6 Tips for Visiting Museums with Young Children

We happen to live in an area with many wonderful museums nearby, and we’ve been visiting them ever since the girls were toddlers. Every time I would post about our visits on Instagram, I would receive comments like, “Wow, my kids would never behave that well at a museum,” or “My toddler’s just not ready for that.” Friends, I think it’s the opposite. YOU (the parent) are not ready for that. So let’s get you ready. Here are my 6 tips for visiting museums with young children (yes, even toddlers!):

Do your research before you go.

When you’re planning on visiting somewhere new with young children, don’t just wing it! Study it before you even set the time and date. Some things to look out for:

  • What is the least busy time to visit? If it’s not listed on the website, you can always call to ask. In my experience, as soon as the museum opens in the middle of the week is usually the least busy time. Plan to go then.
  • What exhibits are there that your child might find interesting? When you know what’s going to be there ahead of time, you can help prepare your child for the visit by talking about those topics. For example, if you’re going to a natural history museum and they have a lot of fossils there, read some books about dinosaurs before you go. If you’re going to an art museum, read some books about art — there are tons of books about famous paintings that are written especially for young children!
  • What is the area surrounding the museum like? Is there a coffee shop nearby if you need to take a break? Is there a grassy area or playground within walking distance that you can use to get some excess energy out before, during, or after your museum visit?
  • What are the rules of the museum? Some museums allow visitors to touch the exhibits (such as children’s museums or “Please Touch” museums), while others have strict rules about not touching (such as art museums and some parts of natural history museums). Are you allowed to carry a backpack or small bag through the museum with you?

Set expectations before you get there.

You’ve done YOUR research, but your child is still clueless about how she’s expected to behave at the museum until you talk about it together. The rules you come up with will vary based on exactly what type of museum it is. For example, at a science center or museum where touching the exhibits is encouraged and expected, you probably wouldn’t have a rule about keeping your hands to yourself. At an art museum, where touching is not allowed and could damage the artwork, you definitely WOULD have a rule about keeping your hands to yourself and watching where you are walking. While you are making the rules, explain the reasoning behind them: “We need to keep our hands right by the sides of our bodies so we don’t accidentally touch the paintings, because that could damage them.” Writing the rules down and bringing the list with you can help as well, as you can simply pull it out and read it together when your child needs a reminder. If your child can write them herself, that’s even better! Here is an example of a list of rules my daughter wrote when we were planning a trip to the Natural History Museum:

Her rules were simple: Quiet voices, walking feet, and stay by mom. (I usually add that last part because museums can get crowded at times and I want to make sure I don’t lose my children.)

One of the things I see parents being very worried about at museums (especially art museums) is the noise level of their children. When we visit art museums, my daughter still writes “Quiet voices” on her list — but we are usually the quietest people there. The last time we went, she mentioned, “Mom, those grown-ups are being WAY louder than we are,” and she was right. We think of art museums as being silent, sacred spaces — but I have encountered MANY loud adults at art museums, so I think we should lighten up a bit when it comes to our children’s noise levels.

Pack snacks.

Even if you don’t usually have a meal or snack during that time period when you’re at home, prepare for anything. Pack healthy snacks to pull out when your child is getting hangry or just needs to recenter. BUT MAKE SURE YOU KNOW WHERE YOU CAN EAT THE SNACK WITHIN THE MUSEUM. When you are paying for admission, ask where you are allowed to eat. If you want your children to follow the museum rules, you need to follow them as well.

Start small.

I’m talking: one room of the art museum, small. If you are planning on taking your young toddler to an art museum for the very first time, don’t expect to be able to wander through the whole thing. Take it one room at a time, and be prepared to leave after just a few rooms if it’s just not working. You can take a break — get a snack, run around in that grassy area you located before you planned your trip — and then go back in. Try another room. And then maybe that is it for your child’s first trip to the art museum.

Bring activities to keep them engaged.

If you’re in a no-touching museum, you may want to bring something that your child can engage with during the trip. Our favorite thing to bring to art museums is a sketchbook and some colored pencils. There are usually benches set up in each room, so your child can sit and copy one of the pieces of art in her sketchbook or draw something completely new as she is inspired. At the natural history museum, my daughter (age 5) likes to bring her “research notebook” where she writes down facts she learns from the exhibits. For younger children, it’s pretty easy to put together a quick scavenger hunt from the museum’s website. Just take a few of the pictures of exhibits from the website, put them on a piece of paper, and let your child check them off when she finds them.

[If you are visiting the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, I already made some scavenger hunts and you are welcome to use them.]

Don’t interrupt your child’s productive exploration.

One of my pet peeves when we are out in public spaces is how often adults interrupt children’s concentration for “teachable moments.” Yes, you are older and wiser and you know a whole lot about this topic and that one — whatever your child is actively exploring at the moment. But now is not the time to impart that knowledge. Your child is BUSY. She doesn’t need to be lectured on the history of impressionist art or quizzed about color names. She needs to take it all in. If she asks you a question, or seems like she is truly interested in hearing what you have to say about the subject, that might be the time to begin a discussion. But for the most part, it’s more helpful to stay silent and to bring it up again later. For example, when you get home you can look through pictures from your visit together. “Here’s that painting you spent a lot of time looking at. What do you think of it?” Listen first. Then maybe share your thoughts.

[I wrote a lot about this topic in this other blog post a couple of years ago after a visit to our local Children’s Museum.]

That’s it! You’re ready to successfully take your young children to a museum! The first time you go, I would suggest having one adult per child. Once your children are used to the museum rules, you’ll be able to do it all by yourself!

I have two young children and I am able to take them to every kind of museum you could imagine all by myself. Yes, every once in a while there are meltdowns. I have had to carry one child kicking and screaming out of a museum while hoping the other one is following closely behind me — more than once. But that only represents about 5% of our museum trips. Honestly, that happens more often for us at the grocery store!