Visiting Museums with Kids

I love going to museums. I loved it when I was a kid, when I first went to Europe as a teenager, when I was a college student studying in Italy and a museum intern in Minneapolis, and I still love it as a mother of two young children. But the reality is that I’ve been putting museum visits on the back burner for a while because it’s just not a very kid-friendly thing to do.

Recently, though, I’ve been returning to museums. I tried local ones with kid-friendly activities and ones that I just wanted to visit so much that I dragged my kids along and hoped for the best. The experiences weren’t perfect, but that’s OK–I felt in my groove again and enjoyed every minute. I also thought about how I could make these visits more fun for the whole family and came up with these tips for visiting museums with kids. Let me know what your ideas or experiences are.

1) Get their energy out first

All parents know that we need to let kids get their sillies out sometimes, and fortunately many museums are located near parks or at least have outdoor space for kids to burn off some energy before entering the museum.

San Francisco Museums with Kids |This Is My Happiness

2) Get them excited

Talk to them about what they might see before they visit. If your kids are old enough to understand technique, explain a bit about the ways that people made the art they will see. If they’ll see works of abstract expressionism, for example, show your child a video of Jackson Pollock working.

Tips for Visiting Museums with Kids |This Is My Happiness

Talk about some of the people they might see in the paintings, and then look for those people during your museum visit. These books might help:

Tips for Visiting Museums with Kids |This Is My Happiness Tips for Visiting Museums with Kids |This Is My Happiness

13 Artists Children Should Know13 Art Techniques Children Should KnowThe Art Book for Children

3) Prepare them for the type of behavior expected in museums

You may want to explain that because art cannot be replaced, museums have policies for both grown ups and children to follow. Then brainstorm a list of possible expectations in a museum or look for the particular museum’s policies and share them with your kids (for instance, the de Young’s policies are here).

Tips for Visiting Museums with Kids |This Is My Happiness

4) Do a scavenger hunt

You can make one (for example, find a horse, a sculpture of a girl, a boat, etc.), or you can try this very simple but great idea: go to the gift shop first, let your kids pick out a postcard, and then have your kids look for the art work that matches that postcard. (I discovered this idea in this post about visiting museums with kids, written by blogger Oren Miller just before he found out he had Stage 4 cancer. He has since passed away.)

Alternatively, give your child the task of choosing a favorite art work at the museum and then find the postcard at the gift shop before leaving.

Photo credit: Oren Miller

Photo credit: Oren Miller

 

5) Look for programs for kids on the museum’s website

Museums of all sizes have a wonderful variety of kids’ programs now. These materials that can be picked up when you visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art are a great example. The Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Italy, where museums are usually not exactly user-friendly, even thinks about its youngest visitors.

6) Give them a camera

Let your kids be in control by giving them a camera to document their museum visit.

7) Focus on just one or two masterpieces

If your kids are old enough for this, try preparing them for just one or two of the most important works in the museum. This will give your child a very basic understanding of art and a particular piece to remember their visit by. You can wing it while in the museum or prepare for it beforehand by following these steps:

  • call or go to the museum website and find out what art works they’re most known for/what their collection highlights are
  • find out a bit about the piece/artist and why this art work is special. It may be interesting to compare this piece to others that came before or after it to notice differences in technique or style.
  • show it to your child at home and then ask him or her to find it in the museum
  • teach your child about the piece from what you learned at home beforehand

Tips for Visiting Museums with Kids |This Is My Happiness

8) Reward kids with a fun meal at the museum cafe

A lot of museums have kid-friendly cafes with yummy kids’ menus. Take a rest there before leaving and reward your kids for their patience with a fun meal of their choice.

9) Ask what else the museum has

Many museums have something special that you might not know about–interactive exhibits, fountains, a sculpture garden, kids’ playroom, etc. The lookout tower at the de Young Museum in San Francisco is a perfect example.

Tips for Visiting Museums with Kids |This Is My Happiness

10) Adjust expectations

Just like any other experience traveling with kids, when visiting a museum it’s important to adjust expectations so that everyone leaves happy. When I recently visited the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, I was able to take my time in about 20% of the rooms and had to rush through most of the rest, but that was OK because I knew that the museum wouldn’t hold their attention for long.

