Top tips for a rewarding museum visit with kids

How can you get the most out of a museum visit with your kids? Cynthia Raso of the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center shares some tips that will ensure a rewarding family museum experience.

Museums can be big and overwhelming at times for adults, let alone for children. At the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center (SEEC), we believe that even infants can benefit from museum visits. So, after 25 years in the business, we are ready to share some of our secrets with parents.

A young visitor at a "Kid Happy Hour" program at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art. Photo by Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History via the creative commons license.
A young visitor at a "Kid Happy Hour" program at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. Photo by Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History via the creative commons license.

Logistics
Pick an exhibition ahead of time and figure out how best to get there. Use the museum's website to help you plan and even help get your child excited for the visit.

Set realistic expectations for how long your visit will last. SEEC considers 10-15 minutes in a museum with infants or toddlers and 20-25 minutes with a preschooler successful. Older children, as well as adults, should not be expected to spend hours going from object to object. Plan a break, eat lunch, or romp out on the National Mall to break up the visit. As an added benefit, movement stimulates the brain!

Choose to visit during off hours, consider sitting on the floor (as long as you are not blocking foot traffic), store your coat, and relax!

What to visit?
Choose an exhibition that either has some kid-friendly appeal, like the upcoming Puppetry in America display, or something in which your child is interested. Discuss your options and let your child choose, or simply take them to an exhibition that you know they are going to love.

Look and ask open-ended questions.

Whether it is artwork or an artifact, ask your child to describe what they see. Actually give them time to look. Pick them up, put them down, and move from side-to-side. They'll start to notice details.

Looking at a diorama at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Photo by Flickr user "klara f" via the creative commons license.
Looking at a diorama at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Photo by Flickr user "klara f" via the creative commons license.

As your child describes what they see, pay attention to what they are saying and ask more questions. For example, "Mommy, this is a train." In response you could say: "Have you ever been on a train before?" Engage their senses by asking, "What was it like?" Other questions to ask might include, "Why did we ride on the train? Do you see any other trains here? Can we use our imaginations and think what it would be like to ride on this train?"

Older children will make observations and ask questions that you might not be able to answer. Use the museum labels or plan to look it up together when you get home—it becomes a collaborative learning experience.

Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center students sit on the floor to explore the Ruby Slippers
Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center students sit on the floor to explore the Ruby Slippers

Bring things with you.
Children learn in different ways, and young children in particular benefit from having something concrete to hold in their hands and touch. For example, if you’re visiting the Star-Spangled Banner, consider bringing an actual flag or cut-out star or stripe shapes. And start asking those open-ended questions.

You might also want to consider bringing a book. From chapter books to board books, children benefit from making these connections.

Finally—and I never go to a museum without this—colored pencils (yes, you are permitted to have pencils in the museum), mini-clipboards, and paper. Drawing and writing are a great way to encourage careful looking and creativity.

Beyond the museum
The world is out there for your child to explore! Let's say you and your toddler went to the Within These Walls exhibition and visited the washboard. You could build on that experience by having them share in doing laundry at home or giving them some props to reenact the washing. An older child will benefit from the play aspect too, and you can add a component, like writing a story that includes the artifact.

On Friday, December 13, a few families will join us for a visit to the Puppetry in America display at the National Museum of American History. They'll share their experience on social media—be sure to follow the #SIsocial hashtag and stay tuned for another post on successful family museum visits.

Cynthia Raso is Coordinator for Public Programs at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center. Follow SEEC on Twitter or Facebook, and read their blog. Check out their upcoming family programs.

Posted at 6:49 pm EST in Teaching & Learning