I've been chatting about kids and art over on Instagram (you can find my posts saved in my story highlights under "Museums+kids," if you're interested), so I decided it would be a good time to resurrect this old blog post from back in 2015. Enjoy!
Life's an art, wouldn't you agree?
I love the idea of being a living work of art, while participating in the ongoing Creation by creating art of my own. And one of my favorite things about being part of this massive, timeless, glorious artwork is enjoying the work that other creators have put into it. As a mother, this has extended to sharing this joy with my children...
...but I think any of you who have ever actually tried to take a child to an art museum will know that this can be a challenge. As I've tackled it many times, with a general level of success, allow me to share some tips from my experience.
TIPS FOR THE UNDER-TWO CROWD
1. Take babies to the museum. Trust me. It may seem like a daunting task, but this is actually the easy part. And if they become comfortable and familiar with museums now, they're more likely to continue to enjoy the experience as they get older.
2. Feed your hungry baby. If you meet your babies' needs, you set the tone for a happy experience. Even though I've been afraid of complaints, I've never had so much as a raised eyebrow when I found a quiet room of the museum in which to nurse my baby. But in case you're worried about any anti-nursing nastiness, you can steal my strategy and choose a quiet bench right under a medieval painting of a nursing Madonna or a Renaissance nude of a Grecian goddess. Go ahead, naysayers: try and complain.
3. Wear your little babies. If you don't absolutely need to bring a stroller into a museum, don't. (That time will come soon enough when you have a runaway toddler AND a baby.) You'll be cursing the unwieldiness and frustration of finding elevators in no time. Just make sure you have a sling or a front carrier, as most museums don't allow back carriers.
4. Let your toddlers toddle. You'd be surprised how engaging those long galleries are to little legs and minds. Just hold hands or stay close, because a museum chase is not something you want to add to your life experiences.
5. Look at the (painted) babies. Babies like nothing so much as other babies. Which is convenient, because most art museums are full of images of babies. 9 out of 10 times, as soon as I take a just-fidgety baby over to a painting of the Infant Jesus, she's all smiles and cooing.
TIPS FOR THE TWO TO FIVE CROWD
1. Have reasonable expectations. You know what kids' attention spans are like. Don't expect a full-length museum trip with a three-year-old, because you are likely to be disappointed. Depending on my child, I like to frequent free or low-cost museums at this point (most libraries have tons of passes, which is an excellent option), so that you don't feel cheated when you only end up staying half an hour. I figure anything past that 30 minute mark is a bonus.
2. Make even limited museum time always fun. It's important to keep the museum experience a happy one so children never associate it with being bored or tired. With some guidance, and a firm set of rules, let your child wander from painting to painting that holds his or her interest. Ask lots of questions about the stories behind the paintings. Ask them to point out the colors they know. See if they can play detective and find paintings that look similar. Make it a game.
3. Speaking of games...really, make a game. My very best museum trick is this: make a treasure hunt list for your child. I draw simple pictures for my pre-readers, and create a list of items they'll be sure to encounter in the museum. This generally keeps them engaged for well over an hour. Here are some sure-fire choices for pretty much any museum with traditional artwork, but you can adapt to your needs:
-a white flower
-a pink flower
-a blue dress
-a fancy hat
-a golden necklace
-a red dress
-a vase of flowers
-a castle, or fancy house
Also fun is printing out small images of actual paintings for them to find--just make sure you check in advance to make sure all the artwork is currently on view.
TIPS FOR FIVE- TO TEN-YEAR-OLDS
1. Do some advance research.
A. Study one or two artists whose work you know you will find in the museum. There's something so exciting about walking into a room and recognizing the work of a great artist. When you're studying, talk about the stories you see in the paintings as well as limited technical elements like which colors you see, the level of detail with which the artist paints (impressionistic versus realistic, for example), and general thematic elements in the paintings. There are super, super, super picture books about many artists that are an excellent place to begin.
B. Read the stories behind some of the paintings you will see. Greek myths, bible stories, and Shakespearean plays have been beautifully represented in thousands of paintings over the centuries. Before visiting a museum, we like to brush up on these classics with some good "kid editions." Kids at this age will be thrilled to see a story they know "illustrated" on canvas--the story is more important to them than who painted it or what style it represents. Knowing the stories and recognizing the characters will help them realize that art is for them, too, not just for grown-ups. Some of our favorite books for this purpose are:
Classic Myths to Read Aloud, by William F. Russell
New Catholic Picture Bible (or any picture Bible… We've found each has its pluses and minuses and are still looking for a truly great one…)
Tales from Shakespeare, by Charles and Mary Lamb
2. Allow them to help plan the visit. I want my children at this age to feel they "own" the experience of visiting a museum and aren't just being dragged around. I prevent that latter tragedy by allowing them to help me plan the trip and decide which parts of the museum (in a large museum such as the Met, at least) they want to see. They look at maps with me, help me develop itineraries, and even problem solve what they'll do when their little siblings get antsy.
3. Plan a longer visit, but schedule in breaks. My big little kids really want to spend a whole day at the museum, but (especially if we're visiting with younger siblings), they can't take it all in one stretch. It's easiest in the summer when you can hop outside--have you ever noticed that most museums have beautiful gardens and outdoor areas where little ones can run around or have a picnic?--but even in the winter you can run to the parking lot and have a snack in the car.
4. Bring a sketch book and pencil. Allow your children to actively participate in their study of and appreciation for art by inviting them to copy one of their favorite paintings. Make sure to remind them that you're not hoping for perfection--but that greatness depends on practice and lots of hard work. In our experience, it's best to start with something simple like a fruit or flower still life, as it will generally be easier to come up with a sketch that satisfies rather than disheartens. Even though this activity demands more patience and stillness and work from our kids than any other part of the day, it's absolutely their favorite.
TIPS FOR A LARGE FAMILY WITH LOTS OF LITTLES
One tip only: don't go alone. Definitely enlist your spouse's help. But also bring your little sister, your best friend, or your mom. Pay for their admission, if there's a cost...buy them lunch...promise them cookies...because you can't put a price on an extra pair of hands. Anyway, don't you want to share the fun?
Do you have any expert museum-going advice? Any questions you'd like me to answer?
Hi! I'm Faith. I blog about books and creativity, family and faith. Welcome!