When can I take my kid to a museum?

August 1

Dad and daughter check out an exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History Museum. (Courtesy of SEEC)

When is the right age to take our children to Washington’s museums? Should we wait until they are interested in dinosaurs? Studying American history in elementary school? Enrolled in art classes? Or do we simply wait until out of town guests arrive and then bring the kids along for a big museum marathon?

One of the best experts to answer these questions and provide guidance on young children and museums is Dr. Kimberlee L. Kiehl, executive director of the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center (SEEC). SEEC is the non-profit educational entity that provides preschool instruction as well as family workshops within the Smithsonian museums.

Local mom blogger and mother of three Jessica McFadden of A Parent in Silver Spring interviewed Dr. Kiehl about making museum visits with young kids rewarding and fun, and therefore more frequent, for families.

What is the right age to begin bringing children to museums?

People think that they should not start bringing their children to museums until elementary school, but that is so not true. We have had babies in our classes at SEEC as young as six months old, and you see these babies so intently looking at a piece of art. Babies see everything. There is so much for them to look at, and for you to talk about with them inside museums.

You can stand with your baby in front of a piece of art and look at the faces, the colors, what is in the scenery. You can look at a painting and say, “Look at her fingers, look, here are your fingers.”

A child is never too young.

What is the best way to show preschoolers an “adult” museum?

Ideally, a couple hours is the longest time most preschoolers and young children can take in a museum. They do not have the ability to wander around museums for a whole day. I think too often parents think, “Okay, here we are, we need to get as much ‘in’ as we can.” But children stop paying attention after a while. After two hours or so, they lose it, you lose it, it’s not pretty.

Instead, I recommend thinking about what your child is interested in. Look online for a museum exhibit that might get your child’s attention. Visit one space, or one floor of a museum. Maybe you choose one visit to explore and then depending on the child’s age and interest expand the trip to the entire second floor of the museum. You can spend your time looking carefully at things and asking questions.

If you were going to visit a museum for two hours, I recommend breaking this time into 15 minute sections. Spend maybe 15 minutes in one area, and then move to a different thing. Follow your child’s cues, though, and if something has their attention, spend extra time talking about it.

Is there a difference between taking children to view real world exhibits and fine art?

I don’t think it is different. It doesn’t matter if it is a painting or Henry the Elephant, there is no rule that says, “You don’t bring babies or toddlers to art museums.” Of course, it’s about knowing your child’s temperament. If your young child is really, really active then maybe a place like Natural History would be a better choice for him for a while.

But I am always amazed to see how really young children are so engaged in the museums. I walked into one of our visits with children at the National Gallery and a little boy said to me, “Ah, these are the Degas!” And I answered, “The what?” At age three, he already knew that this was a place that he loved, and when I asked him why he loved it he said, “Because they look like real people.” That is pretty amazing, but he has been going there since he was tiny.

If a family is not a part of your preschool, what are some offerings they can access?

Our preschool can only serve so many people, so we are trying to open the doors to help families use museums. We have workshops on Saturdays that start in the Fall and run throughout the school year. These workshops are about introducing your child to the museum. We have an experience in the museum and then we come back and have a set of activities in our classroom. These workshops help parents become more comfortable in the museum as well as give them something fun and educational to do with their child.

In the fall we are starting the Smithsonian Early Explorers program which is two mornings a week for children age 18 months through three years. Parents or caregivers will stay with their child and we will be taking you through a curriculum very much like we offer in our museum preschool. It not only gives the children a developmentally appropriate and fun learning experience but it gives the parent an experience with their child as well.

There are so many kid-centric things to do with young children in the area, why should a parent visit a museum with their kids?

In all honesty, this was not something I thought about when my own kids were young. I wish, in retrospect, that somebody had had this conversation with me. I was a researcher, I was an early childhood educator, I taught a class in parenting, but it never occurred to me that museums were a place I should take my young children. And now, I cannot say enough about it.

Children are just attracted to objects. They like the “real stuff.” Museums have so many opportunities to see that real stuff and they are so engaging for children. The kinds of conversations you can have in a museum space to teach your child can be rich and full of questions.

People think that if you go to a collecting museum with children it is hard for them because they cannot touch anything. So bring things with you! For example, if you are going to go to the Hall of Mammals, bring their bag of animal toys from home and match their animals with the exhibits.

And of course, it gets you all out of the house for a while.

I feel like I am a different parent when I am at the Smithsonian museums with my kids. I know I can be teaching them about the world when we are at the grocery store together, but I am focused on the errand at hand. And sometimes at specially designated children’s museums I am a little too focused on capturing that perfect photo.

I think you’re right. When you are in a museum with your child, you are “all there” and you are focused on the same thing in front of you. It makes for a richer experience.

When you go into museums designated as children’s museum and which are more hands-on, parents often kind of turn their kids loose and let them play. Of course, those museums do not encourage you to do that – they want you to be interacting with the exhibits together. However, parents sometimes use those spaces as places to breathe, or sometimes you see parents on their phones. It is easier to give kids permission to just have a good time without your complete participation in these hands-on spaces and that is okay.

What is different with traditional museums like American History, the Hirshhorn, Air and Space, at those places you come in and you tend to have an experience together. You have to pay attention together. You have this incredibly rich interaction. There is a different kind of interaction that can happen in places like the Smithsonian museums.

McFadden is a blogger living in Silver Spring with her husband and three children.

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