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Tips for Bringing Children to Museums

museums with children

Most parent have thought it: "I should take my children to a museum. Think of the payoffs - education, inspiration, culture."

Then reality sets in: What if she cries? What if he’s loud and runs around? What if she stubbornly lies down on the floor?

The latter befell one mother the day her two-year-old deposited herself on her back in the middle of a museum gallery floor. "The day was starting to look like a disaster," recalls the mom with a laugh. "But the very proper British docent looked at my daughter and without missing a beat commented, 'What a wonderful way to appreciate our very ornate ceiling.' She really saved our visit."

The lie-on-the-floor approach may not work for most. But the incident was a happy reminder that museums aren’t the stuffy vestibules of yore. Complete unruliness is still taboo, but there’s a kinder, gentler, more tolerant museum vibe these days that says, "C’mon, give it a go."

Visit the websites of even some of the grandest institutions – New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles - and you’ll find that most are actually going to great lengths to gently encourage curiosity and interest from a tender age. Some art museums provide simple things like kid-friendly pamphlets. Others have elaborate programs that include storytelling, family rooms, and art workshops.

So go ahead, take the chance to introduce your offspring to the wonders of a museum. We have some tips to help:

  • Visit the museum’s website ahead for nuts and bolts. Nothing derails a visit like the unwelcome surprise of, for example, discovering only after you walk in the door that strollers aren’t allowed.
  • Go on the cheap. To keep trial runs from being pricey, look for discounts. Many museums offer once-weekly free or low-price nights. Some, in the interest of encouraging family visits, have generous admission policies that welcome visitors under age 12 (sometimes under 17) for free.
  • Study up. Knowing in advance about the collection will help you plan your visiting strategy. Browse the museum’s website for information about galleries and particular pieces. Let the kids browse too. You might be surprised at their likes. And once you’ve found works of interest, you can make a game out of hunting them down.
  • Speak kids’ language. For older children, rev up an educational foray with some pop-culture inspiration. The Art Institute of Chicago, for example, isn't just a museum - it's where Ferris Bueller played hooky. Be creative. Pick out a famous painting - like the aforementioned AIC's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Seurat (also in Ferris Bueller) - and dare your children to use their wiles to find it in the museum.
  • Expand your idea of museum. Don’t limit yourself to the traditional 'indoor gallery' variety. Young children, for example, might be more interested in the textures and colors found at an outdoor sculpture garden. The fringe benefit: you’ll also have fewer worries if they make a little noise.
  • Create. Get prepped with an art session of your own. Pointillist art using pencil erasers can both inspire appreciation of the painting technique and spur excitement about the originals on the gallery wall.
  • Talk to the pros. Docents aren’t there just to relay dates and times (or to talk children up off the floor). They also have the scoop about which tours are appropriate for children, when you might find a family event, and even precisely which gallery tends to be the most popular among similarly aged children.
  • Look for the family rooms. Museum family rooms make great launch pads for creative exploration. Many have media and hands-on exploration tools. Some go all out, providing art activities and even costumes so kids can dress up as famous paintings. A great place to start your visit.
  • Start small. There are infinite jokes about tourists flying through the Louvre in an hour (as in National Lampoon's European Vacation). But in real life, there’s no reason to try and do a whole museum in a day. Start by limiting yourself to a single gallery. If it’s a hit, you can always go back and do more.
  • Test the waters. There’s no rule that says 'museum' has to be art: science, history, and even children’s museums are more interactive and less stressful, making them great inaugural forays.
  • Know your limit. One mom recalls a family trailing through a museum with a small son loudly declaring (repeatedly and in colorful terms) that he needed the bathroom. It was a hint: time to go home. Crying, fussing, or otherwise getting unruly are signs that your child has had enough. Do yourself and your fellow visitors a favor and call it a day.
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