How parents can get kids ready for visiting an art museum

By Linda Moore

Parents in search of fun activities that don’t break the bank or involve dreaded screen time might consider visiting an art museum. And this excursion may appeal to Mom and Dad too. But if you want to meditate in front of Monet’s Water Lilies instead of dealing with a child’s meltdown, consider trying these parent-tested ideas:

Plan ahead

Museum websites include information about activities for children, like a special program with puppets from the paintings, an interactive children’s studio event to make art or family art day. Maybe organize your visit to coincide with one of these programs or a free family day.

Museums are a great value for cash strapped parents facing a second mortgage to take the family to a theme park! Most art museums are free for kids under 13, and free or inexpensive for those under 17. Adult tickets cost between $20-30. A family could visit the museum for less than a movie and hundreds less than a theme park.

Check whether backpacks (many allow forward facing), strollers or snacks are allowed in the galleries. Do you need reservations for the dining room? Book a table even if you’re uncertain of your schedule. It’s easier to cancel than get a table at the last minute.

Check to see if they have ongoing programs for families, like a story hour, a children’s room, special camps, teen programs, or family art workshops. If the museum is nearby, you might consider a membership for even better value. Museums are reaching out to children, teens, and families with creative, inexpensive programming, often funded or subsidized by grants, to develop future audiences.

The talk—yes have that museum behavior talk ahead of your visit and offer gentle reminders as you arrive. Keep to a few simple things: Art is to see, not touch. Quiet voices. Walk slowly. Good listening. Say and repeat to prepare them for what is expected.

Of course, organize for the ages, schedules, and temperaments of your children and their special interests. 

Identify museum highlights

Most museums are too large even for adults to see everything in one visit. Don’t make the mistake of starting in Gallery One – Egyptian Art, move to Gallery Two – Roman Art and attempt to cover all human history. Your eyes will glaze-over, and your child will have reached the meltdown zone.

I am not a fan of guided tours with children. They tend to last too long and involve “telling” about the art. Kids have great imaginations to respond to prompts or a nudge like find paintings that have blue in them or king with a crown. You can customize an interactive experience that connects to your child’s interests and engages them.

Choose the top five to ten pieces in the collection from the website, note the rooms where they are located and show them to your children at home. Do a routing to save steps using the museum interior map or download a free app to guide you.

If you don’t find answers on the website or want to chat with someone in children’s programs, call or email the museum. The Education Department is a good place to inquire.

Visit day

Like any outing, eat before you arrive. Snacks and drinks are not welcome inside the museum. Use the bathrooms in the entry to avoid a long walk once you’re in the galleries.

After you obtain adult entrance tickets, visit the gift shop postcard rack; the stellar works in the collection are often made into postcards. Let your children select one postcard for each year of age for a scavenger hunt.

Carry some stickers to mark the postcard “discovered” when you find the artwork. If you have older children, make them team partners with the little ones. If they find all the pieces on their cards, they will be rewarded with a prize from the gift shop when you leave.   

If you can’t find an artwork on your map, ask a security guard. Most of them will know or will call someone to ask. No need to walk all the way back to the information desk.

Plan a break

Museum dining facilities often have quality food at reasonable prices. Some restaurants have amazing views like the Centre Pompidou in Paris or the view of the Opera House from Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The Met in NYC has six different eating venues. Most dining facilities are ready with highchairs and children’s menus. Time to relax, review the postcards and regroup to decide what to visit next. Best to reserve early times to avoid a rush and have faster service.

Talk about the art

You don’t need to be an expert to talk with your child about artwork. Their imaginations will delight you. My son enjoyed the weird art by which he meant installations like Anthony Gormley’s toasted bread projects. It was fun to puzzle together the missing pieces in Roman mosaics. What child is not transfixed by an Egyptian mummy?

When asked what work in the Prado in Madrid they wanted to see again, my daughter named the princess in Velázquez’s Las Meninas and my son answered Goya’s painting of a firing squad in The Third of May. Works that have violent content or nudes aren’t a problem if you don’t overreact. Depending on their age, discuss the historical times or ask why an artist might have chosen that subject.

Look for special “please DO touch” works for children to explore or an outdoor space that is more accessible and will break up gallery touring.

Wrapping up the adventure

When you’re ready to leave, return to the gift shop for the scavenger hunt reward. Always add a children’s book on art to recall your museum visit and perhaps plan the next one or sign up for a camp.

And you may have already given your child the best gift of all: a lifelong joy of appreciating art.

Linda Moore is an author, traveler and recovering gallery owner. She has served on numerous museum boards, designed art education programs and welcomed classrooms of children to her art gallery. Her first novel, Attribution, debuts on 10/11/22, and is based on her love of art history.

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