by Emily Sullivan, Director of Youth & Family Programs, Milwaukee Art Museum
The days of shushing kids in museums are long gone. Now, museums large and small, which once earned reputations for strict enforcement of “no talking,” “no touching” and “no fun” rules for kids, actively court families and kids with free days, family memberships, activities, tours and programs, all designed to celebrate and discover art and the creative spirit. Now, kids and families can learn about artists and art together (and with it, architecture, geography, history, and more) and even make their own art.
The remarkable Milwaukee Art Museum, a spectacular architectural landmark on the shores of Lake Michigan, has cultivated a strong commitment to kids and families, and offers a rich variety of programs and resources for kids, families, students and teachers. Let’s bust some museum myths!
3 Myths about Kids and Museums
#1: “My child is too young to visit an art museum.”
I hear this a lot. Parents and caregivers are worried their kids will be too noisy, too wiggly, or too bored at an art museum. Actually, museums are places of great wonder for the wee ones, toddlers and young children to explore.
Tips for a successful museum visit:
Begin with short visits, and visit often. Museums house all kinds of fascinating objects to look at and talk about, and the spaces themselves can be special places to explore—test out sunlight patterns and acoustics!
If you’re new to visiting museums with a young child, a developmentally appropriate program can be a great entry point and may help boost your comfort level. What’s happening for kids at the museums in your town?
The Milwaukee Art Museum showcases a wide variety of activities for children, including some designed especially for kids five and under. Children love to play with new materials, so inside the Kohl’s Art Generation Studio, kids of all ages ( grown-ups, too) get creative with hands-on art projects inspired by the artwork in the Museum’s Collection. On Saturdays, we host Story Time in the Galleries: we read a picture book in front of a work of art, encourage the young ones to make connections between the story and the artwork, and then make their own drawings.
Don’t want to organize a bag of tricks in advance of your visit? ? Never fear! Check out our story books and sketching supplies, along with activity bags that contain everything from puppets to giant, stretchy tubes of fabric to play in, available at the ArtPack Station for use in the galleries.
Reach out to your local museum to see what’s offered for young visitors. In addition to classes and activities for kids, many also allow you to bring your own pencils and sketchbooks. Stopping at a bench to make sketches is a great way to engage your child during your museum visit. I’ve found that most caregivers are surprised at how much time their young children will spend—happily—drawing in the galleries.
#2: “No touching allowed.”
Well, yes and no. While we need to stay a safe distance from artworks, there are ways to make the experience less stressful for both grown-ups and kids:
Keep hands busy! Hold hands with your child; invite your child to bring a “friend” (stuffed animal or doll) to carry; or explore the galleries with some DIY binoculars made from cardboard tubes. Try modeling “penguin arms,” with arms at your sides, while stopping to look more closely at an artwork.
Also, share the “why we can’t touch” message with your kids—artworks in the Museum are for everyone and oils from our fingers or an accidental bump can hurt them, so we give them extra space.
While we welcome families to explore any gallery they like, look for ones that allow kids more freedom. When leading a group of young children and their caregivers on a Stroller Tour, sometimes I’ll select galleries with artworks set back on risers or protected under a vitrine, so we can focus on the art without worrying about the temptation to touch. Also, video installations tend to be in open spaces that allow kids to move around more freely.
Ask about touchable artworks—they do exist! At the Milwaukee Art Museum, a favorite is the sculpture 144 Pieces of Zinc by Carl Andre. Square metal tiles are laid side by side to create a giant flat artwork. Visitors are allowed to touch it, and they’re invited to walk over it (even while pushing a stroller!). Anything touchable can be a great conversation starter. With this artwork, I tell kids to touch the tiles with their fingers and ask them, “Is the metal warm or cool, hard or soft?” “What shape is this sculpture?” “How many squares can you find?” Then I’ll invite them to walk in a circle over it, listening for soft clinks as the tiles shift under their feet.
#3: “I don’t know how to talk about art with my child.”
Don’t worry! You don’t need to be an art expert to explore art with your child, and you probably know more than you think you do.
Start by discussing things you and your child are familiar with. For example, you can look for colors, compare sizes, or hunt for a favorite animal. At the Milwaukee Art Museum, we’ve incorporated Vroom’s Brain-Building Basics into our programming for young children, adapting the Vroom’s five brain-building steps into looking at art with children:
Look: watch for your child’s response to artwork. What makes their eyes light up? Do they point at a painting or make a sound?
Follow: let your child lead the way—if they show interest in an artwork, stop and spend some time in front of it.
Chat: talk about what you see, and wonder aloud.
Take Turns: go back and forth with your child responding to the artwork. You can take turns naming things you find in an artwork, acting out facial expressions, or making sounds.
Stretch: ask questions that grow from your child’s responses to the artwork. For instance, “What else can you find? How do you think the artist made this? If we could touch this, how do you think it would feel?”
As a resource for caregivers, we’ve also developed a set of “Museum Moments” activity cards for kids up to age five, inspired by Vroom. These activity cards provide prompts for looking at art in the galleries, plus the “brainy science” behind the activity.
Don’t let myths stand in the way of you enjoying an art museum with your child. A visit to the Museum can be a joyous way to spend time together and bond, and it’s never too early to discover and nurture your love of art!