I love museums. Growing up in a rural area, we didn’t have easy access to places with towering walls lined with big paintings, dioramas of great moments in history or skeletal displays of the age of dinosaurs. Books were my primary window to the world. I will never forget the first time I saw a painting by my favorite artist, Claude Monet, and a reconstructed giant mastodon that once roamed not far from where I lived. And magically, all those pages came to life!

As a teacher, one of my greatest pleasures was to take students to museums. Didn’t matter what age; 5th graders or college students – they were all wonderful experiences I will not soon forget.

A few summers ago I accompanied a group of high school juniors on an out-of-state college tour. One can only traipse through so many carefully staged dorm rooms and dining halls, so along with a day of community service, we made time to visit some nearby cultural institutions.

On one afternoon in the Denver Art Museum, I learned more about my mentees than I had over our previous year together! Their casually-offered insights and reflections gave me a new understanding of their interests, passions and world views, and words can’t fully express the satisfaction of hearing, “Hey, we talked about this in my class.” Experiencing the sheer beauty and creative force all around us through their eyes made me fall in love all over again.

Obviously, I’m a HUGE advocate for visiting our cultural treasures with young people, and encourage you to make time this summer to explore the museums near to you or, if you are lucky enough to be on a get-away, at your destination. Many are free and all are looking forward to welcoming you.

A great day at the museum does involve a little planning, and here are my tips for making your day in the museum one of the best.

 With young children:

Manage Energy

Let your little guys burn off some excess energy before taking on the more quiet space of a museum. Many museums have beautiful lawn areas and even nearby playgrounds and a little time stretching, running and playing might make for better focus.

Clear Expectations

The irony of parents screaming at their children to be quiet never fails to get me. All children want to behave appropriately; I truly believe that. Before you go, talk about how people enjoy museums. “What does a museum voice sound like?” for example.

Doing is better than just looking

Behavior has a lot to do with an appropriately engaged mind. Hop on the museum’s website and construct a fun scavenger hunt for your child to complete. Give them a notebook to keep track of the number of paintings they see, the numbers of big, medium or little canvases or the names of the artists. Think of it like the license plate game for the museum!

Break and Snack

A large museum can wear out a fit adult. To avoid whining and stress, build in time to rest and pack a few snacks and drinks to enjoy in “food allowed” areas.

Point of View

Give your kid a camera or let them take shots with your cellphone. (Personally, I’m a fan of the camera – too many distractions on a phone.) Digital cameras are becoming quite inexpensive, and what fun to create a digital scrapbook of the day.

When In Rome

I love seeing young children on a bench in front of a vibrant canvas, coloring and drawing away. Pack a sketch book and some colored pencils. Or, many of the great masterworks are available in coloring book form. Why not take advantage of such an inspiring environment and let your child be an artist among artists?

Don’t Try to Have It All

Pick a few exhibits to start with and see how the energy and attention hold up.

Read Ahead

There are some great picture books about artists and art. Try some pre-visit reading to generate some excitement and background knowledge to make the visit more meaningful. Likewise, if the museum is specific i.e. focused on dinosaurs or transportation for example, try some read-alouds featuring those topics as well.

     With teens:

    No Lectures!

    This is not the opportunity to show off your Art History 100 creds. Give your teen the freedom to take away what is relevant to him/her, not what you think they should know. Sure, if I get an opening I’ll take it, “Hard to believe this was painted 500 years ago” or “I love the yellow shades….” But nobody wants to be chattered at so if the conversation doesn’t pick up, its okay – let it go.

     

    Art is personal

    Let it be that. Teenagers have a whole lot of things on their minds that we don’t relate to. Don’t hover or direct – let them wander and find the pieces or exhibits that speak to their unique perspective.

     

    You still can’t have it all 

    As with younger children, it’s important to not make a marathon out of the day by insisting on seeing every single canvas or display. Pick a few things that are likely to be interesting and work your way from there.

     

    Peace, cell phone

    Smart phones are a permanent part of the teen lifestyle. What’s that saying, “if you can’t beat it….? ” Put that phone to use!

    I encourage my mentees to actively snap photos with their phones and share them with friends.

    Many museums now have interactive elements that incorporate smart phones into the museum experience. Check out the museum’s website to see if this will be available for your visit.

    Check out Instagram. Does the museum have an account that showcases their collections?  Teens easily relate to content on this platform and it’s a good way to get them interested in what they can see on a visit.

    And, the million $ question: Is it okay to wear ear-buds in a museum? I’m mixed on this one.  Definitely not when on a guided or formal tour, or to the point of total isolation. Personally, I’m not bothered by them enjoying some music while taking in the scene as long the volume doesn’t disturb others. The key is to discuss it BEFORE you get to the museum.

     

    Ditto on Snacks

    A hungry teen is often a surly one. Encourage them to pack some favorites to nosh on, and remind them to find appropriate spots where eating is allowed.

     

    Friends

    Consider bringing along a friend. Peers are very important at this age and it might make the outing more fun for them, and for you. Sometimes, getting off the couch and trying something new is easier with a compatriot along. Think of all the smiling selfies!

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