Add a museum visit to your back-to-school routine


Between buying a new backpack and figuring our carpool logistics, fellow Sarah Erdman recommends adding a museum-inspired conversation to your family’s return-to-school prep.

Back-to-school ads have been blasting out of the television since summer started, but now that September is creeping closer, reality is setting in. As you race around fitting in appointments and picking up required supplies, consider making a stop at a museum part of your back-to-school "to do list." With their variety of interesting objects and school-related subjects, museums can be a really fun and easy way to get kids talking about their excitements and anxieties for school.

This lunch box features imagery from the 1978 film The Magic of Lassie, starring Mickey Rooney and James Stewart.
This lunch box features imagery from the 1978 film "The Magic of Lassie," starring Mickey Rooney and James Stewart

If you have a child just getting ready to go to school for the first time, find an exhibition that has school-themed items in it. Maybe there is a desk, some art supplies, or even a one-room school near you! This can be a really fun and easy way to get them talking about how they are feeling about school. Maybe they have questions about the building (like where the bathrooms are!) or their teachers and what they will be doing all day. Looking at an exhibition together gives you a chance for a "side by side" conversation rather then a more intimidating "face to face" one. At this museum, I like to take kids to the lunchboxes near the cafeteria (the Taking America to Lunch exhibition), where we can talk about school and just have fun picking out our favorite one and planning lunches for the year!

If they are thinking about how they get to school, then looking at different forms of transportation gives them a chance to talk through what that is like. America On the Move has an older model school bus along with other forms of transportation your child might be taking to get to school. If your local museum doesn’t have something like that, you can always do a "transportation safari" or one of these Our Story activities in your hometown and see the real thing in action!


This bus carried rural children to the Martinsburg, Indiana school in the 1940s.
This bus carried rural children to the Martinsburg, Indiana school in the 1940s

Another great visit for new or aspiring readers is to look for books, prints of illustrations, or other examples of literature in a museum. If your child has started to sight read a few words, they can look for things they know (like "stop" and "go" or even familiar characters from books.) I was really inspired by the Little Golden Books exhibition on the second floor. For something like that, you may have memories of the books that you want to share with your child, or you can look at the fun art and pick out a few to try and find in your local library! You could even bring one in your bag with you and find a quiet corner to read together at the museum.

If your kids are older and settling into favored extra-curricular activities or sports, they would enjoy seeing some artifacts of their passion's history. Your local science museum can get them talking and engaging about science, engineering and technology. A local history museum might give them a window into the story behind what they like to do and an art museum can be a great conversation starter about the subjects of the art or the art process itself! This is a great chance to let them shine and lead the conversation, essentially letting them become the "tour guide." You will get to hear what they are passionate about and get inspired with other ways they (or the whole family) can be involved.

You can think outside the box, too—museums have lots of hidden treasures about all kinds of subjects. At this museum, there is an artifact wall about the Girl Scouts that has uniforms, cookie boxes, and camping gear, which is fun to get a closer look at. Your athlete and theater/pop culture aficionado will find something in American Stories that attracts them, like the always popular Ruby Slippers or Apollo Ono's skates.


Girl Scout uniform belonging to Joan Clark c.1943-1948. This style of uniform was introduced just before WWII and originally included a zipper. Wartime rationing saw the zipper replaced with green buttons.
Girl Scout uniform belonging to Joan Clark c.1943-1948. This style of uniform was introduced just before WWII and originally included a zipper. Wartime rationing saw the zipper replaced with green buttons.

A visit to the museum can also be a great way for students to reignite the passion they have for what they learn about in school since you are able to experience it in a way that is not tied in to tests and the stress of remembering and repeating facts. They can also see the real world application of what they are learning and, if you are at a history museum, how it ties into American history.

If you have a child who is involved in advocacy and feels strongly about social justice, then guide them towards examples of that in your town. At this museum, seeing the theater performance "Join the Student Sit-Ins at the Greensboro Lunch Counter" or the artifact wall on the 1913 woman suffrage parade will be a strong reminder of what people have gone through before them. Scientists and engineers can delve into the life and inventions of people that lived in your area or get involved in environmentalism through Our Story books and activities. Galleries and art museums will attract the visual artist and possibly the budding fashion designers who can critique and re-imagine what they see there.

If you have a child who claims they "don't like" history, or maybe feels they "aren't good" at history, then a visit to the museum can help them see just how varied and vast our history really is. Remind them of a subject or hobby that they do "like" and are "good at" and challenge them to find something that connects with it in the museum. If you are stumped, the docents and staff out on the floor might be able to help!


1880 John Glendenning desk patent model, opened
1880 John Glendenning school desk patent model

Of course, not everyone has the luxury of being able to stop in to a museum as part of your back-to-school routine. If that is the case, then you should explore the resources that can be found online. Many museums are paying attention to their web presence and trying to give cyber-visitors a great experience and different tools they can use.

The museum has a vast set of resources that can be accessed through the website, such as the Our Story resources linking books and activities. A lot of the exhibition at the museum have an online component, even the beloved Doll's House gives you floor-by-floor photographs to look through, and there are other online-only exhibits that are well worth your time. You can have fun digging through the digital catalog to find favorite artifacts and cool new things you may not be familiar with (and may prove useful for a school report down the road).

There are podcasts, a YouTube channel, a Flickr account, and of course Twitter and Facebook updates that let you connect with the museum however you want. So please, use the museum to get your kids excited, engaged and ready to go back into the classroom. There is so much here for you!

Sarah Erdman is the Goldman Sachs Fellow for Early Learning at the museum and the founder of Cabinet of Curiosities. She has also blogged about facing challenging topics in museums with children.