a guide to visiting museums with kids

My 11-year-old daughter has been dragged to a lot of museums over the years; her father is an artist and I am a visual arts teacher. When she was little, we could stretch out a visit by letting her toddle around an atrium, or by slowly dispensing Pirate’s Booty or M&M’s in times of desperation.

As she grew older, however, her willingness was not as easily won, and her reaction to plans of a museum trip became a tortured “Nooooooooooooooooooo!” The mere thought of a few hours “just looking at stuff” — instead of playing with friends or seeing a movie — made museum-going a tough sell.

Right now, our family is living in Italy on a year-long hiatus and visiting many historical landmarks, museums and churches. So, with our preteen, we’ve used seven creative tactics to make these trips less of a slog. Sometimes she even admits to enjoying herself.

guide to museum with kids

1. Don’t let the experience be dead on arrival: Eat first!
Last week, we made the mistake of heading to the Doge’s Palace in Venice before eating a proper meal. My daughter and I bickered on the vaporetto (waterbus) ride. Then we bickered on the walk to St Mark’s Square and continued once we’d entered the medieval fortress of the Palace. My husband, Andy, who was waiting for us there, took one look at the two of us and suggested that the museum’s café might be a logical first stop. Grumpily conceding, we decamped to a corner table for water and snacks. We all emerged in better moods and ultimately had a great visit.

2. Don’t try to see everything.
When I was young, I thought a trip to a museum meant a forced march through each exhibit, looking seriously at each display. But now I realize I can spend the entire time looking at one painting and get just as much out of it. Changing my expectations — depth over breadth — has made my experiences more enjoyable. My goal is not to conquer a museum, it’s to observe what compels or repels me. I’ve passed on this philosophy to my daughter.

3. Hand the kid your phone camera.
If your child is dragging their feet or getting restless, refocus their attention by handing over your phone camera. They can shoot pictures of whatever interests them, or you can give them challenges. A few examples: Take a picture of a piece of art you’d hang in your bedroom, if you could. Take a picture of the weirdest face you can find. Take pictures of three paintings in which the color green is used.

a guide to visiting museums with kids

4. Gossip about the artists.
As a visual arts teacher, I’ve spent 20 years trying to get teenagers to care about art history. One thing that always hooks them is the juiciest, most shocking or most endearing details about an artist’s life. Humanizing the artists makes their work come alive, so do a little research ahead of time and share some stories, if you’d like.

5. Bring paper and pencils.
There always comes a time when one of us needs to rest our legs. Then, we sit down and pull out a sketchbook and pencils. What we draw is unimportant. It can be a reaction to a painting or sketch of a sculpture, or you can simply doodle among the creations of historically significant doodlers.

6. When in doubt, play games together.
Here are three:
* Choose the outfit in an artwork that you’d most like to wear, and the one you’d least like to wear.
* Find the ugliest painting/sculpture/photograph/etc. Argue why it should be immediately removed from the premises.
* Place bets on which artwork is worth the most money. Figure out who won and pay up!

7. And, finally, don’t feel pressure — it should be fun!
Don’t feel obligated to stay too long or to visit more than one museum per day. Reward your kids and yourself afterward with an ice cream or cup of tea, and gossip about the experience like it was dishy and fun, not a chore they endured. And if you hate museums, just don’t go! Spend your time doing what you love and pass that passion on to the kids in your life.

Belle Chesler is a writer, educator and artist based in Portland, Oregon. She is currently on a year-long hiatus in Venice, Italy, with her family. You can subscribe to her newsletter, Notes From the Lagoon, if you’d like.

P.S. Museum touch tours, and how cute is this marriage proposal at the Met?

(Photos by Nicki Sebastian.)