Something strange happens to us when we become parents: we forget how boring “adult thinking” can be.
When I was a kid, the idea of spending hours at a museum or art gallery was enough for me to tighten my fluorescent Madonna-esque head tie and demand that someone “gag me with a spoon.”
And yet, time and time again, I find myself offering the same “we should go to the museum” pleas to my own kids and then being surprised when their eyes glaze over at the prospect.
But after dozens of museum visits and a decreasing number of eye rolls, I think I’ve stumbled upon the secret.
Turn your kids into lifetime learners with these five tricks:
1. Give them what they want.
Often we parents start with the museums that are around us instead of seeking out the ones that would knock their socks off. Starting with their interests will guarantee that you have buy-in—at least at the beginning of your trip.
Have a child who loves dinosaurs? Alberta’s Royal Tyrrell Museum will be a hit (as will the real dinosaur fossils still being uncovered nearby). Astronaut wanna-bes? Kennedy Space Center will blow their mind, as will Washington, D.C.’s Air and Space Museum.
And if you can’t get to the museum that feels like a perfect fit, at least do the research ahead of time to pick the right exhibits. The big “You are Here” sign when you enter the door to the museum is no time to start deciding how you’ll spend your day.
2. Rethink what going to the museum looks like.
Walls, roof, doors…all negotiable when you’re looking for a museum-like experience. These days art can be encountered in the most unsuspecting of places. Think mural art walks in Philadelphia, a Toronto graffiti walk, or the annual outdoor exhibits in Sarasota, Florida, for starters.
And even on your everyday walks, consider seeking out the art in architecture around you that will transform what “going to the museum” means for your child.
You could go to Paris and never set foot inside the Louvre and still have plenty of “art” to discuss. Let your teen take selfies in front of Le Mur des Je t’Aime—the mural boasts the words “I love you” written in more than 250 languages—and her interest may pique.
A visit to the popular Champ de Mars park means you’ll get the pictures of the iconic Eiffel Tower that you’ll cherish while they enjoy the vintage merry-go-round. An afternoon in Paris where no one complains about how many stairs they had to climb? Parfait, non?
3. Keep it interactive.
It’s the surefire way to a little kid’s heart, but interactive exhibits will keep bigger kids (and parents) engaged, too. A lot of us, young and less young, learn best through touch and play. Look for museums that encourage that interaction.
We took our kids to the Experience Music Project (EMP) museum in Seattle and what was supposed to be an hour turned into several as they found the instruments they loved best in a setting that was inviting and non-intimidating.
It used to take a lot of cajoling to get my 10-year-old to piano lessons, but there he was, carefully touching the keys and learning through the tutorials without so much as a bribe from me.
Got iffy art lovers? Take them to one of the Artime pajama tours or scavenger hunts set up inside the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and they’ll be forever a fan. The museum itself is pretty kid-friendly, too–no rigid “look at the art exactly this way” rules here. Start where you like and go where you like.
Finally, science centers are always a hit with kids. NEMO in Amsterdam offers fun inside and out (there’s a sloping roof, sandpits, and a mini-beach setting up there!) and at the Glasgow Science Centre in Scotland, you’ll have as much fun as they will in the equal parts art and education BodyWorks exhibit.
4. Start ‘em young.
You don’t have to be in Italy to make a museum visit part of the day’s itinerary. Seek out the spaces large and small in your own neighborhood and make visits a part of your child’s life.
Long before I was ready to take the kids into the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, I was happy to let them toddle around outside where giant sculptures kept them mesmerized and the Royal Ontario Museum’s giant dinosaur in the upper windows peering out onto Bloor Street West in our hometown led my kids to ask me to bring them inside to see more—not the other way around.
Museums can also be incredible teaching experiences for older kids ready to begin to understand some of humanity’s less flattering sides.
At the Newseum in Washington, D.C., we talked about race and culture; at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, we considered the Holocaust through the lens of this brave heroine; and at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, we learned about the effects of segregation firsthand when we explored the museum according to the race identification card we were handed upon entry.
5. Leave early.
It’s the secret to any great performance: Leave them wanting more.
Any space will become boring when you’ve stayed too long. And who wants to return to a space when you’ve exhausted all of the activities?
Do yourself a favor and don’t try to tackle the whole museum in an afternoon. Pick a few exhibits, have a great time, and move on long before the kids insist on it.
Heather Greenwood Davis, husband Ish, and sons Ethan and Cameron, were recognized as Travelers of the Year by Traveler magazine in 2012. Watch highlights of their adventures on globetrottingmama.com. Follow Heather on Twitter @GreenwoodDavis.