Visiting museums with children

I love visiting museums with my children. I love to see them get interested in or sometimes get bored by art. They call it like it is. If they don’t like the colors in a painting, they say it. If they think a sculpture has a funny shape, they say it. If they like a work of art, they stand before it to examine its every little detail. At the end of a museum trip, they pick their favorite piece of art and usually their reasons for choosing that piece are completely unexpected but never random. My whole attitude toward visiting museums with children is that it is a long term project to build lifelong museum visitors so I try to take it slow and let them flourish on their own time.

The key, for my family, to visiting museums is to sandwich the visit between some active (even better: outdoor) time because the biggest challenge is the fact that they need to be quiet during the visit. Also, as with all activities, rested and fed children are better behaved. A perfect time for a museum visit is right after breakfast. Museum cafeterias usually have terrible food so I usually plan the visit to be after breakfast and then we can leave the museum and have lunch at a real restaurant.

Children are natural artists, they express their emotions by drawing lines, dots, faces, houses as soon as they are able to hold a pencil. I always carry some paper and crayons or colored pencils with me. After some time, we find a seat in front of a piece of art they like and they draw for a while. Different museums have different rules, for example The Met allows sketching in pencil only.

I find guided tours very useful for school age children, but the guided tour should be a short one. Children also seem to love the audio guides. They can’t really get it to work the way it should but they love gadgets, so why not!

Another favorite is the activities designed for kids. The kids get to hear about the artist, and then take inspiration from the artist’s work to create their own art. This lets them get more engaged with the art and when they visit the museum they have fun finding the art work in the exhibit. At some museums, there is a treasure hunt and that’s fun for the kids. The treasure hunt diverts attention away from the art and toward the game but visiting museums is a skill that grows slowly so it’s great to have fun as you are acquiring this skill. If a museum does not have children’s activities, I invent games. This is one of my go-to, open ended questions: “At the end of the visit, I will ask you about your favorite piece of art and why”. Or if the museum is too big, I ask them to choose one piece of art in a room and tell me why they like it or they try to draw something similar to it.

My children’s favorite part of the museum is the museum store. I want to believe that the souvenirs they get from the museum store will a. remind them of some of the art they just saw, b. support the museum, and c. be original and more “artsy” than something they might find elsewhere. The item becomes a conversation piece later: “Remember our visit to the …?”. The rule for my children is that they can only visit the store after they’ve seen the art.

Even if your children are used to visiting museums, not all museum visits end up all fun and happy. Children may suddenly decide that the visit is over by starting to run around or by refusing to go into any more galleries. If you paid good money for the entrance ticket, you try to pull them together, but that rarely works. At those times, I take a deep breath, and just end the visit rather than deal with a full on tantrum in a quiet museum. Better still,  I keep the visit short and we leave the museum before they are burnt out. They are, after all, children, they get tired from too much stimulation, and they need time and practice to build up their stamina. But what to do about the ticket prices? Here are this mother’s solutions to building stamina without burning money on entrance fees:

  • Start with free exhibits. All of the national museums in DC are free and we spent one whole week going in and out of those museums. It was fantastic. There was something for everyone and plenty of space for kids to run around in between visits.
  • Most museums have free admission once a week. Those days are usually more crowded than others, but museums are never too crowded so why not check out some of the art on those days?
  • Go 1 hour before the museum closes when they usually let you in for free or for reduced prices.
  • My favorite is Sabanci Museum in Istanbul. The grounds are lovely and one accompanying adult entrance is free with one child. This is the best practice to get parents to bring their children to the museum.
  • You can treat walking around the old city as a museum visit. You can stop and point at interesting buildings and architectural details while you are out and about. This is a free activity that starts to engage your child in arts and builds their stamina toward long museum visits.

The following also seem like great ideas but I am never that organized (and I don’t see the point): 1. Pack some lunch to prolong the visit (I always plan ahead for a sit down lunch, though. I have some snacks and water, too.)  2. Read a book about the museum/artist before the visit with your children (Isn’t it more fun to discover art with no bias?) 3. Prepare ahead a full itinerary of the visit to maximize/optimize it (The information desks are very helpful at pointing to “important” works, if necessary. Also see my previous point. It’s more fun to discover the art work that’s “important” to you at your own pace).

My goal, for whatever reason, is to visit the Louvre with my children one day. I was exhausted from too much stimulation when I visited it (without children). That’s a full museum day and even adults need strong legs and a sharp mind for that visit. I hope to apply some of the lessons I have learned about visiting museums with my children at that visit. I am sure more coffee will also help.






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