Portrait Play is a school holiday activity at the National Portrait Gallery, for children aged between 4 and 8. Bookings are essential via their website to secure a place, with a small fee to pay per child. The activity is run by an educator at the gallery, so the kids have an experienced guide to lead them through the activities and help them learn something about art along the way. The educators choose a few portraits to talk about and then hold a craft activity in front of each one, which relates back to the portrait.
Firstly, you meet your educator at the front desk and move to the seating area to get a name sticker and get to know each other before it begins. The kids, in particular, like to know each other's names and ages and it "breaks the ice" amongst the group. After everyone has arrived, the kids are given a few instructions about how to behave in the gallery and not to touch the portraits - and then the artistic adventure begins ...
Fun for kids and carers at Portrait Play. Image: National Portrait Gallery website
As there are hundreds of portraits in the gallery and the educators each have their own favourites they like to talk about, Portrait Play is different on every occasion. My daughter and I visited in early 2018 and enjoyed the way the educator managed to get all the kids thinking, looking and really seeing the details within each portrait.
One of the portraits that we looked at on our visit was of Captain James Cook and the kids were encouraged to stand in the same pose, look at where his hands were positioned, look at the details on his buttons and why he was standing in the way he was. After looking at the portrait, they then had to turn around and put together a puzzle of the painting as a group, to see how much they could remember. They then made a pirate hat and decorated it, as Captain Cook was missing his hat in the portrait. The educator had a way of encouraging kids to really look at each portrait and make their own discoveries and judgments, before hearing the story behind each one.
Another interesting portrait activity was in front of the portrait of Nick Cave by Howard Arkley. The educator asked the kids to look at the painting and think about how the artist created it with spray paint. They were encouraged to look at the colours of the painting and pick out all the colours that made up the portrait from bendy pipe cleaners. They then sat on the floor and made their own colourful portraits by twisting coloured pipe cleaners together to make faces, glasses, eyes and mouths - making and creating their own unique portrait in colour.
Each school holidays, the National Portrait Gallery has a free activity space in the foyer, which opens at 11am for kids to enjoy. It relates to a current exhibition and often has books to read, hands-on activities, paper craft and new crafts to try. After Portrait Play finishes at 12pm, the group moves over to this free activity area and finishes off the morning with more fun things to do to keep the kids busy and entertained.
My daughter and I enjoyed Portrait Play just as much as each other. She enjoyed meeting new kids of the same age and the various activities at each portrait, which got her thinking about her own drawings and what makes art. For myself, I also learnt a lot about the portraits that we looked at, which I would have otherwise walked past and not known the fascinating stories behind each one. It is the stories behind the portraits that make them so interesting - for all ages. Why not book in your child or children for Portrait Play and enter a magical new world of art and discovery - for all of you!
Walk inside the doors of The National Portrait Gallery and learn something new