Tips for taking small children to museums

A blogger I follow posted her tips for visiting museums with kids and I decided to write down my own tips, since my kids are much younger than hers. We take Julia to different kinds of museums since she was an infant, and we’re doing the same with Eric. She’s now almost 6, and our strategies have changed over the years, but we’re re-using the old tactics with Eric (who’s almost 2):

Julia at

Julia at the Natural History Museum, NY, 2008

Eric at the Museum of Flight, Seattle, 2012

Eric at the Museum of Flight, Seattle, 2012

Infants: the easiest stage for us, since we took them in strollers and they were content to see anything new. We had a few small toys for the stroller, just in case. We tried to show them anything that was large, colorful or high contrast (which babies see better). Julia liked seeing the huge dinosaur’s fossils at the Natural History Museum in New York, even though she had no idea what they were. Eric loved the huge and colorful airplanes in Seattle’s Flight Museum, he was mesmerized. Of course their attention span at this age is very short and we don’t really know how much they can understand, so we visited the museums we liked to see and took them along. Something that worked in our favor: our kids always slept well in strollers, so we used to go to museums during their nap times – we got more time out of these visits. Most of the museums we visited in the US and Europe had diaper changing tables in the bathrooms (which is a great thing in Europe, where diaper changing tables are hard to find otherwise).

Julia at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), 2009

Julia at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), 2009

Toddlers (between age 1-3): once they are walking, things get a little trickier, getting them not to touch the art. We alternated between stroller and baby carrier, and let them walk around only when necessary (and “safe” – meaning there wasn’t anything easy to damage).

We created simple games, such as: “let’s find all the paintings that show kids or animals”. Or “Let’s count how many ____” (whatever it was that got their attention in a certain room or inside the museum). “What was your favorite painting or piece of art you liked best in this room?”, “Let’s look for more paintings or pieces of art that have the color ____ (ask your kid which color). When Julia was almost 3, I started calling out some details of the artwork we were seeing, for example “look at how much paint in this spot” or “this painting has lots of dots, come close to see them” or “this drawing was made with chalk, just like the chalk you have, while this one was painted with a brush and watercolors”. I also started commenting on “how”: “how do you think this huge painting was painted? Did they use a ladder? Did they paint it in pieces and then put them all together later? Let’s try to find the seams” or “Did one person paint it alone? Did s/he have help? How long do you think s/he took to paint it?” At this age a snack break is also a good idea, and my kids still napped in the stroller, so we also used the nap time to gain more museum time.

Julia

Julia at the British Museum, London, 2010

Pre-schoolers (between ages 3-5): in addition to all the other things we did while she was a toddler, we put one of our cell phones in her hands and told her to photograph everything that she liked in the museum (whenever photography was allowed, of course). She also likes to draw, so more recently she has brought a notebook and a pencil to sketch. I don’t really have the habit of printing our travel photos, but I do want to put together an album with her drawings and pictures from the trips.

Julia at the SFMOMA, San Francisco, 2010

Julia at the SFMOMA, San Francisco, 2010

Julia at the Pompidou, Paris, 2011

Julia at the Pompidou, Paris, 2011

Find out what kind of museum your kids like best! Something we noticed: Julia always liked the Modern Art museums better, since they usually have pieces that can be touched, some have sound or lights, and she can interact with certain pieces somehow. Not to mention many of them are very intriguing (is this art?), and get her curious to know what they are.

Julia at the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, 2010

Julia at the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, 2010

In the US and Europe, she also likes the Science Museums and the Children’s Museums, which usually have lots of interactive exhibits that are age-appropriate.

Julia at the Austin Children’s Museum, 2012

Julia at the Austin Children’s Museum, 2012

Make it a habit: If you don’t ever visit museums, in your own town, it’s harder for the kids to learn to like them and behave properly. Supporting your local museums with a membership and taking the kids there often, if only for short periods of time, helps them see museums as a fun activity, not some boring place they are dragged into during trips. Not to mention it’s much easier to leave a local museum and go home in case of a tantrum and try again another day.

Julia and Eric at the Hakone Open Air Museum, Japan, 2012

Julia and Eric at the Hakone Open Air Museum, Japan, 2012

Respect the kids’ time: in our experience with our own kids so far, a museum visit doesn’t last longer than 2-3 hours, unless they sleep for a long time in the stroller. And of course, when the museum in question is a Children’s Museum, the visit might last all day – with some crying kids on the way out! Make sure your kids are fed before the visit (if not, bring a snack or make sure the museum has a cafe or some type of food), you might have to cut the visit short otherwise. We’ve had great meals at museums (the cafe at SFMOMA comes to mind), but more often than not, the food is not that great and overpriced – plan accordingly.

Julia at the National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, 2012

Julia at the National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, 2012

Prepare the kids for the visit: There are several books that introduce the kids to art and certain artists: when we went to Amsterdam and visited the Van Gogh museum, we read Van Gogh and the Sunflowers beforehand; when we went to the Musee D’Orsay in Paris we read The Magical Garden of Claude Monet. When we went to New Mexico, we read My Name Is Georgia, about the life of the painter Georgia O’Keeffe. And these are great art books for children: The Art Book for Children, The Art Book for Children, Book Two, 13 Artists Children Should Know, 13 Paintings Children Should Know e 13 Sculptures Children Should Know.

Julia and Eric at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, 2013

Julia and Eric at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, 2013

What are your strategies for taking your kids to museums?

Originally published in Portuguese here, on April 19, 2012.

Traveling with children

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