“We see a light bulb going off with families. They say, ‘I didn't think this space was for me. I just never thought I could come here. Now I see my face here, I see myself here. I can bring my family to the DIA."
-Renee Dixon, Gallery Teaching Lead-Pre-K Program Manager, DIA Kids
Detroit, MI (January 2023)—Think back to your best day ever as a kid. Did it involve walking like your favorite animal through the halls of the most amazing art museum in your city? Did it including viewing colorful mosaics from Mesopotamia and then creating one of your own with funky wooden pieces and colorful foam shapes? Those are just a few of the memorable activities underserved preschool children get to experience as part of the DIA Kids program.
Now in its third successful year, the DIA Kids reaches nearly 400 underserved families per year and is one of the first of its kind in the nation. Supported by a Walters Family Foundation grant, the program serves children ages three to five and consists of three gallery tours, artmaking classes and fun craft activities to complete at home. The grant also covers transportation to the museum for children and a caregiver, stipends for teachers, and snacks while at the museum.
From the second children walk through the doors of the DIA as part of DIA Kids, they’re engaged in activities that activate their minds and bodies. Whether they’re creating a triptych in the studio, or moving like a dinosaur throughout the museum — the experience engages touch, movement, sights, and sounds. What’s more, they get to do it all with their favorite caregivers.
Research shows that children who experience the arts in family groups build lifetime engagement. For many of these families it’s their first time in the museum. It can be intimidating at first. One of the goals of the program is to make the families feel more comfortable in the museum, so they’ll want to return independently. “Many don’t think this is a space where they would feel welcome. It’s rewarding to see them get excited over something they thought would not include them,” says Renee Dixon, Gallery Teaching Lead-Pre-K Program Manager, DIA Kids. “The sooner they see that this is for them, this is a place where they can come, where they are welcome, it opens up many more opportunities.”
Dixon says the experience can be transformative for both children and caregivers alike. She recalls an experience when an older woman approached her during an art-making session. The woman showed her a picture of three children. “She said, ‘I am the great-grandmother. I'm 79 years old, and I adopted these children, and this has been one of the best experiences I've ever had with them. I am bringing back my other kids.’ She was just ecstatic. She was on the ground making art right along with them. That's generations you're touching, not just one.”
Along with inspiring participants, the program also aims to remove financial barriers for families with young children. While access to the DIA is free for all residents of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties, the Walters Family Foundation and the DIA were deliberate about covering transportation, food and supplies so that the museum would be accessible to an even wider audience that often goes unnoticed. “This is not a demographic that the museum world normally reaches out to,” says Dixon. “Without the grant from the Walters Family Foundation, these families would not be exposed to this experience. For many of them, it’s one they’ll never forget.”