My kids are now 7 and 4, so in the future, as they get older, I hope they’ll be more interested and we’ll be able to really enjoy visiting museums as a family.

What tips do you have for taking kids to museums?

More on museums and kids:

Two Very Different Museums in San Francisco

How to Get Kids Interested in Art

16 Comments

  • David Klimanek says:

    Great tips!

  • Tamara says:

    great tips! We use similar strategies like scavenger hunts and looking at art books in advance. We also make sure to explore the Egyptian and Asian arts areas because those are always big hits.
    Tamara recently posted..Why I’m Sold on Spring Skiing at WachusettMy Profile

  • Robin says:

    Great piece!

    We follow these tips, too, and your point about expectations is key. We accept that children under 5 will not be able to handle much, so an hour of exploring the galleries and a meal and treat at the cafe make us feel ahead. Another thing we do if the collection has something we are dying to see is take turns watching the kids in the gift shop while they other returns to see some specific works alone. We always encourage them to explore all the gift shop items because most are so interesting, and my husband and I get an extra 15 minutes of viewing alone.

    But the best way for a parent to explore a museum is with a napping baby in a stroller. : )

    • Jenna says:

      An hour with small kids seems like a reasonable expectation. I also have done the trading off with my husband, and I remember visiting an exhibition in Brazil when my 1.5-yr-old son napped the entire time–it was great! 🙂

  • Andi says:

    These are really great tips! Smart. I don’t have kids but I have one idea, not sure it would work. How about letting one of the two parents entertain the kids for 30-60 minutes while the other parent enjoys a particular room or section and then switch?
    Andi recently posted..Traveler Tuesday – Denise of Kuanyin’s TravelsMy Profile

    • Jenna says:

      Yes, very good idea. We’ve done something similar before. Splitting up is something we do when necessary.

  • Great advice. I’m definitely going to borrow the idea to give my older child (6) a camera! We also have a toddler so our time in museums is limited right now by his very short attention span. I look forward to the days of getting to spend more time in them again.
    Leslie H (tripswithtykes) recently posted..10 Differences between Disney World and Disneyland & How They Matter for Your Vacation PlanningMy Profile

  • i love the idea of doing a scavenger hunt with your kids or giving them a camera to take photos. 🙂 that’s awesome that you can take your kids to museums.. they’re going to be very cultured. 🙂 we don’t have kids yet, but i imagine it’s difficult to take them to museums. any museums we’ve been to.. i rarely see kids.
    Local Adventurer recently posted..Backstage with Mystere Cirque Du Soleil Las VegasMy Profile

    • Jenna says:

      Yes, it’s not exactly easy…it depends on the size of the museum and what there is to see. We go to a local one that’s pretty small and they enjoy that one a lot!

  • Giving kids a camera is such a fab way to engage with them art in creative and innovative ways – i love it! I don’t know about the US, but so many museums in the UK, particularly London, have great exhibitions and activities for kids running all the time and many of them are free to enter – bonus!

    • Jenna says:

      Honestly I haven’t tried giving my kids a camera in a museum yet but think it’s a great idea, too, and will try it next time.

  • Love all of this. My son has his own digital camera that he uses in museums to snap shots. We also take a notebook of some sort with pen for him to sketch what he is observing. Some museums have rules against that so it’s important to discover that first. And before our visit to Paris when he was 5 my wife had bought some art storybooks at the Met in NYC that had cute stories for kids surrounding some artists. From those books my son recognized many of the artists he saw at the Orsay in Paris.
    Lance | Trips By Lance recently posted..You’re Crazy to Travel to Europe With ChildrenMy Profile

  • Great tips! We recently went to the MFA in Boston and rented the kids’s audio guide for our six year old. The audio tracks held his attention for over an hour. I hope more museums will follow suit and create audio guides specifically for kids.

    • Jenna says:

      Good to know that a 6-year-old can enjoy the audio guide (and that they had one just for kids!). I’ll be looking for those.

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