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How to Make a Trip to the Art Museum FUN for Your Child

by Jean Van't Hul
January 28, 2008

Can we make visits to the art museum fun for young children? I think so. I take Maia to the North Carolina Museum of Art every time we visit Raleigh. Itâs a low-key, small-city museum close to my in-laws home and itâs free, which means I can show up with Maia, walk through a few galleries, ride up and down the elevator a few times, talk about the colors and subjects about a couple of paintings, and walk out after an hour. If there were a kid-friendly and inexpensive café or cafeteria in which to have a snack or treat, we could probably even stretch the visit out to an hour an a half or so. But there isnât, so we donât. Â

Most art museums are not free, but if I still lived in Boston, or some other city with a variety of great art museums, I’d probably become a member of one or two favorites so I could do the same thing with my daughter waltz in and out in under an hour if need be, both to get my art fix and to share beautiful and thought-provoking art with her without worrying about trying to get the most out of my $10 admission fee. Five hour museum visits are a thing of the past for me, at least at the moment. Art museums and toddler tantrums are not a happy combination for anyone.

I’ll share with you my tips for a successful museum visit with toddlers or preschoolers. I’m still working it out myself, and definitely welcome tips that any of you might have! And, of course, I can’t guarantee success every time. In fact, our visit this weekend to the NC Museum of Art will not go down on the list of best museum trips ever. It was only saved because my husband took Maia to the interactive children’s education room, and with the infinite patience he has for her, proceeded to turn tears to laughter and fun while I browsed the new exhibit of modern art and checked out the children’s book section of the museum store.Â

With a little effort, your trips to the art museum can be magical rather than a chore for your child, and possibly even ignite their own love of art. Frankly, at this age, art is probably a lot more fun to MAKE than to LOOK AT. But if you keep the trip short and exciting, with liberal breaks at the café and museum store, and balance the day with some outdoor time at a playground or park to get the wiggles out, then you are well on your way to a successful museum visit.Â

So here are my tips. Adjust them as necessary for your family. I wish you many happy visits to your favorite art museums

 1. Above all, keep the visit short. The actual time will probably depend on your child and the day. For a toddler, an hour is probably enough. An hour and a half is my daughter’s absolute max. A preschooler might be able to do two hours (I’m just guessing, we’re not there yet. Any thoughts from experienced museum-goer parents of young children?). Â

Magrittes Time Transfixed Smaller

2. Choose the most interesting art to visit and look at"whether the big, bold Jackson Pollack, or the sculpture garden, or the surreal Time Transfixed by René Magritte, of a train popping through a fireplace. The art you see may or may not be your favorite. Or at least intersperse your favorites with the toddler-pleasers. Â

3. Talk about the interesting, fun, or funny aspects of the piece of art. Rather than spend 10 minutes in mute admiration in front of a painting (as I have been known to do), look for something to discuss with your child. Forget about Art History 101 for now and just talk about the train in the fireplace, the colors, the animals in the picture, or the man’s long mustache. Â

4. Take a break! After 30-45 minutes of exploring the museums collection, take a break. If the museum has a kid-friendly café or cafeteria, have a snack or a special treat. Personally, I’m trying to get Maia hooked on museums so that she will willingly come with me for the rest of her life, and I’m not above a little bribery. So I am trying to engage all the senses, including taste and smell, to create a memorable experience. If there isn’t a café, then consider having a snack near the museum’s entrance or even just riding up and down in the elevators for a few minutes if that’s what’ll make your child happy. Â

5. You can look at more art after the café break, but keep it short. Â

6. Stop at the museum shop to buy a book, poster, or a postcard for your child to take home. Â

7. Then leave the museum while you’re both still in a good mood! You can talk about the visit afterwards when you hang the poster or read your new book that evening, but keep it light. The point is to make the museum trip fun so they want to go back. Â

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