Unlock Art Museum Wonders

With your guidance, a child’s first art museum visit can be very exciting and influence her feelings about art for years to come.

An art museum is a magical place, filled with ancient and modern wonders from around the world.

A child’s first visit to an art museum can be very exciting and influence her feelings about art for years to come. Parents can facilitate this positive experience by asking questions, playing games and structuring trips in a child-friendly way. Here are a few ways you can turn any art museum visit into a fun family adventure.

Be clear about the rules ahead of time. Often a young child's earliest museum experience is at an interactive institution. The “no touch” rule at art museums can be a confusing switch from the Franklin Institute or Please Touch Museum.

Many fun family activities can prepare your child for the “no touching” rule. First, fold a white piece of paper in half and pass it around the room. After everyone in the family has touched it, open the paper and compare the wrinkles on the touched side to the untouched side. Or, ask your child to rub his hands together until his fingers get hot. Have your child feel the oils that come out of his fingers and explain that these oils can damage a work of art. Rules are a part of life. The best way to make a child feel comfortable in an art museum is to help him understand the rules before the visit!

Arrive early. On the weekends, the peak hours for most art museums are 12noon-3pm. If you arrive in the morning, you can beat the crowds.

Don't try to see everything. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has close to 10,000 objects on view. The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia also has a large collection. If you want your children to come back to an art museum, do not burn her out on the first visit. Instead, pick one area, culture or time period in a museum to explore.

Take your time. Exploring the galleries at a relaxed pace encourages your children to actually look at objects instead of simply walking by them. At the Noyes Museums of Art in Oceanside, NJ, family study guides that are inserted into the wall of each gallery enhance this looking process. At galleries in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you can find laminated sheets that suggest family activities, or you can pick up family self-guided tours at the information desk.

Make it fun! Visiting an art museum should be both educational and fun. Playing looking games in the galleries is great ways to increase the fun factor of your visit. One of my favorite museum games is Eye Spy. A parent says, for example, “Eye spy a china cup with pink flowers” and the child then finds the cup. The child in turn says, “Eye spy a man with a red hat” and the parent has to find a painting that contains a man in a red hat.

Another good game is to ask, “How are these two things alike and how are they different?” Or bring a sketchbook along and encourage children to draw or sketch what they like.

You can download Images of displayed paintings at most art museum websites. You and your child can then find the original of that image in the museum. Similarly, you can purchase postcards of displayed objects at museum gift shops or online stores, which you can then bring on your family visit.

Some collections are traditionally popular with children. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Arms and Armor, Asia, and the Contemporary Collections are family favorites.

Put what you see in context. When walking through a museum, it is often hard to imagine what life was like during the time the artwork was created. You can play a guessing game asking what an object, such as a suit of armor, an umbrella stand or a bed warmer, was used for when it was created. After everyone in your family takes a guess, compare the answers against information on the gallery walls.

When visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art, stop by the 18 period rooms to get reinforcements for your imagination. In rooms such as the Japanese Teahouse and the Colonial Kitchen, artwork and household objects can be viewed in their original surroundings.

The Winterthur Museum in Winterthur, Del. runs a context-based tour every day at 12:30pm called “Once upon a Family.” The tour brings the Winterthur house to life by teaching children about the original family that lived on the property.

Discuss what you see. An art museum can be an exciting starting point for family discussions, playful games, and imaginative conversations. Don't be afraid to ask your child open-ended questions, even if you don't know the answer yourself.

Tools for discussion. One of the best things about art is its ability to awaken the imagination. Therefore, the best questions are ones that lead into broader discussions. Ask questions such as these:

  • What do you think the person in the painting liked to do?
  • How would the weather feel if you were inside this landscape?
  • Who do you think used this cabinet and how was it used?
  • Does this armor remind you of anything that we have read in a book or seen in a movie?
  • If you could spend the day inside of any painting, which one would it be?

Let the experts help you! There are excellent family programs at many of the art museums in the Delaware Valley. Self-guides, family tours, and classes are all excellent ways of exploring the museums in a structured manner.

Many museums have special days that are specifically geared towards families. For instance, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has something every Sunday for families. PMA Sunday programs include family tours, performances and art activities. Every October, The Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia celebrates the book Dracula, written by Bram Stoker, an event that typically includes family activities and a puppet parade.

Visit often! The best way to spark a child’s interest in art is to visit art museums on a regular basis. There are many wonderful art collections in the Delaware Valley. Try incorporating local museums into a monthly family activity!

Katy Rose Friedland is a Museum Educator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and co-author of A is for Art Museum (Temple University Press, $16.95).

Categories: Elementary Age