Children will have different experiences at the art museum depending on their ages, temperaments, and interests. It’s probably easiest if you can set aside your own expectations. They will engage with things in the way that is appropriate for them, and they might learn something entirely different than you had in mind. That’s ok. What’s important is that it’s a joyful experience and they want to come back. A good relationship with art, and museums in general, is a gift that will far outlast a particular lesson you had in mind.
- Arrive and ask questions.
When you arrive at the museum, check in and make sure your child understands the expectations you talked about. Talk to the staff about what resources for children there might be, any current temporary exhibits your child might be interested in, and what they recommend for children. If you can include your child in this conversation, that will help them get excited about their trip.
2. Learn and plan.
You might have a fair idea of what your trip is going to look like, but I find it useful to grab a map, explain it to my child, and ask what he wants to see. If I have chosen particular things I think he will be interested in, I explain why. If there is a play area or something else you think might be distracting, suggest seeing it after you finish another exhibit. I find that breaking up our trips with play, painting, or time outdoors helps lengthen our stay and makes it more enjoyable. Children need to move. This is also a good time to talk about when you might have lunch or a snack, if that is part of your agenda for the day.
3. Ask your child questions.
Talking to children about art isn’t as hard as it sounds. It helps to start with questions that have no right or wrong answer. “How does this make you feel? Why do you think it makes you feel that way?” has led to some very useful conversations with my child. I sometimes simply ask what he thinks is going on or why he gravitates toward a particular piece. He responds more thoughtfully to abstract art right now, and I suspect it is because there are fewer cues about what he’s supposed to think.
It is very important for your child to understand that the ideas and feelings they bring to a piece matter. That is why I start with broader questions with no right or wrong answer. However, art, especially historical art, often has its own special language you can help your child decode.
If you are looking at Buddhist art, it might be interesting to talk about mudras, the hand gestures often used by the religious figures depicted. If you teach your child a few, and teach them what they mean, it will lead to a deeper understanding of art. Mine also thinks it’s ridiculously fun to spot and identify them.
In Western art, saints are often depicted with certain things to indicate who they are. These things often tell a part of their stories. Teaching your child to recognize a few of them might help them engage with the pieces on a deeper level, and they might have fun spotting them in the gallery. Flowers and plants may also carry meaning. If a plant your child is familiar with from your garden at home carries meaning, that might be a fun place to start.
If you need to brush up on your art history a bit, museums often provide a little information about the pieces. I sometimes scan it and share interesting things with my little one, For older children, talking a bit about historical context might also bring depth to their experience.
- Pay attention.
Pay attention to your child’s signals. Are they really interested in something? Talk about it more and try to find similar things to look at. Are they bored? It might be time to move along. The best time to learn about the things the museum has to offer is when your child is happy, excited about the experience, and feels well.
If your child isn’t happy, it might be time to break up the experience a bit. We find outdoor spaces to walk in, have a snack, or play with interactive exhibits. A child simply does not have the same sort of attention span an adult has. Your museum visit should be fun and not feel like a chore, so it’s important not to drag a kid along when they’re not happily, actively engaged. I often find that changing our activities up a bit allows my child to stay actively engaged for longer periods of time.
One of the main things I hope to give my child is a joyful appreciation of the world around us, and art is a very important part of the human experience. I expect his appreciation for art and ability to find joy and comfort in it will grow with time. While it might be awhile until he can spend 5 hours at the Louvre and talk about art history with me, it is important for him to be able to tell me that a painting of sunflowers makes him happy because they’re yellow. That sort of experience is, perhaps, more important than a more complex, intellectual understanding of art.