I dragged my 4-year-old to the Museum of Fine Arts during our family vacation in Boston. At the information desk, we picked up a bag of activities, including a coloring book and treasure map, and set out to explore. He made it through the mummies and then lay down on the floor, stared up at the ceiling and announced, “I’m done, Mommy.” Attempts to interest him in any of the other exhibits failed. We left after less than an hour. When the admission charge hit my credit card, I winced.
I’ve since learned through trial and error a number of tricks for planning and executing a successful museum trip with a younger child.
1. Start preparing them for their visit at home
Katie Wildfong, family and teen programs associate at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, advises building familiarity with art materials with your kids before a museum visit. Let them play with crayons, paints, brushes, clay, and get comfortable with the materials. This may sound odd — after all, you don’t want your kid trying to touch the priceless van Gogh once you’re at the museum, but she has found that a “major connection point for children is understanding that everything on display in the museum has been made by real people.”
2. Keep it positive
I’d talked to my son about not running in the galleries, not touching displays and not yelling, but in covering all the negatives, I’d forgotten about the positives. While, yes, they need to respect the artwork, try to phrase requests positively: “Be sure to stand a foot away!” Make it a game of counting out feet and distance.
3. Visit before you go
The MIA, like many museums, has much of their catalog online. A quick scan of those images can help you plan where to go in the museum based on what you think will appeal to your child. The Museum of Modern Art has a kids’ website and an app that parents can download before their visit. The more prepared you are, the more likely it is that the visit will go well.
4. Look for family days
Look for museums that have family days — when admission is often free. Not only will you not have to eat the $50 admission fee if your kid wants to leave after an hour, they often have activity stations and interactive displays set up throughout the museums on those days. At the MIA, they have live music and artists engaging children in discussions. On family days at the Walker, my son has made musical instruments, and at MoMA, they offer free audio tours for children as young as 5. And in a museum full of other children, both you and your child are more likely to feel comfortable and at home.
5. Know your kid
With a little forethought, you can tailor your visit to your kid’s interests. Elizabeth Margulies, director of family programs at MoMA, suggests that parents “[s]tart with what they know or already enjoy. Art is personal, and every person (kids included) may have a different reaction to a work of art.”
I followed her advice when I took my son to the MIA on a recent cold January weekend. My son is competitive and loves animals, so I made the trip into a treasure hunt. We counted all the horses, birds and mountains we could find in the Chinese and Japanese galleries. When he won, he got to pick a small prize from the gift shop. The trip was an unqualified success, and he’s asked when we can go back.
6. Engage them in the experience
Bring pencils, paper and a clipboard for drawing and have your children sketch what they see. Don’t just stand and stare at displays. Ask your kids questions. “Which painting in this room would you like in your bedroom and why?” “Do you think anything in here is yucky?” “How do you think the artist made this? Did they paint it? With what?”
Margulies reminds parents that a simple game of “I Spy” that singles out colors, shapes and objects in the artwork can be a great way to engage your child. Snap pictures of artwork they really love and look up the artist online when you get home. The more you interact with your child, the more you will both enjoy the visit.
7. Keep your expectations low
Despite all this planning, your child may decide that it’s more fun to run up and down the grand staircase than look at the sculptures. Don’t be embarrassed! As Wildfong told me, “We want you to be yourself at the museum. There’s no rule against talking above a whisper in the galleries!” If you are concerned that their behavior may be bothering other patrons, take a break to visit the café and have a snack. If the museum has a family center, go build with the blocks or read a picture book. I’ve found baskets of children’s books in museums all over the world, even if they didn’t have a dedicated space for children.
8. Talk to the staff
Be sure to ask the museum staff for options that may not be obvious if it’s your first time visiting. I found out after my visit that the MIA provides activity sheets with preplanned scavenger hunts, which would have saved me the time planning one myself. Utilize other nongallery spaces that allow your child to blow off steam. In spring and summer, many museums have enclosed courtyards, like the Cooper Hewitt in New York City — which even has a pingpong table outside — where kids can run around and play. As Margulies puts it, “Everyone gets museum fatigue!”
If you haven’t been to a museum since your last high school field trip, they’ve changed. Museums of all sizes are working to engage with their communities and create spaces for social empowerment and change. Children are welcome and encouraged to visit. Even museums that aren’t specifically children’s museums have created spaces for their younger patrons. In the Reykjavik 821 +/-2 museum in Iceland, there’s an area where children can play at living in a longhouse, complete with a pretend fire, utensils and games. When I visited the Cooper Hewitt, they were hosting a temporary exhibition where children could design their own cartoon characters. MoMA has ArtLab, with rotating installations that kids can touch and explore.
9. Think outside the paintbox
Don’t forget that not all museums focus on painting and art. At The Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington, your plane-crazy toddler can see some of the first airplanes, interact with space shuttles and lunar landing pods and look at rockets. There are sports museums, science museums and museums of natural history. With the wide variety of subjects found in museums, you will be able to find a topic that interests your child. Kids are naturally curious and eager to explore. And an afternoon of undivided attention from their parent or parents is wonderful for both of you.
A trip to a museum can introduce children to new worlds and new forms of expression while building creativity, critical thinking and empathy and provide exposure to other cultures, religions, history, geography and science. One museum visit can open doors that lead around the world and beyond. And isn’t that worth a little advance strategizing?