The Wonderment of Museums

Making a Family Museum Visit Fun …
By Marilyn Anderson and Patricia Sullivan

More Art, Please!

Museums are places of wonderment, exploration, learning, and fun for the entire family. Just ask Jean L. Sousa, associate director of museum education, The Art Institute of Chicago. “Don’t be intimidated or worry that your children will cry or misbehave at the museum…and don’t worry that you need a degree in art history,” she said. “If the museum offers family programs, these are non-issues.” Sousa said that parent workshops at museums build on issues in child development and learning theory to make family visits more comfortable.

Today, many museums are interactive learning centers that give families an opportunity to explore, learn, create their own art, and, yes, even touch some exhibits. With all of this variety and activity, how can parents ensure that their children won’t become overwhelmed, tired, or too distracted to enjoy the experience? The key is in the planning.

A Look at Art Museums

“It’s important for children to distinguish between beautiful, masterfully rendered art and mass-produced art or what you see on television,” Sousa said.

For children’s first art museum experiences, she recommends that parents keep the visit simple. “See three pictures and then have lunch,” she said. Be flexible. When the children start becoming restless, do something else.

Dr. Seuss Sculpture Garden at Springfield Museums. (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

Following are suggestions from Sousa and The Art Institute of Chicago on how to cultivate your children’s curiosity through art.

Look for recognizable things.
Simply identifying things in a painting can be fun for families with young children. Parents can ask their children how many people and animals they see, how many fruits are in a still life, what kind of activity is taking place, and what colors and shapes they see.

Find visual clues that uncover meaning.
Ask older children to describe what they see and help them determine the meanings the artist intended. For instance, ask your children to determine the time of day, season, or which person is oldest in a painting. Then ask them to explain how they came to their conclusions.

Imagine the work of art coming to life.
Let children’s active imaginations run wild by asking them to make up a story for a picture. “In some ways not knowing much is an advantage,” Sousa said.

Modern art offers plenty of room for interpretation, too.
Parents can ask, what just happened? What’s going on now? What will happen next? What sounds or smells do you imagine while looking at the painting?

Listen and respond to each other.
Sharing time with your children at a museum also means communicating well. Be sure to ask your children why they feel a certain way or made certain comments about a piece of art.

Eric Carle Museum

Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, MA.

How to prepare for a museum visit

“A child is going to get out of an experience what the adult is willing to put in,” said Nancy Kolb, president and chief executive officer of Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia. “The parent has to be patient.”

Before the visit

  • Get the information. Explore the museum’s website to learn about the permanent and special exhibits, hours of operation, accessibility, admission fees and discounts, and family programs. Request a brochure or activity sheet that is used for school groups. (More than half of museums are free to the public. Of those that charge fees, nearly 60 percent have free days.)
  • Ask your children what they’re interested in and what they’re studying in school. Then try to build upon their responses.
  • If you have a book at home that’s related to one of the exhibits you plan to see, sit down and leaf through the book with your children. It will help build their excitement.
  • Consider becoming a member if you plan to visit several times during the year. Museum memberships often provide discounts for the museum store, food vendor, and special museum programs. (The median museum admission for a family of four is $15. The median membership fee for families is $25.)
  • Determine how long you will spend at the museum. Ninety minutes to two hours should be enough

At the museum

  • Find the information desk and ask, “What do you recommend for families?”
  • Help children figure out how things work, but don’t do it for them. Use open-ended questions and try to get to the how and the why of things. For example, while at a dinosaur exhibit, ask, “How do you think they ate? Where did something that big sleep?”
  • Keep the visit simple and don’t try to see everything. Take a break.

After the visit

  • Ask your children what they liked or didn’t like, and why. Ask what they enjoyed the most.
  • Have them share their experiences with friends and relatives.
  • Help your children find the answers to their unsolved questions.
  • Talk about items in your home and have them relate what they learned to everyday objects.


Here’s a sampling of  museums in Western Mass (check with your local library for free museum passes):

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