Guys, I love museums. I mean, I really love museums. During a college trip to Italy, I dragged all my friends to the tiniest, most obscure museums I could find just to see one or two specific pieces of art. By day three, they revolted and went shopping. Granted, I am an art history minor and my legal interest is in cultural property law so I am definitely biased, but museums are a great place to learn about and interact with world cultures. They are often the highlight of my family vacation. And yet, when I suggest bringing the kids to museums like the Louvre or the Rijksmuseum, I often hear, “They’ll be bored,” or “You should wait until they are older and can appreciate the art,” or “They’ll only have fun at children’s museums.”
Well, the heck with that, I say! There are a lot of ways to engage young kids at museums to set the foundation for a love of culture and learning. Living in DC, my kids happily spend rainy days at the Smithsonians exploring all the exhibits. Here are my top five ways to keep kids happy at museums!
5 Ways to Have Fun with Young Kids at Museums
1. Kids Activity Rooms
Many museums have a dedicated area to for kids to play with crafts, climb around play equipment, and explore interactive kid-friendly exhibits. Almost all the Smithsonians in Washington, D.C. have kids rooms, for example. Some of our favorites include the National Museum of the American Indian’s imagiNATIONS Activity Center and both the Draper Spark!Lab and the Wegman’s Wonderplace at the National Museum of American History. These are great places to go to midway through our day to blow off steam, let kids get messy, and run around.
- Tip: Double check the hours of the kids’ rooms before visiting because they are often closed at least one day a week.
2. Guided Tours
Don’t assume that self-guided and guided tours are just for adults! Many museums offer family kits for self-guided tours which include family friendly audio and games or family guided tours to engage kids. The Rijksmuseum offers a family guided tour daily for only 5 euros/person plus the cost of admission (which is free under 18 years of age!) They also offer a family multimedia mystery game which you can download for free and play on your own phones. The Guggenheim has free family activity packs you can pick up at the Family Activity Kiosks. They also offer Sunday Family Tours for all ages and Stroller Tours once a month.
- Tip: Check the websites of museums you want to visit for family tours or free apps with kids activities. Bring your own devices/headphones to the museum to save money.
3. Scavenger Hunts
Scavenger hunts are a great way to get kids excited to go to museums! If you have a prize at the end even better. Sign up to receive free general scavenger hunts suitable for any museum as well as specific hunts for the National Gallery of Art in DC and National Museum of Natural History in DC! These are guaranteed to keep your kids happy and busy during your day at the museum.
- Tip: bring a small prize for kids to “win” at the end of the scavenger hunt!
4. Photography Challenge
Kids love taking pictures. Hand over your iPhones or buy kids their own disposable cameras and challenge them to take photos of their favorite exhibits. It’s fun for the kids and fun for the parents to see the exhibits from a kid’s perspective. My son goes with his friends to museums and it’s always exciting to see what he most enjoyed. Of course, we get some wacky angles and lots of giggles over nude statues. (“It’s his butt, Mom. HAHAHAHAHAHA.”) We print out the favorites on a Portable Instant Mobile Photo Printer and add them to his travel journals.
5. Prepare Before Going and Be Flexible
There is no substitute for preparing before you go. Doing three things before you go can make all the difference in your day:
- Talk to your kids before and after your trip about what they will see and what they liked the most. Tell them about the exhibits you will be seeing and make sure to visit the ones they are excited about. Show them examples online. Most museums have online kids sections to help engage kids at home.
- Bring snacks to avoid those hangry tantrums. Bringing your own snacks also saves money on the often expensive museum cafes.
- Take breaks during the day. Museums can be large and overwhelming. Take breaks periodically so kids have time to process what they’ve seen. Most museums have fountains, gardens, or at least benches throughout the museum. Search them out and rest for a while. Bring coloring paper and crayons and let them copy the art work or artifact they like the most.
You don’t have to avoid visiting museums with young kids! Make sure to prep your kids in advance, give them plenty of time to rest, and engage with them through the museum and you will have an enjoyable day exploring a new museum.
What is your favorite museum? What do you do with your kids to engage them at museums?