x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The fine art of finding child-friendly activities

Whoever came up with the idea that man-eating felines at the zoo should be entertaining for toddlers?

"Opening art to all ages is no doubt a good thing," says Robert Carroll.

The leopard prowls around his lair, a sleek marvel of hot blood and fur. Astrid tenses and stops dead. She doesn't know about the thick glass between her and its fangs. Her fear is primal, hard-wired and untaught. She relaxes a bit when she sees us smiling, but the beast paces nearby on the other side of the glass. Who decided zoos are good places for children? The Sharjah Desert Park is not very busy - only 20 or 30 groups perhaps - but it is teeming with kids. They skip from cage to cage. They peer into the still dimness of the snake house compartments. They gawp at the red bottoms of baboons, amused and repulsed by the innards outward, the apparent spaghetti of intestines.

Look at the cheetah. It is lying languorously in the sun. The last one on the Arabian peninsula was apparently shot in Oman in the 1970s, so this one is either bred from a foreign import or a ghost. There's something horrific about such definitive destruction of a species: it leaves no room for mysterious sightings; it kills any chance of expectation or myth; it is the opposite of childhood wonder.

Despite the problems, zoos are still thought of as natural places to take children, and trips to the zoo form a traditional part of many childhoods. Art galleries, on the other hand, are not considered child-friendly zones. The clatter and chatter of children does not seem to be immediately compatible with the appreciation of art. All those excited and uncontrollable hands and voices could disturb the aura of peaceful contemplation. Besides, some parents fear their children will paw the artwork and leave fingerprints or other marks on canvases. All in all, the haughty rejections and admonishments add up: the result is a general reluctance to take children to art galleries.

Many galleries and museums in the UK have introduced education programmes and family days over the past decade in an attempt to draw more families. Some have proved very successful. Gradually, the attitude to children in art galleries appears to be changing. The website www.kidsinmuseums.org.uk has published a manifesto for this movement, accompanied by illustrations by Quentin Blake. The points range from practical ("provide great toilets with baby changing facilities, where you can take a pushchair. It's probably the one place in the museum every family will visit") to more philosophical ("don't make assumptions about what kids do and don't like. Kids can appreciate fine art as well as finger painting").

My experience of art galleries with Astrid has so far been unsullied by snobbish remarks or imposed awkwardness. Visiting The Guggenheim: The Making of a Museum at the Emirates Palace was a joy. The staff on the desk were helpful, the guards in the rooms smiled and played with Astrid and the exhibition's few visitors that day did not seem bothered by a younger patron. "An art museum is one of the places that give us the highest idea of man," wrote André Malraux in Les Voix du Silence. Parents have as much right to take children to art galleries as to zoos, as long as they ensure their children behave with respect. Opening art to all ages is no doubt a good thing.

Tidal wave, Mexican wave, sine wave, new wave, Google wave: uses and meanings of the word "wave" are diverse and varied. Strangely, it is one of the first word-act combinations that Astrid has picked up and put together. Often as I walk along carrying her in my arms, we meet someone who smiles and starts to wave. Until recently, Astrid would smile back and make all manner of noises but she would not wave. At some point on such occasions, she started to shake her arm up and down, mimicking the movement of a wave, only vertically. A few days later she started waving when I set off for work, indicating that she knows the gesture is used to signal goodbye. More recently, when I said the word "wave", she started moving her hand up and down, suggesting she knows the word and that it describes the action.

She knows the movement, she knows its meaning and she knows the word that describes it. There are many gestures to learn. There are many forms of non-verbal communication to master. For Astrid, the wave is the start of a repertoire of movements that she will use to convey her thoughts and feelings. They will help her to get her message across clearly without words. * Robert Carroll