Children Should Be Seen and Heard: Kids 0-6 yr in museums By Ruth Shirley

To some families the idea of taking their young child to a museum is something akin to a nightmare. The constant struggle to keep their hands off the artifacts, fighting to keep them still, and heaven forbid they make a loud noise. All eyes would be on you. Judging you and your child that cannot behave in a museum. This doesn’t have to be the way museums are viewed by families with young children.


The idea of collecting fine art, historical artifacts and oddities dates back to medieval royalty hoarding their treasures and only allowing friends and valued guests to view it. Museums have come a long way since then! Traveling shows and circus brought the oddities to the public with great fanfare and a lot of incorrect information. With the rise of research based institutions, like the Smithsonian, in the mid-19th Century, objects where framed with informative context and only experienced through panes of glass cases. The face of museums changed in 1899 with the opening of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. Its success with the young crowd can be seem in the explosion of children museums and youth programing within established museums. By 1990, 125 children museums had opened, providing age appropriate programing for K-12 children. The Smithsonian has also made some exhibition and program changes with the addition of four children focused exhibitions between 2012-2015 across the Natural History Museum, American History Museum and the Museum of the American Indian (Q?rious, Spark!Lab, Wonderplace, Imaginations).

Why Museums?

Museums can be beneficial to everyone, as young as they come to as old as they get. In the free-choice learning structure of museums, infants, toddlers and preschoolers are in their element. All children of this age are expert observers. By providing programing that had foundations in Visual Thinking Strategies, kids can use their great observing skills to build on what they already know.  Non-verbal infants can indicate what they are interested in through lingering eye contact with objects and excited movements. Through talking and describing what they see, you are helping build their vocabulary and ability to understand the new world around them.

The older kids get the more they can engage back with you. Toddlers may simply tell you what they see, then what they like or dislike. Through easy questions you can help them place the relevance of the object in their lives, for instance, have they seen anything like it before?

The Preschooler may be able to adventure into more abstract thinking. Drawing together information they learned from somewhere else to connect with the issue. Prompting them to build their own story for the object or art can help use bother their imagination and observation skills to piece together an understanding unique to them. How does the story they made compare to the facts the museum provided.

Through the exhibits that museums provide, the development and learning done at a museum are truly child focused. They will learn at the pace they need, about the topics they want. When families are looking for somewhere in the museum to go, ask the kids what they are interested in. You may get black stares if you’re a stranger to them. So offer a range of topics, usually something catches their attention or the caregivers know. Directing families to areas with concentrations of interactive is always a good idea. Simple hands on activities like lifting flaps of turning on lights can become lessons in cause and effect all while developing fine motor skills. Even if the kids aren’t reading the information under the flaps or participating in the quiz game structure, they are building fun memories in the museum.

It is important that kids learn from an early age that the museum is not only a safe welcoming place to be, but it is a learning resource available to them.  As museum professionals we can help by creating programing that is engaging, fun and hands on. Museums need the programs that will make families with children 0-6 years see the museum as a space for them. As parents and caregivers of children in this age range, don’t shy away from museums. Empower these young minds to take learning into their own hands and work with the creative gifts they already have.

You never know what you may also learn along the way!

Quick Tips

Go at their pace. If your kid is zipping through an exhibit move with them, if they spend 20 minutes absorbed in one activity, stay. If they were really looking forward to a certain exhibit and time is running out, remind them of that option and let them chose how to prioritize it. They have to learn how to do that in life anyway!

Use their power of imagination and observation. Given the opportunity kids will always blow you away. Teaching them to participate in looking at the art work or understanding an artifact means finding personal meaning in it.

Humor helps everyone. Who doesn’t love a good laugh? Kids are more likely to remember a museum experience if you take a deep breath and relax a little. Humor should be applied responsibly and respectfully of course!

Everyone can benefit from interactives.   The interactives may have been in place for kids but they help people of all ages engage with the information and exhibition. By also engaging with touchable (as a museum official or parent) you can model appropriate way that kids also touch and experience new knowledge.

Sources and Further Reading


Happy Museum-ing!

9 thoughts on “Children Should Be Seen and Heard: Kids 0-6 yr in museums By Ruth Shirley

  1. julianavenegas

    I really like this topic – it sounds very Montessori! In particular, though, I like how you touch on the idea of modeling for the kids. You mention having adults model how to use interactives; likewise, you mention, sort of, modeling life long learning through your plea to show children that museums are safe places and learning resources. I think those are two big things that museum educators are struggling with for adults as well, and it would be beneficial for all museums and museum staff to start children productively and comfortably engaging with museums at such a young age. If museums want adults and teens to come into museums willingly and behave “properly”, then they need to remember that they are setting a precedent from a young age. You give great tips on how to help museums conquer this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. tenebristic

      I really enjoy the point at the end that says everyone can benefit from interactives. It really gives older siblings and other adults a chance to participate and guide the younger members. The flow of your post is very informative and seems helpful to individuals approaching this for the first time. It’s straightforward format is great.


  2. zhuoweiliu

    Thanks for your presentation, provided some new ideas to introduce this kids. I know some children museums have some programs service for the young child. However I was confusing how a comprehensive museum try to service for them. And now, I got it. In children early education, environment is an important part for development of children’s cognition. Museum can be, and must be the major supporter to it. I am so happy to see your words “museums can be beneficial to everyone, as young as they come to as old as they get”. I also admit it is a long-term adjustment process that museums to seek a balance give consideration to young child and the public visitors.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. ninasgraham

    I really enjoyed reading your perspective on why children and museums have such a valuable correlation. I also appreciated that you touched base on museums historically and what they represented, in high contrast to todays museums. Lastly I valued your emphasis on how museums if nothing else for children, are a great way to develop fun memories.


    1. caitlinefblake

      I also really enjoyed your piece (and presentation) on why children are an important museum audience and what museums can do. I really appreciated you tying in why these activities are important for museum guests beyond children– everyone can learn and benefit!


  4. kellyrweiss

    Thanks for this post Ruth! As a former elementary school teacher, I think you know that this topic is very close to my heart as well. I think that your article also relates to the one that I posted about K-12 schools because all of the methods you discuss in your post can be applied to strengthen the experiences for children on school visits to museums. Thank you for your additional resources as well. I have bookmarked them for future use.


  5. erinmkohler

    Ruth, having you cover this topic makes so much sense, thank you! Your experience in Wonderplace makes you a local cohort expert on this age group. As you know, I have experience with the 5 to 6 year olds, but less with those younger than the preschool age. A lot of the aspects of 5 to 6 year old engagement in museums can relate to younger audience members as well though. My favorite thing to remember about this age group is something that you meantioned, they ARE expert observers, I often just consider them to be sponges. Given the opportunity and element of choice, young children can astound you with their knowledge and thoughts!


  6. alw888

    Your presentation and blog are informative as well as thought provoking. As a small child my parents took me to museums, and I sometimes wondered why everyone in museums were so old. It is wonderful to know that museums are developing more programming for families and children. Working with the SEEC kids allowed me to realize how inquisitive pre-K kids can be given the opportunities. I wonder if much research has considered the 0-6 age group in relation to the benefits of visiting museums? Also there seems to be certain timeframes that work well, otherwise kids get cranky (and wild)?


  7. museumpeople

    Thanks so much for this post! I especially liked the tips section at the end. Even the most adultish exhibition could engage children if they have the right facilitator/ facilitated experience. Family and friends can be those facilitators with a little guidance.



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