How to Raise a Museum-Loving Kid

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

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Comments

  1. Carmine
    Michigan
    July 10, 2015, 11:35 am

    I grew up going to art museums in San Francisco with my artist-mother. Long ago days, when museums were free and art students (like my mom) could set up their easels and copy the works they were studying. And, equally long ago, children could roam around and find what interested them, creating a lifelong engagement with the arts. Now children need to be closely supervised, taken to “interactive” exhibits and told what to like (instead of having guards yell at them “don’t touch that!” :-) ) It also helped that Mom would walk around with us, say notice that color, that line…

  2. Paige Conner Totaro
    United States
    May 16, 2015, 10:00 am

    These are all terrific tips, Heather!

    My husband and I are rabid museum-goers and we certainly ran the risk of creating a couple of bitter museum-haters when dragging our twins with us when they were little.

    But through trial and error, we figured out ways to make it work for all of us, and we ended up with many of these tools.

    We also really love Amy’s suggestion to have them pick out a favorite piece that we can talk about over ice cream at the end of the visit. (Because ice cream is always a great incentive for our girls, even as teenagers.)

  3. Coolkidzcooltrips
    Ljubljana, Slovenia
    March 13, 2015, 1:46 am

    It’s a special treat to take kids to a museum and you should make them perceive it that way. And I agree we absolutely loved the Royal Ontario Museum. It’s great when a museum goes the extra mile and is very hands on, though there are still a lot of those where you can pretty much just look. Then you have to get creative :)
    http://coolkidzcooltrips.com/how-to-take-kids-to-a-museum/

  4. Rose Beetem
    Denver
    March 2, 2015, 3:42 pm

    Some of these tips I used with my niece, but you have some other good reminders for the next couple of kids I’ll be taking around. If you make it to Denver, the Denver Art Museum has great in-gallery activities for kids, but you can also check the Firefighter’s Museum, the Museum of Miniatures, Doll & Toys, or the Denver Museum of Nature & Sciences … all great! And I consider zoos and botanic garden ‘gateway’ visits, too!

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      March 8, 2015, 6:24 pm

      Thanks for the tip Rose. I’ve yet to spend time in Denver but will add these to the list.

  5. Jayshree
    Delaware
    February 26, 2015, 9:01 am

    As a spin off on Hazel’s idea, we took our kids to the MOMA in NYC with our friend and their child and in each section asked them to “study and observe carefully” their favorite piece of art and then present their findings to us in a 2 minute presentation. It was fascinating to hear their interpretations and see the work through their eyes.

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      March 8, 2015, 6:26 pm

      I love hearing kids’ take on things. As adults we assume we know best but they so often prove we weren’t really “seeing” even when we were “looking.” Great idea!

  6. Katrin Scott-Kemball
    Belgium
    February 19, 2015, 3:22 pm

    What an interesting article! This is what we have done for years, when the kids were small, trips would always contain natural history for dinosaurs or stones but only the sections that were interesting, later the airplane museums, galleries by looking at some but not all pictures. We’ve taken our kids around the world and wherever we end up it’s always museum or temple/ ancient site followed by a day close to a pool. When there are too many off days, the kids ask isn’t there a museum we can go to as just hanging out at the pool is too boring? They love their ancient sites and museums as long as it isn’t too much and pitched at their interests.

  7. Jeremy R
    British Columbia
    February 13, 2015, 10:35 pm

    We lived in downtown Toronto for a number of years while at graduate school and we purchased a family pass to the ROM, which was within walking distance of our apartment. We always followed your fifth bit of wisdom (leaving as soon as they had had enough for the day), but we had a few other tricks: 1) we took them to a local shop and let them each pick out a sketch book, and every time we went they would draw the exhibits/artifacts that captured their attention; 2) we reserved the right to make one stop every visit to a room/exhibit that we wanted to see, but otherwise 3) we let them guide the visit, often returning to same rooms and corridors over and over. And over

  8. Page
    Philadelphia
    December 9, 2014, 8:08 pm

    Try the Ben Franklin Museum in Philadelphia: tons of interactive elements from hands one to computer interactives to touch items. Also, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has a wonderful children’s activity associated with a book called A is for Art Museum. My granddaughter and I have enjoyed the physical exercise of running from one floor to the other looking for art!

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      December 11, 2014, 9:58 am

      Great ideas Page! My guys loved the Ben Franklin Museum too. I’ve written a bit about the Philadelphia museums in my latest column for the magazine.

  9. Barbara Andrae
    United States
    December 8, 2014, 12:32 pm

    And in Chicago, the Art Institute, Adler Planetarium, The Museum of Science and Industry, The Field Museum, (f you want to see dinosaurs), to name just a few.

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      December 11, 2014, 10:00 am

      Thanks Barbara. I’m overdue for a visit to Chicago. I’ve been to some of these but would love to see them again with the kids.

  10. Neil Gregory
    Richmond, virginia
    December 8, 2014, 12:07 pm

    Leave early is a great tip! We frequent the art museum and sometimes see two paintings and spend the rest of the trip riding a glass elevator. Our three old knows he can’t run, touch or shout, but we follow his lead roaming through the space.
    He jumps at a chance to go the art museum.

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      December 11, 2014, 10:01 am

      I think that’s so important to remember Neil! It’s not just about what they’re seeing but how they are feeling in the space. I’m betting your three year old will have fond memories that will mean he/she will want to return.

  11. Erin S.
    Boca Raton, Fl
    December 4, 2014, 4:15 pm

    Great ideas! Another surefire way to build a positive association with “Let’s go to the museum!” is to take them to a children’s museum or seek out children’s programming. As they get older, they will likely continue to enjoy museums thanks to that positive experience when they were young.

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      December 11, 2014, 10:01 am

      Agree 100%!

  12. Elizabeth Margulies
    The Museum of Modern Art - New York
    December 4, 2014, 12:16 pm

    A great piece with really thoughtful suggestions! One more tip to add… Many museums have regularly scheduled family programs and resources that will help introduce kids and adults to their collection (tours, workshops, kids audio guides, games). Go to the museum’s website or give them a call and find out what’s available.

    http://www.moma.org/family

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      December 11, 2014, 10:02 am

      Great point Elizabeth.

  13. Jamie
    Phuket, Thailand
    December 3, 2014, 10:37 am

    We’ve been taking our kids to local museums since they were little, and we have quite a few to choose from here in Phuket. The “leave early” tip is good. If it’s a local museum we can return another time. Let them enjoy what they can and don’t hang around til they get bored. They will remember the museum as a positive experience.

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      December 11, 2014, 10:02 am

      So important Jamie. Thanks for the comment.

  14. Amy McIntosh
    New York
    December 1, 2014, 10:45 pm

    Arrive early before the crowds (and then leave early)

    Tell them to pick out the one piece of art they would take home if they could. (Then ask why). This is foolproof.

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      December 11, 2014, 10:03 am

      Great tip Amy! Many of the gift shops make it possible for that to happen (take it home) in some form too.

  15. Hazel Berger
    Marietta, Ga
    November 30, 2014, 2:12 pm

    Great ideas! When I take my kids to a museum I ask them to pick their favorite image. We move as fast or as slowly as they want, but go around again to show each other or favorites.

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      December 11, 2014, 10:04 am

      Love that Hazel.

  16. Geeky Explorer
    Barcelona, Spain
    November 28, 2014, 9:25 am

    These are smart tips, especially the last one! Where I come from there is not the habit of going to museums, even when you are an adult, so I always find amazing how a parent can take a child to a museum and make it an enjoyable experience.

    http://www.geekyexplorer.com