Tips For Visiting Art Museums with Children by Noah Charney

By Noah Charney

Let it be said that I am an art history professor, so I have a vested interest in getting my daughters, age 5 and 7, to like art. Going to museums is among my favorite things to do, and I love to share it with my kids. The trouble is, while kids tend to like science museums (full of interactive gadgetry) and natural history museums (dinosaurs!), the nature of fine art museums is certainly adult-oriented. There’s a lot of starting quietly at things that do not move, that do not have buttons to push, and that do not have rows of six-inch-long teeth. Not exactly every child’s dream outing.
But I’ve developed a system that worked with my kids and can work for any parents interested in getting their kids excited about visiting art museums. It turns museum visits into Where’s Waldo-style treasure hunts. While it is more fully developed in my book, Superpower Your Kids: A Professor’s Guide to Teaching Your Kids Everything in Just 15 Minutes a Day, what follows is the brief rundown, and some ideas that any parent can implement wherever museums are found, or even just while browsing art books.
This is a system I use when teaching at university level, and with my little kids. The idea is to whet appetites and preview something we’ll be doing or seeing, well before we get there. It’s why we professors give out syllabi at the start of a course, and quickly summarize all that will be covered. It helps prepare our audience (whether a lecture hall of students or a car full of our children), lay the foundation and parameters of what we’ll see, and spark initial curiosity. “Today, we’re going to the National Gallery in London to see some of my favorite paintings,” I might begin. “We’re going to see a giant painting of a horse (George Stubbs’ Whistlejacket), and a painting that was stolen by someone protesting against having to pay for their television channels (Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington) and a painting of a boy being bitten on the finger by a lizard (Caravaggio’s aptly-titled Boy Bitten By a Lizard).” This is helpful in that it gives my kids a sense of what to expect. Kids like that, find comfort in it. 
Then, when we’re in the museum, I let them loose to find the key things we mentioned in anticipation. It’s step one of the treasure hunt trick I recommend for making art museums more engaging. So as soon as we get there, they can explore and search for some key objects. Particularly good are the first and third ones I mentioned. A giant horse and a boy bitten on the finger by a lizard are easily spotted by kids, without needing any a priori knowledge.
The “review” component of this approach is for the ride home, or dinner that night, or the next day (or all three). I ask them to summarize what we did and saw, what their favorite things were, what surprised them, and so on. This helps to cement the memory of what we did and even some of the names of the artworks or artists, through simple repetition.

Treasure Hunts in the Gallery
Simply wandering an art museum, particularly slowly and reading wall copy, is unlikely to hold the interest of younger kids. Fair enough, it doesn’t always hold the interest of grownups, either. So it’s best to give kids an active task. In addition to the opening gambit of asking them to wander around and find a few key artworks based on my basic description of them, I also have a similar approach when looking at individual artworks. Variant One is setting them loose and giving them a clue to identify which object I’m referring to. Variant Two is to look closely at a painting and, within it, find interesting details. This works best in group scenes, for instance the mysterious and intriguing paintings of Bosch or Bruegel. We’ve spent hours pouring through my giant coffee table book of the complete works of Hieronymus Bosch, full of hybrid animals, monsters, devils and Alice-in-Wonderland-like details. Bosch’s works are so weird that we play a game of “spot what’s not weird,” and they look for normal-looking animals, as opposed to, say, a fish with human legs. That’s part of the “engage” component of the Preview-Engage-Review system. I do not let my kids passively half-glance at something, because I’m asking them questions about it. What do they see? What do they like? What don’t they like about it? This also empowers them to feel good about having their own opinion (which an adult feels is worth inquiring about) and prompts them to look more deeply, rather than the superficial glances that even most adults throw at most artworks they cruise by in a museum.
You can prepare a printed treasure hunt at home, on paper that your kids can bring to the gallery. A checklist is good, especially if they are of reading age. Having paper and a pencil in hand also allows for them to draw things they see and like. This can be part of the treasure hunt (find a painting of a horse and draw it), or it can simply list, say, ten details they need to find and they check it off (or, if they can write, they should note the name of the artist in whose work the detail in question may be found). 

These techniques turn the act of looking at art, which feel overly-passive for children, into something more proactive, goal-oriented (a quest to find artworks or details within them), inherently more interesting. To top it off, reward a successful treasure hunt with your children’s choice of a treat—whatever they’d like to do. Repeatedly doing so will have a Pavlovian effect of associating the visit to a museum not only with the fun of the museum, but with the reward of the treat (ice cream, a movie, takeout Vietnamese, whatever they’re into) afterward. 

Dr Noah Charney is a professor of art history and best-selling, Pulitzer-nominated author of more than a dozen books. His latest is Superpower Your Kids: A Professor’s Guide to Teaching Your Children Everything in Just 15 Minutes a Day, available as a limited edition on Kickstarter.