We recently took a trip to Niagara Falls, where we took an extra day to head to Toronto. Partly we just wanted to see Toronto since none of us had ever been, but the main thing we ended up doing was spending most of the day at the Royal Ontario Museum, which we all agreed was pretty excellent. I promise you that even with a water park in our hotel, a giant gushing waterfall to view, and a pile of vacation sweets to enjoy, that museum was one of the highlights of the trip for my ten year olds.
Having kids who think that way is partly just luck, but most of it was that from a young age I was determined to end up with museum lovers. I think I obviously did something right on that front, so here are some thoughts on getting kids to enjoy museums.
Even Toddlers and Preschoolers Can Enjoy a Museum
I never shied away from taking my boys to museums, even when they were three or four. I don’t mean children’s museums or science centers (though we did plenty of those too), but real art museums, history museums, and natural history museums. I just always expected that this is something that they would do and I never thought to myself, that museum is not appropriate for kids. That doesn’t mean I didn’t also accommodate them by carrying them sometimes, taking lots of breaks, coupling museum trips with treats, and so forth. However, the expectation that art was interesting to see was always a given and I never undermined that by being hesitant about presenting it to the kids. I’ve seen a few parents approach museums with the expectation that the museum will be a failure for the kids, because they don’t think kids will really find the museum interesting. Of course my kids were occasionally bored too, but they also never got the signal that it was normal to find art and artifacts boring, because I actually don’t believe that’s true.
Join Every Museum (If You Can)
One of the things that most people can’t replicate that we did right was simply exposing the kids to tons of museums all the time. Living in Washington, the land of free museums, makes this massively easier for us. We did join zoos and science centers and children’s museums, but if we lived somewhere else, I would have joined the art museum and historical society museum if those were available as well. Obviously putting down that much money for museum memberships isn’t possible for everyone, but if you can, being able to go to museums often enough to have a membership pay for itself is really important to raising a museum goer. Kids don’t learn to become museum lovers by going to the museum once a year. It takes lots of visits.
Half an Hour is a Solid Museum Visit, Really
That brings me to another point. When Mushroom and BalletBoy were little, it wasn’t unusual for us to be in a museum for less than an hour. When you’ve got your museum membership (or visit a free museum), it’s easy to dip in for a short time. A short visit helps the trip be all positive. It never allows it to get to the point where the kids are melting down and sick of being there. Instead, you leave while everyone’s happy after seeing just one thing that you really focused on. Trying to force a visit to last all day to get the most out of going into town is understandable, but for younger kids, I don’t think it really pays off.
Engage, Discuss, and Model
When adults go to museums, they often wander quietly from room to room, reading the little plaques and interpretive displays and only occasionally chatting with each other. I’ve seen a few parents try that approach with kids, but obviously that isn’t going to fly, especially not for younger kids. I think the only way to get kids engaged is to show them what engaged looks like. So when we’re at museums, we talk quite a lot. I ask them questions, I tell them what I’m thinking, I encourage them to ask questions. Basically I’m modeling what’s going on in my head as I view the art or artifacts. I read the interpretive text aloud to them. I model excitement and interest. When they want to show me something, I let them take me off to another part of the museum. If we meet a docent or volunteer, we ask questions and I model listening and being interested. They’re still kids. Sometimes they lose interest, but usually this approach works and they want to be curious as well.
Take Advantage of Museum Programs
Storytimes and other children’s programs are so invaluable. We’ve been really lucky to have the National Gallery of Art programs at our disposal. They do two amazing programs for different ages. For younger kids, they read a picture book, discuss a painting, and make a small craft. For older kids, they spend an hour discussing a single work or art. However, when Mushroom and BalletBoy were younger, we enjoyed many other programs at the other museums we visit. Hearing other people talk passionately about art and history is really good for kids to see it’s not just their parents.
Couple Museums With Fun Experiences
We do this a lot less now, but when Mushroom and BalletBoy were very young, a trip to a museum was often coupled with stopping to have a cookie in the cafe or getting an ice cream on the way home. Or after the museum, we would stop at a fountain to splash or take a ride on the carousel. Or we would meet friends and let them run around outside after their time in the museum. It wasn’t a reward exactly, but rather it was an acknowledgement that doing something fun and easy after doing something that required a little more focus and restraint helps make a positive association. Now my kids are old enough that they don’t need a special food or to see a friend in order to enjoy a museum trip. However, I’m sure that those earlier treats helped them think of even the “boring” trips as something worthwhile. It helped train a good habit of enjoying museums.
Bring a Sketchbook
Bring a sketchbook and pencils and sit and draw. Don’t be afraid to sit on the floor like the artists in a museum. And don’t be afraid to let a younger child do this as well. Obviously don’t give a preschooler with a penchant to mark on everything a Sharpie in a gallery, but most kindergarteners are old enough to handle the rules. We’ve done this several times and it’s always really rewarding and lets us look more closely at the art.
Read a Book There
We don’t do this often anymore, but in the past we have several times brought and read picture books in the museums, right in front of the art that it applies to. There are tons of biographies of artists you could read aloud. The Katie series by James Mayhew and the Anholt’s Artists series by Laurance Anholt are two light art story picture book series. If it’s a history or natural history museum there are other possibilities as well. There’s something really special about sitting down in front of a painting and reading a book that features it or explains it.
Make a Game of It
Finally, I learned early on that scavenger hunts and other such find it games really help engage kids when they’re younger. Some museum have such scavenger hunts set up already for kids (occasionally with small rewards). Sometimes you can use the brochures at the desk as a sort of scavenger hunt (such as to find all the works in the highlights brochure). Other times, the scavenger hunt can be more abstract. Can you find a painting for happy, sad, angry, bored, tired, and pained? Can you find paintings with a circle, a square, a diamond, a trapezoid, etc.? Can you find five Greek gods in the Greek and Roman galleries? Or ten Christian saints in the medieval galleries? Can you find ten different occupations? Or ten different animals? Games like these help kids keep their eyes open and their attention focused. It’s a trick, but it’s a trick that helps develop close attention. As my kids get older, we need these games less and less, though they’re still fun occasionally, even for me.