“How much longer do we have to be here?”

“This is soooo boring.”

“Can I just skip this and meet you at the gift shop?”

It’s not easy to get children to suffer through the museums, art galleries, and historical sights that grownups so often love to see, especially when visiting new cities. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. Museum visits, when done right, can often spark terrific family conversations and open up worlds to kids they didn’t even know they wanted to know about.

Of course, there are a few basic ground rules of gallery-and museum-visiting that every parent learns: visit museums with family activities; plan what you’re going to see and keep the visit short; make sure everyone’s well-fed and well-dressed; take breaks; carry water.

But that’s just the basics about how to survive. What about getting kids to actually enjoy the museum? What can you do to get them to notice and get interested the exhibits? Here are a few ideas I’ve learned after visiting countless museums while travelling Europe with my two children.

1.     Watch a related movie first

If you can, find a movie before your museum visit that explains something about you’re going to see. In Ireland, we visited the Titanic Experience museum in Cobh (formerly named Queenstown), which was the last port of call for the ship before its ill-fated voyage onto New York. So we had the kids watch 1997’s “Titanic” with us the night before.

We made the mistake of telling the kids they “had to” watch it so of course, they decided they hated it, that it was “boring,” (it’s anything but) with “too much smooching” (I’ll give them that.) But they watched and later admitted  -- with some prodding -- that they were glad they did because it helped them understand what it felt like to be on that ship and why its sinking was such a tragedy.

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” came up when we headed to the British Museum a little later, as we explained to them the controversies over the museum holding Parthenon sculptures, Egyptian artifacts, and other plundered pieces. If our kids were older and we were headed to a war museum, there are countless movies we could watch ahead of time too, such as Schindler’s List. Finding a movie that gives them a sense of “being there” can help kids make sense of the stuff they’ll see in the museum later.


2.     Have a scavenger hunt

We recently visited the British Museum, one of the largest and oldest museums in the world but also one of the dullest for kids. It’s a pretty serious museum without any of the interactive elements you find in science centres, for example. But what they do offer is children’sbackpacks and scavenger hunt worksheets. 

Our kids got a copy of the “Ancient Greece family trail” and moved through the galleries looking for markings on old Grecian urns, or certain scenes in the Parthenon Sculptures. The information desk clerk thought there might be a prize for finishing the hunt (there wasn’t), but it kept our kids busy for a while and gave the rest of us a chance to look at the other works more closely.


Ode on a Grecian Learning Experience.

A photo posted by Angela - Toronto (@amulho) on

A lot of the big museums now offer similar kids’ maps. Some even lend out activity backpacks. But it’s also possible to create a scavenger hunt of your own. Visit the museum website ahead of time and print off images of pieces they might like to see. Or head to the gift shop and buy some postcards. Then hand them the museum map and ask them to lead you to the works. You can offer a treat at the museum cafe or gift shop as a prize, but if you’re lucky, the hunt might be its own reward.

3.     Let the kids take the photos

It’s not always easy to hand over your camera but if you put the kids in charge of photos, you might be surprised what they come up with. What is the stuff that grabs their eye? What new perspectives do they see that you don’t? When we were at the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, my daughter took dozens of photos of the stained glass windows, grabbing shots I didn’t think to get with my camera’s phone, but ones I’m now glad are in our photo collection.

Of course, it’s important to make sure the kids follow the museum’s photography rules and don’t disturb others with their camera. And yes, kids have a tendency to take many more shots than you need. But if it keeps them interested in what they’re there to see and if they begin to see things with a photographer’s eye, your education work is done.


4.     Play ‘I spy’ with paintings

A great way to make art museum visiting fun, especially for younger kids, is to ask kids to go around the room or gallery and find the painting with the brightest colours. Or the lady with the prettiest eyes. Or the weirdest-looking baby (the Renaissance painters painted some very odd babies). Then, ask them to tell you a story about what they think is going on in the painting and see what they come up with.

Another variation on this would be to create a scavenger hunt asking kids to find and list all the paintings that contain a mustache, a musical instrument, the sun, stripes -- whatever objects you want to list. Or get the kids to play ‘20 Questions’ by having one child pick a piece of art in the room and have the others try to guess by asking yes/no questions. Or head to the modern art wing, and have kids try to guess the titles of some of the oddest works.

These games may not be the best way to learn about say, how the Rococo period was a reaction to the restrictions of the Baroque style. But it will actually get kids to really look at the paintings, while having a little bit of fun.


5.     Above all, have fun

Telling kids about how important it is to learn art and science history, or droning on about how the visual arts shape civilizations are sure ways to make a museum visit a drag.

Offer gentle guidance, but let kids explore the place on their own -- after setting ground rules on proper behaviour of course. They may be absorbing more than you realize. Or at the very least, they’re setting the groundwork for interest in these topics later. Make their early museum visits fun and they’ll want to return when they’re older and pick up their learning where they left off.