It took a 4-year-old to see what distinguished art critics of the 20th century have failed to notice: a rocket ship, a television, a sunset, a volcano and a fishbowl in an abstract orange-canvas Mark Rothko painting at the Yale University Art Gallery.

At the monthly “Stories and Art” event, which attracts around 20 children aged 3 to 10 and their parents, the gallery invites participants to engage with paintings by famous artists, such as Mark Rothko, Gustave Courbet and Francois Gerard. The event, one of the gallery’s several outreach activities, is part of a broader education program, designed to expose children to works of art and provide New Haven public school students with a chance to interact with Yale’s art collection.

Jessica Sack, curator of public education at the gallery, was appointed in 2004 to develop and implement the museum’s education programs. She said the program aims to make children comfortable talking about what they see.

“We want kids to acquire visual literacy by digesting the works of art they look at,” Sack said. “The more familiar they become with looking at art, the more their critical and evaluative skills develop and the more articulate they can be.”

Since the program began in 2004, she said there has been a steady flow of schools taking advantage of the educational opportunities. The Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School, which moved to a Cesar Pelli–designed building downtown, is offering art classes at the gallery this year. The Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School is also involved with gallery programs.

At an after school “Museum Club” meeting at the gallery last Thursday, art teacher Maura Galante from Betsy Ross Magnet School watched as her students worked on deciphering a floor plan of the “Tea Culture of Japan” exhibition, matching exhibition cases and artwork on the plan with their real counterparts.

“It’s amazing what the kids know and what they notice about the way artworks are hung or the way an exhibition is arranged,” Galante said. “They respond to art in a very intuitive way.”

She added that Museum Club makes the kids feel that they are part of a “special thing” at school.

“When we make an announcement at school for the Museum Club, other kids come up to me and say, ‘Why am I not in Museum Club?’ ” she said.

For the schools which do not have official programs, children must be accompanied by their parents. This is to ensure that parents will actively participate in the learning and engagement process, Sack said.

Graduate and undergraduate Yale students act as the gallery teachers, leading the various programs that the gallery offers for children and their parents.

The children interviewed said they enjoy visiting the gallery.

“My favorite painting is the one with the play [“The Play Scene in Hamlet” by Edwin Austin Abbey],” Amanda Sielaff, a student at Betsy Ross, said. “I like how the beautiful lady [Ophelia] was comforting the guy in purple [Hamlet].”

While some children participate more than others, teachers and parents noted that changing the classroom setting can improve the quality of learning. Linda Sego, mother of Alex Sego, said her son matured by attending gallery events.

“Alex is a shy, quiet, laid-back kid, but when he comes here, he pops, he explodes,” Sego said. “Sometimes I get tired of picking him up every day, but it’s all for him, and I just wish I had what he had when I was a kid.”

While the program is geared towards children, Horace Ballard GRD ’10, who leads “Stories of Art,” said sometimes the parents learn too. In fact, a conversation with a parent, who thanked him for helping her recognize the aesthetic value of Chinese art, was his most memorable moment as a teacher.

“We were looking at a Chinese princess figurine at the Asian art gallery and one of the parents came up to me and said she had never realized how sophisticated Chinese art was until that day because her own education had always focused on Western culture,” Ballard said.

At the “Stories and Art” event on Sunday, Ballard shared a myth with the children in attendance. “Does anyone like Greek and Roman myths?” Ballard asked before telling the story of Dionysus and Ariadne.

“I don’t even know what they are!” chirped a member of his audience.

The next big education event is Family Day on April 26, with tours, activities and storytelling in the Yale University Art Gallery as well as at the Yale Center for British Art.