Art isn't just doing, it's viewing too: tips for an art museum trip with young children


I heart Philadelphia.

I really do. I grew up in a small town in Western, PA and moved out to the suburbs of Philly to attend graduate school in psychology and I immediately fell in love. Other than a short two-year period where I took up residence in New York City to work with charter schools, I have been living near and loving Philadelphia for over 10 years.

When I was a child, the closest large city to our town was Pittsburgh, which was a good hour and half to two hour drive away. We didn't venture there very often. Now, living a very short hop, skip, and a jump away from downtown Philadelphia, I try to give baby bookworm experiences that I didn't have as a kid. And what do I value the most about living near the City of Brotherly Love? The opportunity to become culturally enlightened. Of course you can do that in any large city, but what makes Philly so special to me is the up and coming food scene, great mix of neighborhoods and people, and the arts (all on this perfect scale of being not too big and yet not too small, I might add).

One of my favorite places to become culturally enlightened is the Philadelphia Museum of Art (it was also one of my favorite date spots with my husband in our early years of courting). I couldn't wait until baby bookworm was old enough to visit. While it's great that she knows her colors, numbers, and letters at two and a half, creativity and imagination are also important readiness skills. 

The value of viewing

Creativity and imagination are learned by doing arts and crafts. We create paintings, and sculptures out of play dough, and color and cut and paste. We are all about hands-on learning…

But, I think it's easy to forget that there's more to art with children than doing. Art is a visual experience, and there is much to be learned by viewing art. Viewing art ignites important cognitive processes. A child can learn to critique, reflect, and evaluate – all important "readiness" and life skills.

When baby bookworm turned two and a half, I felt that she was ready to make her first trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Now, I'll let you use your own discretion about whether your toddler is "ready" to take a trip to the museum, but we did see kids of all ages while we were there. A trip to an art museum is a little different, however, than say…a trip to the zoo.

Here's what I did to help our trip to the art museum be a successful learning experience.


Prior to our visit:

  1. We talked about what we'd see and experience at the art museum. This involved discussing what an art museum is and the many different forms of art we'd see.
  2. We went over expectations for behavior. In a nutshell, I explained there would be no running, no touching paintings or objects, and no screaming. I told her she was expected to stay near mommy and daddy, and she could sit in the benches in the center of the rooms and look and talk about the works of art.
  3. We read a few books to help spark a little interest and excitement in our trip. Plus, books are a fantastic learning tool – we could make connections back to the books below that we read.
  • Dots! Dots! Dots! at the Museum by Francie Alexander
  • Touch the Art: Count Monet's Lillies;
    Touch the Art: Make Van Gogh's Bed;
    Touch the Art: Pop Warhol's Top 
    by Julie Appel and Amy Guglielmo

Once you're there

During our visit, I tried to make the experience toddler-friendly, and full of FUN learning (after all, I had been to the art museum plenty of times before, so this trip was for her). Here's the strategies I used. {You could easily adapt these strategies for older or younger children.}

• We talked about the various styles of paintings, which was a great opportunity to introduce new vocabulary words such as abstract, modern, and contemporary.

• We sat on the benches in the middle of the large rooms and played "I Spy."

What a great way to explore colors, shapes and patterns• We discussed the colors, shapes, and patterns we saw.

• We learned some of the more famous artist's names. (Pablo Picasso was a favorite and easily remembered since baby bookworm made the connection to Pablo from the Backyardigans).

• We guessed what the paintings might be named, a game that is surprisingly easy.

• We tried to guess the materials the artist used, which turned out to be another great opportunity to introduce new vocabulary (e.g., canvas, oil paint, clay, stencil).

Baby bookworm loved the Japanese Teahouse• We had a mini (very mini – she is a toddler) history and geography lesson and talked about how French, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and Italian art differed. The Japanese Teahouse at the museum was a favorite spot.

So while you may spend lots of hours doing art with your child, don't forget there is lots to be learned in viewing it!

With a little extra preparation and these fun learning strategies you can have a very successful trip like we did.

Marissa Kiepert Truong, PhD is a Chester County, PA mom and early education consultant. This post is adapted from her blog Land of Once Upon a Time.


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