eating food, and they’re wearing hats.”

“So you think they’re having a party because they’re eating and wearing these … hats? Good. What else do you notice?”

“They’re eating different kinds of bread.”

“Can you point to where you see different kinds of bread?”

“There, and over there, and that round one over there.”

“So you see they’re eating different kinds of bread. Good. What else?”

“The animal on the table is a ess … essc … estinct creature.”

“This animal here? What do you see that makes you think this is an extinct creature?”

“It looks weird. It’s not like a normal animal.”

“Okay, so you think it’s an extinct creature because it looks different from a normal animal? Good. What else?”

She never contradicted their statements, even when they contradicted one another. Again, “What do you see that makes you think that?” Again, “What else?”

They noticed that none of the men were wearing shoes. They noticed that the windows were open, and they noticed the trees and the building outside. A girl noticed that they were eating healthy food, like bread and vegetables, which earned a pleased response from Mrs. Peters. One boy noticed the fancy robes, and thought that the men were kings from different countries who were having a feast together. Another thought that one of the men was sleeping, because his eyes were closed.

And when there were no more observations forthcoming, Lucy had all the kids stand up, form a single-file line, and move on. They looked at three more paintings this same way. Never did she offer any explanation to the children. All she did was encourage them to look closely at art and articulate why they thought the way they did about each piece.

Sometimes they invented stories, like a painting they decided involved three children who had been bugging their mother to buy them a dog forever, and they finally found one and fed it donuts to make it want to stay with them. (What do you see that makes you think they were bugging their mother for a dog?” “Her face looks annoyed.”) Sometimes they brought in ideas from their lives, like when they thought a painting looked like a maypole dance, or people getting on a ride at Cedar Point (both, hilariously, interpretations of the same painting).

18 kids, four paintings, one hour, and almost zero problems. And one lesson in helping children see and think without the knowledge and stories of adults getting in the way. Thanks, Lucy. It was a fabulous morning, and one I won’t soon forget.