Waiting until your kids get older before you take them to a museum is like waiting until they grow up before you ever travel again. If travel is an important part of your life, you figure out how to bring the kids along. Likewise, if appreciation of art and culture is a value you want to impart to your children, why wait to introduce them to it?
Just like you can’t travel the way you used to before you were a parent, taking tots or tweens to a gallery will require some adjustments. It’s a worthwhile effort that will pay off in the long run. Here are the tricks to do so:
1. Go now.
There’s no magical age at which kids become museum lovers. A teen who’s never stepped in a museum isn’t suddenly going to be inspired by the Dutch Masters. If your energetic youngster can handle an hour a Grandma’s house without destroying the porcelain vases, she can handle an hour in an art gallery.
2. Make a game plan.
With kids, you won’t have the afternoon to while away in a museum. You may not want to go in the afternoon at all. Pick a time of day when the kids will be rested, recently fed, and alert — which is probably the morning — and decide how long you’ll stay. Choose one or two works of art, or an exhibit, that are must-sees and hit them first. If you’re in Madrid and Picasso’s Guernica tops your list, see it. Any extra time at the Museo Reina Sofia is a bonus.
3. Stick to your plan.
Warhol can wait. Don’t promise your children the art house visit will be quick, and then linger there until closing time. You will burn out your kids, erode your credibility, and crush the possibility of future museum trips. Your little ones won’t believe you when you insist the next museum visit will be short.
4. Include kids in the process.
Parenting is not about ceding control all at once, but about giving your kid ever increasing responsibilities. So, while seeing the museum shouldn’t be a yes/no option, what you look at therein can be. If you’re at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, consult the museum map and ask your child whether folk and visionary art or the civil rights and justice wing sounds more appealing.
5. Make it fun.
Take that same museum map and hand it to your child. The maps usually have images of specific artworks. Challenge your kid to find those works of art for an instant scavenger hunt. Other scavenger hunt options could be asking kids to see how many dogs they can find in the 17th Century European Art hall. If you’re looking at portraits, take a cue from the Google portrait gallery app and see which likenesses look like folks you know.
6. Look for the interactive stuff.
Scavenger hunts and portrait matches are a way of making the experience more interactive, but sometimes museums have things you normally wouldn’t have thought of as interactive, too. At the Guggenheim Bilbao, sculptor Richard Serra’s undulating 14-foot-tall walls of steel are like a labyrinth. There isn’t a kid who doesn’t like walking through those.
7. Make it relevant.
Your kid might wonder why he should care about the art. You could pull out your phone and show him the scream emoji and explain that it’s modeled on the four paintings by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. Two of those paintings were stolen and later recovered — but one took two years to find!
8. When possible, choose museums or exhibits they’ll care about.
If you’re at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and your daughter is into ballet, find the paintings of ballerinas by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec or Edward Degas. Or perhaps she just studied Egypt in her elementary school. Take her to the Egyptian wing and let her teach you what she’s learned about mummification.
10. Take advantage of museums’ youth outreach.
Museums want to reach younger audiences and are going out of their way to do so. The Bay Area’s SFMOMA is free to anyone 18 and under. Across town, the de Young Museum just curated an exhibit to explore the ancient Maya ruins of Teotihuacan through the game of Minecraft. And plenty of museums offer art projects for kids on weekends.
11. Divide and conquer.
If your family has two parents, one of you may have to beat a fast route through the galleries, zipping through, impatient toddler in hand, while the other sets a more leisurely pace, possibly with the older kid. It’s not ideal, but it still sets the practice that museums are part of the travel experience.
12. Reward the kids for their patience.
Something about all that quiet contemplation is tiring even for adults. So, reward your offspring afterwards with food — or a hot chocolate in the museum cafe — and then take them to a park or somewhere outside to work off their energy. As they run around like unleashed banshees, you may wonder if they’ve gotten anything out of the museum experience. Rest easy. They have.