Visiting the Museum With Your Child: Thoughts from An Art Writer

Visiting the Museum With Your Child: Thoughts From An Art Writer

As a child, I accompanied my parents and their friends to museums, galleries, festivals and street fairs where they looked at art. The mysteries of that adult world mingled with their elusive conversations on the topic. Though I remember some amount of boredom, it eventually became curiosity. And that curiosity turned to love.  Last year, I finished my dissertation on experimental writings of the art-world, from museum verbiage to art criticism- today I teach at The School For Visual Arts - but there is no greater teacher than the art itself. 

Some of that boredom came from my father’s insistence at viewing every single artwork in every single room. It was exhausting. I do not recommend this approach to museums when accompanied with kids. My mother was a little more haphazard and I learned a similarly selfish approach to art, which I highly encourage. You should look at what you want. With enough time, you’ll become curious about what you didn’t think you wanted to see.

The winter months make going anywhere a bit of a chore. It’s cold, so everyone needs multiple layers, and often by the time you are ready, you are too tired to go. That doesn’t mean that once there, you should stay for the whole day. Two hours is enough. Don’t overdo it. Let it be a taste of the museum. There’s so much to see and you can return. If kids don’t associate a museum with a long, drawn out, quasi-educational endeavor, they will be more likely to enjoy returning.

I also recommend taking breaks from looking at art. We all know the exhaustion of a long day spent at a museum because this was the only chance to see the show or the museum. Likewise, the young eye is not accustomed to this extended duration of looking and needs to refresh. Unlike the moving image from a tele-visual service, which constantly provides new visual input, the motionless art in a museum is pouring an accumulation of details about the same thing. The eye keeps seeing more about the same one thing and that depth of experience is tiring. For children under six, I recommend taking a break every 15 minutes or so by going to the bathroom, getting a drink of water, looking at the other visitors in one of the hallways or landings. Older kids usually start getting antsy between 20-30 minutes, that is until they are hooked.

At any age, you can identify artists and learn about the history, but don’t make that the exclusive point of a museum trip for them or for you. If you can help them appreciate art, they will want to learn more. In my own teaching, I often have students read poems and short stories about art and I have found they often then want to see it. An interesting fact about the artist or period planted before going to the museum can help generate interest. Let interest be enough. Curiosity will guide them to find out more.

Up to 4 –– Museums can be fun with little ones. One friend regularly took his one and two year old daughter to the Museum of Modern Art during the weekday afternoons, where she enjoyed the Abstract Expressionists the most. She decided to look at the art by lying down on the floor. From then on, they often looked at art from different angles, from the floor, the far side of the canvas, and so on. The guards didn’t ever mind!

  • Young children will often enjoy abstract art. Ask a young child what one painting might say to another, or why the red stripe is pushing the black stripe to the side.
  • They will have surprisingly strong ideas about what they like. Walk around the museum, “browsing” until something catches the eye and attention, and you will discover their interest.
  • Focus your trip by suggesting they find a shape or a color or an object (depending on the kind of art you are viewing). This can be the theme for the room or the whole museum trip, for example choosing to look at pictures with red circles or long yellow shapes in them.
  • They can’t touch the art. But, they can touch the benches, their shoes, or some special object that you brought with you. One friend’s child learned the lesson that you can’t touch art, and spent the next couple months informing his parents, every time they tried to pick him up when he didn’t want to go or do something, that he was art. Art is a difficult concept at every age.

Ages 5-9 –– Here you want to give them some freedom to express themselves, but also help them cultivate their observations. Let their imaginations be free within the confines of the art.

  • Pick something to look at across multiple rooms: find portraits of families, landscapes with water, unusual colors like purple.
  • Tell stories about the art. What happens inside that house? What are they going to find around the bend in the road? In a room full of portraits, perhaps go around and decide what each person is thinking or what feeling they are showing on their face.
  • At this age, children will grasp the concept of a thematic or period show, but it can be overwhelming. These shows are often huge. Where adults are thrilled with all the information, this age group gets “bored” because it is just too much. If you are attending a retrospective or other major show, give them some cool fact about the artist, the period, the theme, so that they have something to grasp as they look at the variety of works on display.
  • If you have a family blog, let them pick the top five works of art with which they want to pose. You can keep a running tally and then decide at the end of your trip, or let them pick every 20 minutes as your “break” from looking at art, etc. (Depending on the museum and the show, you may be able to take a picture.)

Ages 9-12 –– This age is practicing their independence. If they are not already accustomed to going to museums, an introduction now must be based around their interests.

  • Give them a list of potential shows to go see and let them decide. They can browse information about the show on the museum website.
  • Find an exhibit that relates to their interests: portraits with fabulous clothes, exhibits of works relating to warriors, Egyptian mummies. The Goya exhibit at the MFA last year was fantastic, but I know one 10-year old who only saw the drawings of death and the plague. He thought it was great. His parents skipped right by Goya’s portraits because he wouldn’t have enjoyed them.
  • Pick an artist/period/theme that connects to a period they are learning about in school: Egyptian mummies, Western expansion during the 19th century, African art, etc. Since the link is educational, I often recommend telling them that they should find something in each room that they like, or something that they can explain to you because you don’t know as much about it as they do. Let them become the ones who know.
  • Some kids continue to enjoy telling stories, but they get more complicated. Take notes on the stories and post them on the family blog with an image of the work.
  • If you do have a family blog, this is a great age to let them be in charge of which images will get posted, and to include their own description. It’s also a low-stakes place for them to write descriptive sentences, which is a useful skill for papers.

Ages 12-15 –– This age is independent. If they are not already accustomed to going to museums, an introduction now can be challenging without a really good, personalized hook.

  • Definitely give them freedom to decide what exhibit will be the focus of a random trip to the museum.
  • If you have a specific exhibit that you want to see, explain it to them from their point of view. For example, it’s hard to care about Picasso’s sculptures in the abstract. Show them an image of the Chicago Picasso with the explanation that no one knows what it is meant to be. Suggest they make up their own ideas of what he was doing with his sculptures.
  • Let them pick one work from each room that they either love or hate, want to take home or give to someone else, would be a part of their private museum, and tell you why.

Ages 16+ –– Give them freedom to wander on their own, but hold them accountable. Request that they describe an artwork and explain their interest in it when you reconnect. I usually suggest one art work for every thirty minutes.

Many of these suggestions can work across the age groups indicated, depending on the interest, cultural experience and background, and mood of the children you are with.

Overall, try to make museum attendance a regular part of your family activities. Going to 2-3 museum or gallery exhibits every six months makes seeing art a normal thing to do, an activity without pressure. Every little while, you can find what exhibits are on display and pick one to attend. The most important thing I can share is:

Don’t make people take art seriously.

If they enjoy art, they will begin to take it seriously on their own. They will want to read the captions or wall text. They will want to see more.

Charlotte Kent, PhD. lives and works in New York City, where she helps people of all ages improve their writing. 

Have you or your kids struggled with this? If so, we'd love to hear about it and strategies you took to overcome it in the comments below!

One Response to “Visiting the Museum With Your Child: Thoughts from An Art Writer”

  • Kelly Swartz says:

    Am saving this article for when my little one is a bit older. I am also sending it to friends and family!

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