families Smithsonian Education

There is no magic formula for visiting museums. A spur-of-the-moment trip can be just as rewarding as a planned visit. But if you have the time, some things that you can do before, during, and after the visit may help to enrich the experience. Here are a few tips to help make your visit to any museum an enjoyable learning experience.

Before the Visit

Children may be more excited about the visit if they are involved in the planning. Ways to do this include:

  • Talking about what they will see in the museum, especially if it's the first visit. This conversation may include some basic information about museums and also how objects get there and why people collect objects in the first place.
  • Finding out what excites them. If your youngsters are interested in meteors or mummies and your local museum has exhibits on these subjects, you're ready to go! If not, just choose a place that sounds interesting such as a museum in a nearby city. Or look for a museum online.
  • Relating what's being learned in school to a museum visit. Children can use the visit to do research or to find out more about a subject they're currently studying.Your local museum may have exhibits that will help bring the subject to life.
  • Reviewing personal safety and behavior rules. Make a safety plan with your children in case you get separated, including the role of museum guards and other staff. Talk with your children about how to behave in the museum by explaining that museums have rules of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. For example, art and history museums generally have a no-touching policy because the items displayed are rare and can't be replaced, but children's museums are always hands-on.

Things You Can Do Before You Go

  • Call or write for admission fees, hours, travel directions, and best times for family visits. Ask what days of the week and what hours are the least crowded. Some museums have free admission, while others ask for a small donation. Some have certain days that are free or have discounts for families, senior citizens, students, and children.
  • Call or write for accommodations and services for visitors with special needs,including parking, entrances, and access to exhibit areas. Many museums recommend calling at least 2 weeks in advance for such services as sign language, oral, tactile, or cued-speech interpretation; captioning; or publications in braille or large print.
  • Check newspapers, your local library, or bookstores for special exhibitions, events, or programs that may appeal to children. Libraries and bookstores often have books and free pamphlets that provide listings and descriptions of family activities that include regional museums.
  • If you have access to the Internet, visit the website of the museum you plan to visit.

During the Visit

The Information Desk is a good "first stop" once you're at the museum. There you'll find floor plans with the location of exhibits, restaurants, restrooms, gift shops, elevators, wheelchair ramps, exits, as well as places to sit. Materials also are available in foreign languages. You might also ask about self-guided children's and family tour brochures, audio tours, gallery games and activity sheets, and family workshops and programs.

Find out the times and locations for hands-on rooms, kids' performances, musical events, storytelling sessions, or museum tours. Next–

  • Be flexible and follow your child's lead. Don't be surprised if your planned visit to see the dinosaur bones is put on hold because the huge elephant has caught your children's attention. Let them enjoy the exhibit at their own pace. Be ready to discuss any questions they may have. If you don't know the answers, jot down the questions in a notebook.

  • Try to relate facts about the exhibit that you're seeing to what your children already know. For example, a knight's suit of armor serves the same purpose as a catcher's mask, a bicycle helmet, or shin guards–to protect the body.

  • Ask your children to tell you a story about an object in the exhibit that interests them. "Who do you think wore that suit of armor?" "How did they make it fit?" Encourage them to use their imaginations. If labels or wall text provide more information, include it in your discussion.

  • Play Museum and Gallery Games. Children of all ages love to play games. Museum games or treasure hunts focus a museum visit and help to break up the time as you go from exhibit to exhibit. They stimulate your child's curiosity, sharpen observation skills, and generally make the visit more enjoyable. If the museum does not provide games, make up your own:

  • Postcard Games Buy some postcards at the museum gift shop. Then turn your children into detectives and ask them to find the pictured items. Not only will they enjoy the hunt, but they'll be thrilled to discover the real thing. Were the colors the same? the details? the textures? the size? Later at home, the cards can be arranged for a home exhibition.

