please touch! (visiting museums with young children, part 1)

This is the first post in a series on visiting museums with children birth through 5 years - stay tuned for Washington, DC museum recommendations next week!

Image: the front of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Image: the front of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

I'm lucky to live and work in Washington DC, surrounded by world-class museums with free admission.  My academic background is in history and archaeology, so I love introducing my nanny kids to the wonderful world of museums from a very young age.  People are often surprised that my toddlers go to museums almost weekly, can behave themselves, and enjoy the outing, but they're favorite spots for both the kids and I, and they'll ask me if we can go to visit the airplanes (Air & Space), Henry the elephant (Natural History), or Marie the ballerina (Degas' Little Dancer at the National Gallery).

1) Have a plan going in.

Start small - plan to visit for about an hour maximum, and don't try to squeeze in things the adults want to see in the same visit.  The more positive experiences children have in museums, the more stamina they'll have for longer visits later on.  Make sure your child is fed, diapered, well-rested and comfortable, keeping in mind most museums don't allow food so cheerio bribery is off the table!

2) Check online for children's programming.

There's a big trend in museum education to welcome visitors of all ages and abilities, so chances are your museum will have events and spaces meant just for kids.  At the various Smithsonians here in DC, there are storytimes, toddler playspaces, art workshops, scavenger hunts, and interactive exhibits appropriate for the under 5 set.

Image: A toddler in front of a display of colorful rocks and minerals

Image: A toddler in front of a display of colorful rocks and minerals

3) Museum manners.

Set expectations with your children before you set foot in a museum.  My kids learn "museum manners," a concept I borrowed from a training with the director of the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center.  Before we walk in a museum I remind the kids of our museum manners with a familiar call and response chant, touching each part of our body as we go:

Our feet are....


Our voices are...


And our hands are...

On our belly!

4) Follow the child.

Sometimes, we're at a museum for a specific event, or I have a plan for what we're going to see based on the child's interests, or books we've been reading.  But other times, I'll just steer us into a relatively child-friendly exhibit and let the kids explore what appeals to them.  Once I spent 40 minutes sitting on the floor in front of a model sailboat with a 2 year old, talking with her about what makes boats move.  Other times they're most interested in the escalators!  Take off the pressure of learning something specific or seeing the most important things, and your kids will lead the way.

Image: A toddler touching a rock with a "please touch" sign

Image: A toddler touching a rock with a "please touch" sign

5. Expand the experience.

Not all museums or all exhibits are perfectly suited to young kids, who learn best through free exploration with all their senses.  Feel free to bring along props children can touch, books related to what they might see, or even art supplies (always check to make sure they're allowed in the museum, and don't bring anything noisy or disruptive, of course).  I especially like doing this in art galleries that are less likely to be interactive than other types of museums.  A great way to create an emergent curriculum is to recognize the area of interest for the child, check out books on the topic from the library, pack up some related toys, and head to a museum with an exhibit on the subject.  For instance, most toddlers go through a phase of being train obsessed - we might note this, read some books about trains together (Freight Train, The Little Engine That Could, Thomas, etc), pack up a few Brio train engines, take the Metro, and go to the transportation exhibit at American History to look at the different types of trains on display. 

With a little planning, museum outings can be fun and educational for adults and kids alike!

Do you bring your kids to museums?  What do they like to see there?