Museums across the country are starting to reopen after being forced to close in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of them, such as Baltimore’s Port Discovery Children’s Museum, Philadelphia’s Please Touch Museum and the National Children’s Museum in Washington, D.C., are geared just for kids. But “grown-up” museums can be just as fun and engaging for children with a little planning and preparation on your part.
Explore these expert tips on how to successfully visit — and dare we say, enjoy — museums with your kids.
Before your visit
Consider everyone’s interests
You can find a museum to fit just about any interest. Is your child a budding astronaut? Try the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Does she love trains? Baltimore’s B&O Railroad Museum is a good bet. Consider your own interests as well. Your enthusiasm can rub off on your kids.
Consider picking a museum based on what your child is learning about in school, even if he doesn’t seem into it. “Sometimes magic can happen in unexpected places,” says Beth Maloney, director of interpretation at the Baltimore Museum of Industry.
Work out the logistics
Visit the museum’s website and figure out all the details ahead of time. How will you get there? How long will it take? Are you allowed to eat inside? If so, can you purchase food on-site or will you need to bring your own? Is the museum wheelchair or stroller accessible? Are bags allowed inside? What are the COVID-19 and masking policies? Be sure to also check what days and times the museum is open, as many have limited hours due to COVID-19 or are closed on certain days of the week.
Discuss proper behavior
“Talk with your kids about ‘museum manners’ — quiet voices and bodies, touch only what you are allowed to and be respectful of other visitors,” says Sarah Erdman, a museum consultant with Cabinet of Curiosities in Northern Virginia. “Kids can absolutely be joyful and excited about what they see, but they should behave more like they are visiting a library than a playground.”
Set up a game plan
Explore the museum’s website with your kids and have them choose which exhibits they most want to see or programs they want to participate in. This involvement will help get them excited for the visit and ensure you fit in what they most want to do.
During your visit
Meter your expectations
“You will not see the whole museum, and you may not have this deep philosophical discussion about the meaning of art — and that’s OK,” says Erdman. “If you and your children enjoy your time together and they want to visit again, that is a win! If they see one thing that has an impact on them, learn something new or have a new idea about something, that is a successful visit.”
Let your kids be your guides
Give your children a map of the museum and let them be in charge of your route, but don’t get too set on a specific order. “Museums are different from books. You can explore them in multiple ways,” says Maloney. “It’s OK to jump around!”
“Children learn really well through hands-on experiences, which is why interactive exhibits are so popular with families,” says Erdman.
While more and more museums are offering hands-on and multimedia exhibits, some of these features may be temporarily closed due to COVID-19. But there are many ways to create interaction yourself. Most museums allow you to take photos or sketch with pencils. Younger kids may enjoy playing “I Spy” or looking for specific things, such as finding all the dogs in a painting.
“My kids and I will imagine we are furnishing a house and pick the pieces that we want in there or make up stories about the things we are seeing,” Erdman says.
Have your children think about how the objects are presented, such as why certain pieces might be grouped together or whether a painting would look different in a different frame. Older kids and teens can discuss how the museum presents certain topics and what it’s leaving out. Does the science museum discuss climate change? Does a historic house talk about the enslaved people that lived there?
Know your family’s limits
“There is something called ‘museum fatigue,’” warns Maloney. “Tune in to everyone’s feelings and know when to call it a day. It’s about the quality of time you spend at the museum, not the quantity.” Take breaks as needed.
After your visit
Discuss what everyone learned and enjoyed. Ask your kids if there’s anything they’re still curious about or want to learn more about with you.
Do more research
Visit the museum’s website, check out books from the library or watch YouTube videos to learn more about what you saw.
Use any photos you took or drawings your kids created to make a collage, a scrapbook page or a pretend museum.
Plan your next visit
Talk to your kids about which museum they’d like to visit next or what they’d like to see during your next visit to the same museum.
And remember: Be present, be flexible and enjoy your time together. “Visiting a museum as a family is as much about the time spent together as about what you see,” says Maloney. “I still remember visiting a museum with my grandma when I was a little kid.”