  • I Spy. Have youngsters find an object in an exhibit and describe it to other family members so that each one can take a turn guessing what the object is: "I spy something red and brown with sharp edges" or "I spy something that inches its way along the ground."

  • Seek and Find. Ask your child to find paintings that have his or her favorite colors, shapes, or objects in them. This game is not only fun but teaches children to look very closely at each object. Games like this give children a sense of accomplishment when they successfully find or identify everything asked of them.

  • Where Is It? Ask your child to find something in the exhibit that is very .... soft .... hard .... strong .... shiny .... Or something that feels rough .... smooth .... hot.... slippery .... bumpy .... itchy .... Or something that smells yummy .... burnt .... sweet ....

  • Tell Me Why or How? Begin the game by saying something like, "If I could ask one question, I'd ask: Tell me the steps in building an Indian tepee?" The answers are usually within the exhibit. This game is fun in any kind of museum.

  • Visit the Museum Gift Shop. Families are sure to find books, posters, toys, games, postcards, and other mementos that remind children of what they saw and expand their knowledge.

  • Child-Size Your Visit. Don't try to see everything in one visit. Young children, especially preschoolers and those in early grades, usually learn best in 10- to 15-minute sessions and can be overwhelmed by seeing too many things at one time. Thirty minutes to 1 hour may be the limit. Should your children say things like "I'm bored," "it's so hot in here," or "when are we going home?"–you know that they've seen enough and it's time to take a break or leave. Plan another visit to see the exhibits you missed.

After the Visit
Look for opportunities to continue learning after the visit. To reinforce the learning experience, you might:

  • Use the museum's family guide with ideas for activities at home.

  • Relate what your children have seen to things they already know. For example, if your children enjoyed an exhibit on astronauts, then you might talk with them about the first man on the Moon or what we know about the possibility of life on other planets.

  • Suggest that your children start a collection of their favorite objects and build their own home museum. A good way to add to the collection is to look for yard sales or flea markets in your neighborhood. If you're lucky, your collectible treasures may be found for as little as 50 cents!

  • Check television and newspaper listings for shows about auctions or other collectibles. These programs often feature many different objects that are being auctioned, describing their history, value, and context.

  • Go online. Many museums maintain websites that feature information about their exhibits and interactive activities for children. See the resources section of http://www.ed.gov/pubs/Museum/resource.html for some sites to visit.

  • Encourage your children's creativity by suggesting they make a sculpture or mobile of something they saw in the museum from things found at home–newspapers, broken toys, building blocks, or clay. Display it in your home. If you visited a science museum, try some experiments at home with weights and measures, lights and shadows, or mixing acids and bases (soda and vinegar, lemon and milk). Check your library for books of activities and experiments.

  • Ask your children to talk to friends and relatives about the visit. What were their favorite things? What didn't they like? And why?

  • Check your notebook and examine your children's unanswered questions. Research the answers and talk them over with your children. See if some of the questions relate to their schoolwork.

  • Use community resources. Watch for special events, such as festivals and exhibits at your local library, high school, community center, or shopping center. People are resources too–collectors, painters, and backyard naturalists may live in your neighborhood, eager to share their knowledge with children.

Collecting at Home

Building collections gives children plenty of opportunities to practice and learn valuable skills that can be used every day. Most children already have lots of stuff that can make up a collection. It only takes a few dolls, comic books, baseball cards, buttons, stickers, seashells, or rocks to have the beginnings of a super collection that could become a lifetime hobby.

When putting together their collection, ask your children to sort, organize, arrange, and label the objects in their collection. They can organize and rearrange their treasures by size, shape, color, or texture. This will teach them to look at their collection in many ways.

Don't be surprised by how eager your children are to share all the details about the "hows" and "whys" of their collection. Encourage them to discuss the patterns and relationships among their various pieces. This is also the ideal time to applaud their efforts by encouraging them to keep adding to their collection.

A group of students examing a large insect

Make the most of you trip!

The Smithsonian offers many hands on activties for families.

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