I'll never forget the first time I took my son Tommy (now a teen) to look at art. He was about two months old when my husband Matt and I went see the N.C. Wyeth illustrations at the Brandywine River Museum of Art. Matt had Tommy in a front-facing carrier, and we basically high-fived our way around the museum as Tommy kicked his legs excitedly, staring at the brilliant colors on those large canvases. Best parents ever, at least according to us. Clearly we were raising a genius.
Of course, things changed a bit once Tommy became mobile, and even more so once his younger brother, Teddy, came along. I realized pretty quickly that if I didn't want our art museum visits to devolve into long scolding sessions I had better up my museum game.
Luckily for me, my mother was an artist, and I grew up visiting art museums. Thinking about what my own mom did helped me to develop my own strategies for making art museum visits fun.
Some kids may show a native interest in art, but most of them need encouragement and help to enjoy it. You may worry that your kids will be bored or won't behave well if you take them to an art museum. But I promise: it is possible for an art museum visit to be both fun and educational for your entire family by following these simple tips:
Research before you go. Look at the website prior to your visit to see what might interest your children. Of course, it's also OK if you end up in parts of the museum you never expected to look at, but having a plan will help you maximize your time. This also offers you a chance to learn things about the artists or the work that you can share with your children.
Limit your visit. It's tempting to have an ambitious agenda when you visit an art museum, or to feel like there are things you "ought" to see because they are famous. But I usually plan to limit art museum visits to two hours. It's great if you stay longer, but being realistic is one way to make sure your kids stay engaged.
Help your kids connect to the art. Talk about what is familiar in the art you are looking at. Are there places or things your kids have seen before? Are there children in the art? What are they wearing and doing? How is it different or the same from your children's experiences? How are the people in the art interacting with each other? Another strategy is to read the panels near the art, and share aloud what you learn or think is interesting — look especially for information that connects to subjects your children are reading about or studying in school.
Talk about color and shape. If the work you are exploring is more abstract, start a conversation about colors, shapes, lines, and textures you see. Ask your kids to pick their favorite color or shape and talk about why they like it. Or maybe you want to ask why they think an artist used a certain color or if they notice similar colors in different works by a specific artist.
Look at multiple works by a single artist. When we visited an exhibit featuring Marc Chagall and his contemporaries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art a few years ago, Tommy and I had a great time looking for both the paintings and sculptures by Modigliani. He loved looking for the signature long faces and was delighted when he found them.
Find family art programs. Some art museums have family-friendly tours led by docents who are trained to teach children about art. Others invite children to create their own art based upon what they saw in the museum. You can usually find family programs listed on the museum website or by calling the museum before your visit.
Don't be afraid to head for the exit. If no one is having a good time, remember that you can leave. Sometimes children just aren't in the mood to focus on art, and there isn't any benefit to trying to force it.
Whether you spend 30 minutes or an entire day at the museum, there's so much value in looking at art with your kids. Listen carefully and you'll be amazed at how much your children notice and how their opinions and point of view are different from your own.
We're lucky to live in an area that is so rich in fine arts institutions, from the Barnes Foundation to the Philadelphia Musuem of Art. If you like visiting art museums with your kids, consider becoming a member. Not only will you support the arts locally; most museum memberships offer reciprocal entrances to museums across North America.
Mara Gorman is a Newark, DE mother to two boys. This post was adapted from the blog The Mother of all Trips, which offers travel inspiration and tips to families.