7 Ways to Make An Art Museum Visit Fun for Kids
Do they spend more time in the gift shop than the galleries?
Give them a reason to stop and look, a mystery to solve, a connection to make with a masterpiece and they may start to appreciate art.
In this article I’ll show you 7 fun ways to get your kids to slow down and take a look at what’s in the art museum.
They may not become art aficionados in one visit, but they might just find something that captures their interests or inspires their imaginations.
How Can I Get My Kids to Appreciate an Art Museum?
Art appreciation can be a hard sell for kids (and many grownups, too). Art is old and sometimes weird. Museums are big and quiet. How does a kid who only has 5 or 10 or a dozen years of experience in the world make a connection with something so intimidating?
The key is to get your kids somehow to own the experience of a trip to the art museum.
I’ll show you how.
The genius behind the 2006 film Night at the Museum is that it lets kids in on some classified information hitherto known only to grownups:
Every artifact at every museum carries a secret past.
Kids would love to visit the museum if the artifacts came to life.
A secret past, a mystery… that’s interesting.
In real life, the secret doesn’t usually involve artifacts coming to life after all of the humans (except the security guard) leave the building. But for many kids, this movie provides a hook that can make a trip to a museum palatable, even intriguing.
How can you keep kids engaged once they actually step in the door? What kinds of experiences make them want to come back?
It’s our job as parents to figure that out—to help our kids make the most of what they see, touch and think about.
Fortunately, all you need are a few simple tips.
Who goes to museums?
Museum administrators classify their patrons as one of three types:
- Studiers take their time in a museum; they have a specific purpose for being there, and they spend time at each exhibit item to study it.
- Strollers are there more for the experience of being there. They browse casually around the exhibits, stopping for a closer look when something strikes their fancy.
- Streakers tend to race through a museum quickly, stopping at a display only when they find their attention caught by something startling (or when their teacher makes them). Many are there simply to gain the experience of going to a museum because they think that’s what an educated person should do. Streakers are often compelled to be there by parents, teachers or friends, rather than from an innate desire to experience and learn.
Which kind of museum patron are you?
Kids are by nature streakers, and no experience brings out this tendency more than art museums.
We want them to like painting, drawing, photography, sculpture and the other visual arts. We want them to be eager about seeing great art. But more often than not, when we take our kids with us to a museum that’s not specifically designed for kids, we find ourselves dealing with small people who just want to get out of the whole experience.
The key is to help your children draw connections; to help them tie what they currently know or have experienced in their short lives to the new things they’re seeing and feeling now. And to do that, a child must focus.
Yikes! How do you get kids to focus on ART? It doesn’t flash. It doesn’t make noise. There are no joysticks or game controllers. In most cases, you’re not even allowed to touch it. But art can be fun. And fun helps them focus.
Here are the best magic tips that I’ve discovered through the years—concrete tips to help you and your preschoolers through teens make the most of a trip to an art museum or gallery.
#1: Enjoy Art Yourself
This is something you can do long before heading out to the museum.
Throughout your kids’ childhood, display artwork around your home, whether professional or homemade, and talk frequently about your own connections to the art.
Convey that each person experiences art differently and appreciates different things. Help your kids realize implicitly that as they grow, art will be an important part of their life experience.
Maybe you say you don’t enjoy art. Okay, so even if visual art is not your cup of tea, everyone responds to something. Maybe it’s sculpture or music or architecture. Search your soul and find what kind of art makes your heart sing, and then share it with your kids.
Or fake something until it becomes true.
#2: Prepare for the Specific Artwork
When planning a trip to a museum, take a few minutes to check the museum’s website and discover what artwork will be on display.
Choose several pieces to study and discuss with your child(ren) ahead of time. Print out photos of those pieces, and read out loud what they’re about and why they’re meaningful.
Learn about the artists and what was happening in their world that may have influenced the art they created.
This will help your children connect to the work ahead of time. When you get to the museum, this tiny connection will be dramatically strengthened—naturally, almost magically—when they encounter the work in person.
#3: Place Art in History
Most art is old and that makes it hard for kids to relate to. Find something in history that your kids are interested in and place art in the same context.
When my kids were younger, they loved the Little House series. So Laura Ingalls Wilder became our historical benchmark for everything. We would say that something happened either before Laura Ingalls’ time, after she had died or while she was alive (1867–1957).
When we encountered a particular work of art, we’d do the same thing: Was this around when Laura was alive? Could she have seen it in a museum? Yes, it’s a small connector, but a real one.
To help your kids connect, find a benchmark that works for them and use it frequently!
#4: Life Should Imitate Art
I mean this literally. Ask your kids to mimic the artwork. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and imitating the art they see is a fun way for kids to appreciate it.
The kids have to look at the art pretty closely in order to act it out, which will encourage them to learn and absorb the details without even realizing it.
Be sure to take pictures of them doing it. It will be lots of fun for your Facebook friends. Check the museum’s rules about photography first. They probably won’t allow you to use a flash.
You may have to act out a few yourself to get the kids into the spirit. Play along, ham it up—it’s fun!
#5: Hunger for Art Is Great (Hunger for Food Is Not)
There’s nothing that causes a kid to streak for the exit quite like hunger. So feed ’em, folks. Find some way to fuel your young art appreciators before they lose interest.
Trust me on this one.
We promised the kids a trip to the Met’s beautifully stocked cafeteria and we whisked them there at the first sign of blood sugar dropping. A peaceful day at the museum was well worth the Manhattan prices.
Talk about the art you’ve seen while you eat. Ask the kids what they liked best and least. It’s also a great time to plan the rest of your visit.
#6: Find Your Friends in the Art
This magic tip comes straight from the kids, so you know your kids will love it.
When we were looking at a painting from the late Renaissance, my daughter Ella suddenly said, “Hey, that’s Angela!” She pointed at one of the elegant ladies in the painting. Well, darned if she wasn’t right: The lady’s face looked remarkably like her friend Angela’s!
After that, it became an exercise for all of us to find people we know in the portraits. They found doppelgangers for several of their friends and even one of their teachers in the artwork.
I’ve never seen anything quite like it for getting kids to look, really look, at art. It was magic.
Try it yourself and see.
#7: Let Your Kids Take Their Own Pictures
Photography is an art. So, assuming photography is permitted in your museum, let your kids be artists themselves while gazing upon great art. Encourage them to look through the lens, to “frame” their photos deliberately, to find just the right angle.
It will make the art their own, so they can continue their connections with it well after the visit.
This is my favorite photo from our trip to the Met. Here, the kids are in front of Frederick Church’s painting Heart of the Andes. They sat here for quite some time, but not because their feet were tired.
In this photo, I caught the moment when Bethany spontaneously decided to snap this image for herself on her iPhone. That, to me, says it all. Heart of the Andes somehow captured Bethany’s heart. And then it became hers to take home with her. Forever.
Some Final Thoughts…
As parents, it’s our job to be tour guides for our children on this great adventure called life. We need to draw connections for our kids, connections between what they know now and the new things they’re encountering.
Learning is taking those connections that have been drawn for you and making them your own. There’s no better place to do this than an art museum.
They may not become museum enthusiasts after a single visit, but I hope these tips will help you encourage your kids to slow down, and appreciate and gain a better understanding of the art in front of them.
What do you think? Got more tips? What museums have you found to be particularly conducive to family adventures? Please leave a comment or a picture of your family acting like the art.
Debra Ross is publisher of KidsOutAndAbout.com, America’s online parent guide to cultural, educational, and recreational events and activities in local U.S. areas. She is the author of two forthcoming books. Other posts by Debra Ross »