A Day at the Museum

Ready for an adventure? Looking for a family activity that tickles everyone’s fancy? Want to run away from screen time for an afternoon?

Go to an art museum. Whether you picture you (or your children) as art museum goers or not, this will be a rewarding outing for all. Take the whole family or go on a mini family bonding outing (mother/daughter, mother/son, father/daughter, or father/son)!

Go to an art exhibit with age appropriate expectations.  Each visit should feel like a wonderful and playful experience.  Make a game of it!


Never stay more than an hour with a preschooler. Leave them wanting more.

Create your own scavenger hunt. For example, ask your child to point out pictures with specific animals. At the Art Institute of Chicago, as you walk to see A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat, ask your child to point out a picture with a dog and a monkey. When you get there, celebrate finding it. Enjoy seeing the little dots of color that make up the picture. Look at it close up and from far away then close up again.

After seeing the La Grande Jatte which has umbrellas but no rain, look for a nearby picture, Paris Street; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte, which has umbrellas and rain.

Talk about how the pictures make you feel. Are they happy or sad feelings? The answer is not important, but talking about art and how that translates to feelings of the viewer is wonderful.

Alphabet fun and art are a great combination. Walk into a gallery of a modern art exhibit and ask your child to go stand in front of the picture by Picasso. Tell them to look for a “P” in the signature. Let them run over to it. Next challenge them to find the picture by Miro by looking to the big “M”.  Matisse, Kandinsky, Chagall and many others have nice large signatures for children to find. They do not need to be readers to enjoy this game. For the very young, focus on the first letter of the child’s name.

Play “Same and Different” with your children. Go find the Haystacks by Claude Monet. Talk with your child about how they are the same and different. You might mention light and color, seasons and time of day, but do not do all of the talking. Let your children come up with their own ideas.

Pick a color and focus on that during a museum visit. Tell your child you are looking for a blue painting and you hope to find a picture from Picasso’s blue period.  Go to the gallery with Picasso’s The Old Guitarist. Search for other blue tones in places like the Chagall Windows or in Georgia O’Keeffe’s Blue and Green Music.  Pictures of landscapes with water will make picking blue a great choice.

Elementary Aged children:

Even though slightly older children have a longer attention span, do not presume too much. Always leave them wanting more. It should still feel like an adventure every time they go to an art museum.

Let your child help navigate using the museum’s map. Demonstrate good behavior by politely asking a museum guard for directions. Even if you are on the right track, you can confirm that you are going the right way.  Learning to ask for help (and knowing who to ask) is a life skill. Mention things like “Exit” signs and bathroom signs. Navigating public spaces becomes less daunting when children realize the symbols are similar in museums, airports, movie theaters etc.

Engage your child by focusing on things he/she likes. Pick something and maybe (maybe not!) go with that for the entire visit such as boats, flowers or animals. You can encourage discussion about how they are depicted in the art. For a reluctant museum-goer, letting them pick the object is a great way to launch the adventure.

Play the “Favorite” game. Walk into a gallery room and ask each child to go stand in front of the painting they like best. Repeat in a couple of different rooms so they can have multiple “favorites” throughout the museum.  It is acceptable to like some art better than others. Encourage them to have an opinion and respect other people’s choices. By showing that you like different things that they like, you are encouraging them to trust their own instincts and be proud of their choices.  Learning to respect other people’s opinions is a gift. Help them read the name of the artists they like best.  Repeat those artists’ names on your way out of the museum and when you get back home. That night, ask your child the name of the artist he liked best and see if he can remember. Try to bring up the artist again in the following weeks and months. The next time you return, see if the favorite is in the same place or moved elsewhere. Also, ask if the child still likes it or has a new favorite.

Dates of artwork can be fascinating. It is also interesting to “play” with dates as a math tool. It is fun to find art that is over 100 years old. Depending on the age of the child, they can do subtraction to find out how long ago the painting was completed. This math concept strengthens the idea that most things have an age even if it never changes. For older children, it can be interesting to find two paintings in a room by the same artist and try to guess which one was completed before the other. The “Which Came First” game is great for children old enough to understand time and dates. The idea that artists change their style over time makes it fun for the children to run up and check out the dates of the artwork.

Many artists have both paintings and sculptures in the same museum. Finding those can make a museum visit very interesting for children who are learning to use many mediums in their school art classes. Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso are two excellent examples at the Art Institute of Chicago. Talk about their similarities and differences between the paintings and sculptures.

Give your child the gift of trying to draw what she sees. Bring paper and writing utensils. Every museum is different, so check before you go there. Some allow only pencils and other are less restrictive. Allow your child (and yourself) the time to sit on the floor in front of a work of art and try to draw what they see. Do this in two or three different rooms with very different styles such as the distinct styles of Piet Mondrian (picture the Partridge Family bus), Mark Rothko (think of stacked rectangles) or Andy Warhol.  It can be fun to copy a cubist painting. The results will astonish you. It also reinforces to your child that there are a lot of ways to create art and that not only “perfect” likeness gets appreciated.

Globetrotting: Focus on various artists’ country of birth. Depending on the age of the child this game can take many forms. Guessing an artist’s country and going over to see if you are right is fun. Count how any different countries are represented in a particular room. It is also fun to find two different artists from the same country who paint very differently.

Play the “What’s The Story” game. Get your child to describe what is going on in the scene. Looking at Mary Cassatt’s The Child’s Bathinvites a discussion of the time period. Children will enjoy talking about their own dance classes while viewing a Degas ballet painting. Pictures like Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks invite speculation for older kids to make up the conversation of the people depicted in the painting of the restaurant.

Beware of the museum store. Like an amusement park, many museums funnel you through or past their shop to get out of an exhibit so it is tempting to go shopping. The stores tend to be expensive so you may want to set the precedent that sometimes the shops are for looking not buying. Alternatively, encouraging your child to pick a small souvenir, like a postcard of one of their favorite paintings, can be a happy compromise, and a simple reminder about their adventurous day at the museum.

The key to children enjoying a museum is for them to enjoy visiting with people they like. Your enthusiasm for the adventure will be contagious. If you are excited and have fun, they will also be excited and have fun, and the memories will last a lifetime. You can be sure that museum going is inherited! It is a priority and an adventure that is often passed down from one generation to the next.

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