I spent an awful lot of time visiting museums with my children when they were younger. Some visits went well, others not so much. Over time I came to discover there were things I could do to make these experiences more interesting and enjoyable. Perhaps some of these tips, adjusted to suit the ages and stages of your own children, will help you make the most of your museum time together.
Begin when your children are small. The older they get, the more times they’ll hear that all museums are stuffy and boring. Once peers plant this seed, it’ll be harder to get your children to explore museums with an open mind and sense of adventure.
Call ahead. Contact the museum you plan to visit to confirm directions, museum hours, parking options and such. Ask about guided tours, children’s hands-on activities, availability of stroller rentals, policies on bringing snacks and such. If you like smaller crowds, ask which days or times are typically least busy.
Learn to let go. Give your children the freedom to explore museums without expecting them to follow a set agenda or reach a particular goal. Follow their lead instead of imposing your own preferences about which exhibits to see, how long to spend at each one, etc. The fact that there is a map doesn’t mean you have to follow it.
Take baby steps. Recognize that the size of many museums makes them difficult to completely appreciate in a single visit. Stay as long as the experience is fun rather than waiting for your child to feel frustrated or frazzled. Children should leave feeling they want to go back for more instead of hoping they’ve escaped for good.
Start with your child’s interests. A child who loves airplanes will likely enjoy an aviation museum more than an art museum, so start there. Once children learn to enjoy the museum-going experience, they’ll be ready to start exploring museums with less familiar themes.
Be well rested. Make sure your child gets a good night’s sleep before heading out to a museum. If naps are still needed, avoid museum visits that come anywhere close to naptime. There’s nothing fun about walking around when you’re fatigued (make sure you get a good night’s sleep as well).
Take care of basic needs. Locate museum restrooms as you would emergency exits on a plane. When your child needs one, you’ll be ready to make a run for it. Also assure that children get plenty to eat and drink before you head out, since it’ll likely lessen the fussy factor.
Seek out hands-on activities. Choose museums with kid-friendly crafts, story times, interactive exhibits and other activities to engage your child. Call ahead or go online to learn of special opportunities for children to enjoy active play and learning.
Follow the rules. Your child is more likely to demonstrate good museum ettiquette if you do the same. Talk with a soft voice. Use your manners with those fabulous docents. Leave your water bottle in the car if it’s not allowed inside the museum. Don’t use your camera or cell phone if it’s against museum policy. Your children will model your behavior for better or worse.
Build excitement before you go. Find ways to explore a museum’s theme/s before you visit. Arrange a visit to your local fire station before heading to the firefighters museum. Play with dinosaur puppets before hitting a museum with dinosaur bones. Make a model rocket with your child before visiting a space exhibit.
Bring on the books. Use books to introduce museum themes before you head out. Read about whale hunting or ice fishing before visiting an exhibit of Inuit art. Read about period costumes before seeing an exhibit of fashions from another time. Read even more when you get home and your child will feel a new sense of expertise.
Prepare for extended learning. Have supplies on hand in case your child wants to further explore museum themes once you’re back home. Have the drop cloth, easel and fingerpaints at hand when you return from the art museum. Follow a trip to the bead museum with some at-home bead stringing or jewelry making. Try a project from a science experiment book after your visit to a science museum. Have the camera ready to shoot photos once you get home from a photography exhibit.
Try some one-on-one time. Museums can be frustrating with too many folks in tow. Consider making museum visits a special time when you and your child can enjoy each other without siblings there to divide your attention. Your children may enjoy museum visits more if they know these trips mean uninterrupted time together.
Invite a friend along. Turn museum trips into social rather than solitary outings so your children associate museums with friendship and fun. We never had the biggest or best house for having friends over, but we were well known for theater and museum outings.
Set some ground rules. If a trip to the museum’s gift shop is meant only to explore and not to buy, let your child know ahead of time. If the museum boasts a food area but you don’t plan to eat there, adjust expectations ahead of time. Gently remind your child of any rules you have for public places–such as walking rather than running or using an ‘inside’ rather than ‘outside’ voice.
Follow the school’s lead. Watch for opportunities to tie museum trips into subjects being studied in your child’s classroom/s. Visit the Arizona State Capitol Museum when your child studies the three branches of American government. Visit the Musical Instrument Museum (scheduled to open this spring) before or after your child’s school takes a field trip to see and hear the Phoenix Symphony.
Get into the museum habit. If museum outings are too often delayed due to competing demands for your time, consider scheduling regular ‘no-excuses’ museum days—maybe every Sunday afternoon or every first Saturday morning of the month. Set a family goal of the number of museums you want to visit during the next one, three or six months—then do it.
Make online connections. Learn about museums you plan to visit before you go. Museum websites can help you explore which exhibits may be of the greatest interest, learn important facts to make your visit more interesting, raise questions to make your visit more intriguing, and more. Some websites feature projects or guides you can print out and enjoy before and/or after your museum visit.
Most importantly, let your child see your enthusiasm for exploring museums together. When you approach museums with a happy, healthy respect and genuine sense of wonder and exploration, you teach your children to do the same. Your child isn’t likely to find museums boring unless they get this message from you.
What message are you sending?
Note: Watch for future posts featuring tips from fellow parents and museum professionals. And remember, museum memberships make unique gifts for teachers, friends and family members.