Joanna Carden and her daughter Emma have made several stops at a small wooden box in their Capitol Hill neighborhood in Washington, D.C. The box looks like the Free Little Libraries that have become so popular throughout the country—but with a twist. Instead of books that passersby can take and leave, this box contains art.
“My daughter loves all things art-related,” Carden says. “She spends most of her time at home creating different types of art, so I knew she'd be interested.”
She was right. On that visit, Emma found another child's drawing of a unicorn. Also a unicorn enthusiast, Emma immediately chose to take the art home. “On our walk home, we talked about making her own piece of art to put in the gallery,” Carden says. “She's already planning out what she wants to make.”
The Free Little Art Galleries (FLAGs) movement was born out of the COVID-19 pandemic, starting with a tiny gallery in Seattle. It’s since spread to cities across the country. And while the galleries are for all ages, kids can gain real benefits from interacting with them.
Experts say sharing and exchanging art can engage children more than when they create art at home, because seeing and responding to others’ art inspires more creativity and prompts deeper thinking. And creating art they know will be seen by others is more motivating than just making pictures to hang on the fridge.
“[The little galleries] teach that kids’ art is an expression, and we're sharing our expression,” says Spramani Elaun, an art teacher and director of Nature of Art for Kids. “Kids showing their art to their parents can move to, ‘How would you like to share your love or your passion with someone else?’”
How the trend started
Stacy Milrany is an artist in Seattle and has long made postcard-size paintings to send to friends when she’s traveling. When her mother was diagnosed with cancer in 2019, she painted a postcard to send to her every day during her chemotherapy—145 postcards over five months.
Then the pandemic came, which shut down most art museums and galleries. So Milrany decided to try a project she’d long dreamed about. Many Free Little Libraries dotted her neighborhood, which inspired her to create a little art gallery. It took her a month to set up a small wooden box in her front yard and fill it with tiny pieces of art: first her postcard-size paintings, then tiny sculptures, origami, painted rocks, and other drawings and watercolors made by her neighbors. It even included tiny benches and people taking all the art in.
“I put a sign on there that says anyone is welcome to both take a piece and make a piece, or just walk by and enjoy it, and it’s been all those things,” Milrany says. “I watch it change over the course of a day, it’s become a dynamic living piece of interactive art right on my street.”
Kids are getting a lot of use out of it, too, Milrany says. They’ve contributed self-portraits, pictures of their dogs, apple trees, a rainbow. Siblings made a whole book of pencil drawings and left it in the gallery.
“Kids come by with their parents and see what’s new, and there’s always something new every day,” Milrany says. “I had a 13-year-old boy tell me that he comes by twice a day to see what’s new. I asked him if he makes or collects anything and he says, ‘No, I can’t take anything, I want everyone to enjoy it.’”
But the teen had taken pictures of the gallery every day to document the changing art inside.
“I don’t know how many 13-year-old boys are looking at art on a daily basis,” Milrany says. “To me that’s inspiring and fulfilling.”
Why tiny art matters
Research has shown that art—both viewing and creating it—is hugely beneficial to kids. Lisa Falls, an art therapist and psychotherapist for children, notes that it can stimulate creativity, imagination, and deep thinking. It can also help children regulate emotions. One study found that working on art for 45 minutes created a reduction in cortisol, the main stress chemical in our bodies. (Read this article for more ways art can boost brainpower in kids.)
Add in the interactivity of FLAGs, and parents have an emotional IQ booster right in their neighborhood.
Falls uses similar “response art”—in which someone makes art in response to another’s creation—in her work. She says that responding to and creating art at the same time activates both the analytical left side of the brain and the creative right side of the brain, which has helps develop cognitive skills like empathy and reasoning.
“That inspiration of seeing somebody else's art and being able to interact with it, to then be able to take it home and make their own artwork as a response,” Falls adds, “that has huge benefits, including more creativity, empathy, and thinking in new ways.”
And because FLAGs offer up all sorts of art, they can expand children’s understanding of what art is—and therefore help broaden their perspectives. FLAGs might even inspire confidence to try new things.
“The little galleries give kids the opportunity to make anything they want,” Elaun says. “Some kids might say, ‘I'm not creative.’ And you might say, ‘It's OK, put something in that inspires you, like a seashell or a leaf.’”
More than just crayon drawings
Whether your family discovers a FLAG in your neighborhood or props one up in your yard, getting kids to participate in creating and interacting with art can create lasting memories, spark new activities, and just be a lot of fun.
“It brings joy to people of all ages,” says Allyson Klinner, a Washington, D.C., architect who set up her own little gallery in May 2021 with the idea of making art available to everyone—including kids. “Instead of simply a drawing going up in the home, it’s being exposed to others, and it brings a lot of joy.”
And that art can take many different forms, not just the drawings that kids might immediately think about as “art,” she says.
“There’s such a range, from paintings, drawings, sketches, to sculptures, embroidery,” Klinner adds. “It’s been really fun to watch the diversity of art.”
Elaun agrees that parents should encourage anything and everything as art to inspire kids to interact with FLAGs.
“You don't have to be a painter,” she says. “It could be something that the kids knitted or made with beads or friendship bracelets. You might have someone who wants to do paper art like origami or rock collecting.”
She even suggests things like writing, a musical recording, or a video left on a thumb drive. “It could be messages. It could be notes,” she says. “They can decorate a letter and just have a nice, positive message.
“But you want to tell kids, You can try any kind of medium.”
For Milrany, the Seattle artist who started the movement, the idea that her little gallery is fostering creativity and encouraging kids to use their imagination gives her hope in such an otherwise dark time.
“The love of participating and making stuff for the gallery, it makes me feel like we as Americans might be ready for a more creative culture than the consumption-driven culture we have become,” she says. “I hope it’s true.”