Making Museums Fun

To me, it was a landmark moment at a national landmark. I gazed up at Independence Hall, my youngest son in a backpack, and my two slightly older sons behind me. “Just look at it,” I started, then waxed eloquent about history, ending with: “Kids all across the country read about this place, and we’re here! Isn’t that amazing?” Hearing no response, I turned to find the boys gleefully chasing pigeons in the park square. So much for living history.

As we begin to think about vacation, many of us will trot our kids dutifully to museums and historical places. We’ve determined they’re going to get some culture if they like it or not. Let me equip you with some strategies to making museums fun your kids:

1. Lower your expectations. Don’t tackle the whole Smithsonian in one day. Make the goal manageable. And aim for an experience, not cramming heads full of information. If a child whispers, “Awesome!” over some exhibit, he’s likely to keep digging into that topic after the visit is over.

2. Think like a kid. What makes something interesting to a child? Discovery. A mystery to solve. Something cool to touch. Some facts that she can compare to her own world. Science museums do a great job of giving children hands-on experiences. In other museums, you may need to work a little harder to engage your child. Try calling ahead and asking a staff person for a list of objects your child can look for, as in a treasure hunt.

3. Let your child have some control. So there you are, walking into an impressive room filled with exhibits. What do you look at first? Let your child decide. It’s instructive to see what appeals to him. Give him the map and let him set the agenda

4. Find passionate guides. One of the very best museum guides our family met worked at Edison’s Laboratory in East Orange, NJ. He lived and breathed Thomas Edison. His enthusiasm was contagious. After the tour ended, we mentioned to him what a wonderful job he had done. Pleased, he told us more, and even signed our programs in Edison’s signature! Guides love an engaged, interested visitor.

What do my boys remember of that day at Independence Hall? Not much. But they think family outings to museums can be fun. I suppose even the pigeons played a part in that.

Bruce Van Patter

all material ©2005 Bruce Van Patter