I love children’s museums for my daughter, but for myself, I need to see art that matters to me. I live in NYC for its culture, so as a parent, it is an important way for me and my family to spend our precious down time. So how do you marry your love of the arts with your love for spending time with your children? With a little preparation, I promise you that you can (almost) go back to your pre-baby cultural engagement.
I am a museum educator who deeply believes that through close looking, a dialogue between artist and observer can lead to a transformative experience. At work, you may find me singing with toddlers, guiding students to write a poem, leading an art making activity or passing out scents or textures that physically draw the viewer into the artwork. I know how to cultivate meaningful conversations and have a bag tricks to keep visitors actively engaged in this process. But, when it comes to visiting museums with my four-year-old, the experience is very different. We want to have fun family-time together.
1. Select exhibitions that you are passionate about.
This is your time just as much theirs, so it should be something that YOU want to see. In advance, talk about why you want to see this exhibition to generate excitement. Once inside the museum the way you approach looking at art is teaching your children how to explore a museum environment. Do you like to take selfies? Ask questions? Do you find yourself having “Aha moments”? Do you browse and like to feel the artwork in the space? Whatever your approach may be, you are modeling the skills for being a museum visitor.
2. Do your research and find free or cheap museums to visit with your kids.
Many museums have a suggested donation rather than an admissions fee. Others offer free days, though depending on the museum, they can get very crowded. This way, if your visit is under an hour, you won’t feel like your time didn’t match the value of your money spent.
3. Pack a museum bag before you go.
I have one that we just grab on our way out. Include paper for sketching and colored pencils (no pens or markers). You need an art telescope - trust me! You can decorate a toilet paper roll as a way to prepare for a museum visit or you can just roll up a sheet of paper. With this very simple tool, kids search and see details you would have never noticed without it. Paint sample swatches are a great way to search for colors. Once in the museum, your child will want to add a map, brochures and family guides. Use the maps to encourage map reading. Use all the materials to keep their hands occupied and not touching the artwork.
4. Before you visit the museum, go the playground.
(This is essential!) Run, climb, do all the things you can’t do in a museum. Next to the Met is an ancient Egyptian themed playground. Mount Prospect Park is next to the Brooklyn Museum, and a jog on the Highline will take you directly to the Whitney Museum of American Art. Kids need to release their highly active physical energy before using it to focus.
5. Find the kid-friendly spaces.
While it is more grand to walk up the stairs at the Met, go through the Education entrance on the ground floor at 81st street. The admissions line will be short. The bathrooms, with many stalls, are right there, along with an open space where kids can snack, run around and decompress. Next to the Education Center is the Nolan Library, which has a great children’s section with books in numerous languages, all centered on art and they offer storytime several days a week.
The Jewish Museum offers thought provoking exhibitions that connect, albeit sometimes loosely, to Jewish culture. Their website is particularly useful for helping visitors to plan their time in the Museum. A little difficult to find on the site though, is The Archaeology Zone a space where kids can explore artifacts through hands-on activities and play.
Visiting MoMA, a great place to begin with your child is in the Art Lab which is full of activities, toys and art making opportunities.
6. Create genuine connections.
As I said earlier, museums are not designed with young children in mind. The work of us as parents is to help our children to connect to the art. Be silly: pose like statues. Search for things that are interesting for them: animals, colors, golden frames. Tell stories if you know them or make them up based on what you see. Always have pencils for drawing. Many museums provide family guides with activities and conversation prompts use them to help you explore art together.
7. The shorter the visit, the better it will be.
Personally, I don’t spend more than two hours in a museum, so with my daughter, I plan on an hour or so. It’s most important for your kids to have a positive experience. If they are museum-weary after twenty-five minutes, it’s time to go (or at least take a break in the cafe). Your visits will gradually become longer as they become excited, confident and comfortable in museums.
Finally just get out and go! Go because you love art and are curious. Go because it's raining out or because you’ve been to the zoo too many times. Go to see things that no one in your family has seen. Go because you have out-of-town guests to entertain. Go because you are a New Yorker; it’s what we do.
About the author:
Kristin Scarola is a museum educator and consultant who provides experiences for museum visitors that are accessible, engaging and informative with an emphasis on the power of creativity to enliven, transform and inspire. Kristin specializes in early childhood and family programming, while working with a range of audiences including school groups, access, and educators. She has taught at numerous New York City cultural institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum Kristin supports pre-service teachers at the Borough of Manhattan Community College as an adjunct professor. When she’s not teaching, Kristin enjoys yoga, making art, hiking and, yes, exploring museums with her husband and daughter.