At the age of ten, Tween Traveler declared she wasn’t interested in visiting museums that aren’t interactive. Luckily there are plenty of science and history museums that interest us and engage her. But not every museum I’d like to see on our travels is designed with kids in mind.
I miss the days when she was younger and was happy to walk around an art museum, pointing out colors and shapes and making up stories about the people in the scultures and paintings we saw.
Taking kids, especially little ones, into quiet halls of art and design can seem intimidating but with the right expectations and preparation it’s very doable; in some ways it gets harder as they older and outgrow the “family” activities.
Here are four tips for how to prepare very young kids for a museum visit and make it fun for you and them. Do it while they’re little!
I focus on New York City museums but these tips work in other cities’s museums, too.
Read More: Use our NYC At a Glance section to plan your trip.
• Here are 10 family museums around the U.S.
• Here are 9 NYC Museums Tween Traveler loves.
• 12 Must-Visit Children’s Museums in the U.S.
4 Tips For Taking Kids To Museums
Do Some Research
Good: Go to the museum’s website to choose two to four exhibits or a particular floor to focus on for your visit.
Better: Find books that speak to these exhibits.
Why: You’ve noticed that children find new things fascination…for about 20 minutes. Then they want to go play. If you try to see everything in a large museum in one day, everyone will wind up cranky.
How: Once you have a sense of what you might be seeing, head to the library and look for some books that will give you a preview.
Or take a trip when your middle schooler is reading the Percy Jackson books.
Make It Fun
Good: Make a game out of your visit.
Better: Play games before to prepare kids and after to reinforce what they saw.
Why: Children love learning if they are having fun and sharing with you at the same time.
How: The Museum of the City of New York is one of several museums that offer a free scavenger hunt when you arrive.
Picture books, puzzles and coloring or activity books from the gift shop make great souvenirs of things you saw.
Make sure to check out special exhibitions to see if any are family friendly and see if the museum has a special space for kids.
For example, the New York Historical Society has had special shows on the author Mo Willems and on the Harry Potter books that were interesting to Tiny Travel and us. And it has a permanent mini museum downstairs for kids.
Many museums have great family tours and workshops. The MOMA’s gallery tours for families happen before the museum opens to the public! These programs tend to target kids up to ten, with separate programs designed for high schoolers. Tweens sometimes fall through the cracks, unfortunately.
And of course, check for apps that will guide you through the museum’s rooms and also provide practical information like where to find rest rooms.
Make It Interactive
Good: Use arts and crafts at home to let kids explore new concepts.
Better: Look for museums that let kids get hands with classes and tours.
Why: Kids learn by doing. It makes what would otherwise be an abstract learning experience personal and relatable.
How: Exploring real medieval building, tombs, art, jewelry and the unicorn tapestries at The Cloisters. Then build a castle out of Legos, make royal jewelry and crowns out of paper, or design your own felt tapestry.
Go to museums with open studiosand laboratories where you can see artists creating (try the Museum of Arts and Design). Then go home and see if your kids can make their own colorful collages or Play-Do pots in styles the artists inspire.
For hands-on time at the museums, try MOMA’s art workshops, the Morgan Library’s many family days, which change with the exhibits. The American Museum or the Moving Image where kids can make muppets, stop-motion animation and more in the permanent galleries.
If you can’t catch a tour or workshop, hand them your phone and let them take photos of art they like (assuming it’s OK with the museum).
Talk About Manners
Good: Prepare your kids for a visit by discussing museum behavior: Look but don’t touch, be considerate of others, listen and ask questions, no running or eating.
Better: Give them examples of places where we behave the same way, like the library or school.
Practice being loud and quiet on your way to the museum. Have a place in mind where they can run around after your visit.
Why: It’s not unreasonable for kids to learn that there is a time and a place for everything and some public places, like museums, require different behavior than a kids museum or playground.
Just make sure that this doesn’t come as a surprise to your kids and that you don’t stay beyond their capacity for this.
How: Go early on a weekday when kids are fresh and crowds are low. Let them know they’ll be running around time after. The Met has Central Park at its back and the museum-inspired Ancient Playground right next door.
The New York Public Library is a great place to practice quiet voices. The building is impressive. Sometimes the exhibits are kid friendly. And the children’s room on basement level is fantastic. Look for the original Winnie the Puuh and his friends there.
When they’re tired of all that culture and reading you can let loose in Bryant Park, just behind the building, which has a spacious lawn and a carousel.
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* From the top down, photos courtesy of MOMA, The Met, FamiliesGo!, MOAD, The Met and FamiliesGo!