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Ship Shape: Make a Colorful Tugboat & Build His Imagination!

Child playing with cardboard tugboat

Cubism is great for kids: These modern canvases are bursting with shapes and forms that little ones—proud in their new knowledge of shapes and colors—delight in identifying. It’s an orange rectangle! I see a white circle! A striped smokestack!

That’s one reason why we include Cubist works of art in our Pre-K curriculum. Four-year-olds at KinderCare study tools, machines, and transportation, and explore how they are represented in art—such as in Fernand Leger’s painting The Tugboat.

Get your young art critic in on the action with four easy ways to discover this Cubist classic:

1. Cubism 101.

Brush up on Cubism and start a great convo with your kiddo! Cubist artists analyze, break up, and reassemble objects—faces, flower vases, and in this case, tugboats—in abstract forms. Instead of depicting objects from a single point of view, the artists depict the subject from several different viewpoints. Fernand Leger was a French Cubist painter, sculptor, and filmmaker in the early 1900s. During Leger's lifetime, machines and industry were beginning to play more important roles in the world and he was fascinated by the big, industrialized cities developing all around him. His paintings reflect that: Even the people and animals that he painted during this "mechanical" period look like metal robots!

Child gluing shapes onto cardboard tugboat

2. Build a tugboat.

We love the idea of making a 3-D object inspired by Leger’s abstract painting! Here’s how: Use a large cardboard box (a pretty great cube in and of itself) as your tugboat. Create a tug-able handle for your boat by cutting a hole in one side of the box, threading a length of rope through it, and knotting it so it stays in place. With this simple machine, your little one can experiment with cause and effect by pushing or pulling her stuffed animals around in the boat, or explore the concept of transportation as her tug chugs to the docks.

3. Turn your cube Cubist!

Crack open the art caddy and give your little the tools he needs to decorate his tugboat Cubist-style using simple shapes and forms, like black circles for tires or rectangles for smoke stacks. He can use paint to create his chosen shapes, although we like the clean, graphic lines of construction-paper cutouts (and clean-up is easier).  

Child sitting on floor next to cardboard tugboat

4. Play up the shapes!

Artists can help us see things in new ways. In The Tugboat, Leger didn’t want to paint a picture that looked just like a tugboat—instead, he placed the shapes and colors you might find on a tugboat all around the painting. Invite your child to get silly with the placement of shapes and colors on his own boat. What if the ladders ran sideways? What if a chimney was upside down? A playful change in perspective is a great way to explore how things work and to see how art is different from real life—it’s almost like magic!
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