10 Tips for Taking Kids to an Art Museum

Hello my friends.  We mothers are always finding a way to feel inadequate about something.  If our kids are happily ensconced in the sofa watching a movie, we feel like they should be reading, or playing sports or music.  If they’re enjoying a hamburger and fries, we fret that they don’t eat healthy enough.  We tend to spin out over whatever we see in front of us worrying that somehow we are falling short and our kids are getting enough exposure, activity or good health.10 Tips for Taking Kids to an Art Museum

I vowed to take my children to more art museums as a New Year’s Resolution this past year, and this past weekend proved to be my first execution of this resolution, so to speak, as we popped into not one but TWO museums…  I know I can’t quite believe it myself.  Add to the guilt list above that you live in one of the world’s cultural centers and barely dip into the culture and you’ll see why you could choose heading cross-town with a pack of surly kids in tow rather than leaving them happily playing video games as you call your sister up or take a bath. We are all driven by our fears.

First up was an exhibit on Cubism at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Cubism The Leonard A. Lauder Collection

Next, Matisse’s renowned Cut-Outs at MOMA.

tips on approaching art with children

So we hit two of New York’s best museums for kids.  And we were many.  Day 1, I had four boys in toy.  Day 2, my sister and I shepherded our combined seven children through a packed exhibit. I learned the hard way what was going to work and what just wasn’t.  Based on these two visits and the others I’ve done in the recent past, here are my tips for bringing children to art museums:

1) Buy tickets in advance.  Braving museums with kids is no picknick and you’ll get your fair share of grimaces and glares, often from folks who find the boisterous kids an unwelcome disruption.  Much better to arrive with your act together, and eliminate long lines and extra waiting (which equals additional time during which the kids can go stir crazy).

2) Consider joining.  If it’s a museum you know you’ll frequent a few times during the year, consider a family membership.  Kids are often free at art museums but adult ticket prices can add up; a membership will have you going for free also within a few visits.  Plus you get extra perks like sneak previews and extra line skipping at the exhibition itself (there often is a “members line”, how fancy does that sound).  Having a membership also encourages you to go more often because you won’t be paying after a while.

3) IN AND OUT.  One friend today told me her kid’s art teacher said to walk into a museum, look at one painting, and then go get ice cream.  Create nice association with the art, he advised.  I couldn’t really stomach just looking at one work of art, and went to the opposite extreme at the Cubism exhibit, requesting that my kids look at each work of art.  Well, this pretty much backfired.  My kids preferred to shoot into an exhibit room, look for the one work that was part of the audio tour, punch that number in, and move on.

Come to think of it, the worst mistake I’ve make when it comes to visiting museums with my kids — and what I remember despising during my own youth — were drawn out visits during which your feet and legs ache and you look jealously at the folks seated on the cushioned bench that has no more spots.  Don’t let it get to that point.  Remember, IN AND OUT and you’ll have better luck luring them in for the next visit!

Think of your visit like a little splash, a little dose of culture, and aim to plant a few seeds into your child’s brain, not to give them a throughout introduction to one of the world’s great artists.  Think simple and quick and not lofty and heavy.

audio guides

4) Audio guides.  These have proved to be a God-send for me.  Now, the trick with audio guides though is having your child concentrate on the art and not on the guide.  At MOMA, they have actual iPods and my kids were happy to use them to text and take photos, quite tempting since they don’t have electronics of their own.  At the Met though, the exhibit tour went from painting to painting and then tended to stick with it pretty well.  Having their own device and set of ear phones seemed to give them a feeling of ownership and make them feel mature.

4) Pick your artist carefully.  Of the three exhibits we’ve attended thus far this year in New York City, the biggest hit was the Jeff Koons powerhouse exhibit at the Whiteny museum.  Koons’ works of art enticed the kids and got them talking.  Perhaps this has to do with the ages of my boys (8-10), and older kids can do better with paintings the tend to be hard to decipher.  Matisse’s Cut Outs proved a close second as the kids were enthralled with the large, vibrant collages.

5) Ask them what they think.  At the Matisse exhibit the other day, as I begged my kids to look at the art, my smart sister had another approach that worked a lot better.  She asked the kids: “What do you think?”, “what do you like?”, “which one do you prefer?”  I find this to be a super tip when it comes to approaching art with children, because her questions encouraged her kids to look and figure out what appealed to them, and implicitly said to them “your reaction matters.”  You want the visit to be their experience that they own and feel apart of versus something that is forced upon them that they don’t care about.

5) Tell a few stories.  Just as we adults relate to tales, kids love to hear stories about artists and it will give them a point of contact with the art.  A few minutes on Wikipedia before your visit can really pay off for those of us who are hardly art historians.  Saying that Picasso was painting at age seven will get their attention.  The fact that Matisse did his Cut Outs because he couldn’t hold a paint brush will be something they don’t forget.  Simiarly, telling them that Jeff Koons saw his toddler playing with Play Doh and decided to create a sculpture will be a detail that they remember as they ponder the art.

6) Bring a friend.  Bringing a friend along on Saturday and the kids cousin’s on Sunday helped make it into something of a playdate.  Now, I’m not sure the friend thought it was the best playdate he’d ever had, but that’s another story.  I promised him a movie the next time, and frankly I think his mom was psyched that I took him to the Met.  Wouldn’t you be psyched if someone took your kid to a major art museum?

kids painting

7) Hold a quiz.  I told all my kids to pay attention and that there would be a quiz at the end with a special prize, which was in fact a post card!  I asked them a few basic questions, just so that I could say to myself that they had gotten something out of it!  The questions were basic such as “where was Picasso from?”, and “who was jealous of Matisse (Picasso), and what kind of art did we see today at the Cut-Outs (collages).  I actually can’t say for sure whether knowing there was a quiz motivated the kids to try to soak up a bit more information and knowledge, but I don’t think it hurt.  And now they have the post card for their keepsake boxes.

8) Bring some paper.  Kids love to be active and to create themselves, which is one reason the observer’s role is not one they are comfortable in for long.  Bring along some crayons and white sheets of paper and settle your kids down to draw their impressions of the art works.  I picked this up from a class my kids took at the Met and it has been super helpful.  It’s also a great way to pick up on what inspires them.

9) Bring in the special forces.  It’s hard to handle more than two kids on your own in a museum.  For starters, they want to wander off and leap forward to the next room.  Sticking together and holding hands can prove impossible.  Bring as many adults as you have at your disposal, and a stroller for your toddler if possible on which you can load coats and bags.

10) Go for a special treat afterwards.  Cap off your visit with a hot chocolate or special treat.  Museums shouldn’t be thought of as school or work — they should be fun!  So you want your kids overall memories of the day to be positive.  A trip to the park or a bakery might be a good idea.  And never, never, never (did I make my point?) hit two museums in a row!

brothers and sisters

Our trips to museums are always fraught with challenge and stress and I never know how much I actually think my kids have gotten out of the experience, but I’m hoping that little by little a bit of culture will sink in and that they will gradually come to know what a solace art can be in this crazy world of ours.

Thanks for reading and if you have tips for bringing children to museums to share, please comment below!



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