I will never forget the first time I took my kids to an art museum. They tore through the place like it was in an indoor playground. In fact, the only thing they did stop to see was a statue of a naked lady! Forget seeing the exhibits myself. All I did was chase my kids around hollering, “Wait! Don’t you want to see this?”
Climbing into the car that afternoon, I realized if I ever wanted to give my children a cultural education, I would have to think ahead and be creative. One week later we entered the same museum, and instead of tearing through the galleries like they were madmen from Borneo, my children actually stopped to look at and observe the exhibits.
If you think your kids have to be a certain age to enjoy a trip to the museum, think again! With a little prior planning and creative thinking, a trip to a museum can be a fun and enjoyable experience for everyone. Here’s how.
Plan in Advance
Before you go, call and ask questions. What are the current exhibits? Are any of them geared for children? What about hands-on activities? Many museums today have a host of interactive areas so kids can learn by doing, not just by seeing.
Ask about special attractions, such as presentations, shows and movies. These can be a real treat if you plan it right, but there are several things you need to find out first. How long does the event run? What times during the day is it scheduled? Does it involve audience participation? Is there an additional cost for the attraction? If possible, plan to see special attractions after you have visited a few exhibits. This will break up the day and give you a chance to get off your feet.
When you call, remember to ask about the facility. Where are the bathrooms? Is there a lunchroom and/or restaurant? Does the restaurant offer kids meals? What about strollers? Can you rent them or take your own? Is there a children’s play area? Are cameras permitted? If the facility has a brochure, ask them to send you one. This way you’ll know what to expect before you go.
The best time to visit a museum with your children is when they are well fed and well rested. For most kids this means early in the morning–after a good night’s rest and a nutritious (not heavy or sugary) breakfast. Another benefit to visiting early in the morning is that most museums aren’t too crowded then. And the less crowded the facility is, the more freedom you have to roam.
Bring Family or Friends
This can be a plus or minus depending upon your situation. If you decide to have family or friends join you, keep in mind your children may be distracted by having their friends there. To cut down on distractions, keep the ratio at about two or three kids to every adult. This way the kids’ attention won’t be diverted and adults can help them stay focused.
Another benefit to bringing others along is that you can share child-watching responsibilities. If, for example, Tyler and Trey want to see the Civil War weapons, and Emily and Kaitlin want to see clothing or dolls from that particular period, the adults can divide up the children for a while. This allows everyone to explore the areas of the museum that interest him or her most.
Make Visits Short and Often
When visiting a museum, keep in mind your children’s attention span. If the museum is fairly large, don’t try to see it all in one day. Instead, focus on the exhibits that really interest you and plan to return. Another reason to plan a second visit is that some exhibits change every so often. Find out which ones are temporary and which ones are permanent, so you can see the temporary exhibits before leaving the museum.
If you plan to visit more than once, ask about a family membership. Most often, an annual membership is less than or equal to what it would cost to visit twice. Depending upon the museum, you may even get a subscription to their monthly newsletter and/or a discount toward purchases in the gift shop.
The best way for children to enjoy a museum is to get them involved. This can be done by asking questions and playing games. Questions such as, “What do you see?” “What does it feel like?” and “What does this remind you of?” will help children relate what they are seeing and doing to their own experiences. Also, remember that kids love to play games. Here are a few to get you started:
- Twenty questions. As you walk into a gallery, pick out one item or painting and give your child three clues about it. For example, “I see something that’s big, has four legs, and is brown.” Have your child guess what it is by asking “yes” or “no” questions. “Is it square?” “Is it alive?” etc. When he has figured it out, let him choose an item for you to guess.
- The Memory Game. Have your child stand in front of an exhibit or painting for several minutes. Tell him to look at everything he sees. Then have him turn around. Can he name the items on display or in the picture? Did he forget anything? Have him turn around again and look. Reverse roles and you play.
- The Imagination Game. Find an exhibit or painting with a scene. Ask your child: “If you could jump into this scene, what would it be like? Would you hear birds singing? Rain falling? Guns firing? What would it smell like? Fresh rain? Smoke? Trees? How about taste? Did someone make stew? Has fresh bread just been pulled from the oven? What is the weather like? Hot? Cold? Wet? Dry? How does this scene make you feel? Happy? Sad? Tired?”
- Tell stories. If you already know the story behind the exhibit or painting, explain it to your child in words he can understand. Be brief giving just an overview unless he asks more questions. “This is the cot the soldiers slept on” or “This is how the artist pictured a spring day.” If you don’t have much information, try making up a story. Choose one object, such as a drinking cup, and focus on it. Who drank from it? Was he young or old, rich or poor? What was in the cup?
- Remember, the point of these games is to get your child involved in experience. In this way, he will begin to love visiting museums.
Take it Home
The best way to extend the museum experience is to check out the facility’s gift shop for related books, games and kits you can take home with you. At the very least, pick up a few postcards. Over the days and weeks that follow, talk with your child about what he saw, and encourage him to listen to, play with, or explore one of the items you brought home. Another idea is to help him create a journal about his visit to the museum by drawing pictures with related captions. This can be done with construction paper, crayons and yarn for binding the pages together.
Above all when taking children to a museum, remember that kids sometimes look at things from a different perspective. By seeing the museum from your child’s point of view, you can help him gain an appreciation for these cultural facilities and you will get a glimpse of life through your child’s eyes.
Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children.