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).
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!
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