25

Would visiting an art museum, history museum, etc. which is not specifically geared toward children (i.e. not a "children's museum") be good for a toddler?

I'm assuming that the toddler is under control (not in danger of hurting him/herself or the museum exhibits/art/artifacts), and the length of time spent is in line with the attention span of the toddler, and the toddler is well fed, has had a nap, and generally in a decent mood.

This is a spin-off or follow-up question to my other question: While on vacation, how can I balance toddler's needs with parents wants/needs? where someone provided an answer that said

Museum of ancient history, art gallery, even simple sightseeing will most likely be boring for her

  • 2
    Now that would depend somewhat on the age of the child - probably not too much, but children sometimes find the most unusual things exciting... – Stephie May 7 '15 at 12:46
  • Good question. Museum contents aside, I think some of this may also depend on your child's comfort with busy places and crowds. All the people there may have an effect on your child, based on their personality, that helps or hinders their engagement. – user11394 May 7 '15 at 19:17
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    "within the attention span of a toddler" - you're going to see the entire museum in about 41 seconds I suppose? – corsiKa May 7 '15 at 20:14
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    Depends on the museum; Dinosaurs! Mummies! Things that move! Costumes! Shipwrecks! Snakes! Kids don't care for paintings, actually, save that for when they are bigger. – RedSonja May 8 '15 at 6:14
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    Probably not for the content, but like reading a newborn a book, it exposes them to the idea "these are important things we do." – McCann May 8 '15 at 17:47
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I started looking into research relating to the value that toddlers might get from a museum visit, and I'm almost overwhelmed by the number of quotes and discussions I found (much of it from the museum's perspective).

  • The Importance of Taking Children to Museums from the National Endowment for the Arts Art Works Blog (the post includes links to a great deal of other research and discussion)

    There’s no shortage of research indicating the benefits of museum visits for children. They can provide memorable, immersive learning experiences, provoke imagination, introduce unknown worlds and subject matter, and offer unique environments for quality time with family...

  • The Toledo Museum of Art has "baby tours" to encourage families with young children to visit. And they tell you why:

    ... an art museum is a rich source of visual stimulation for babies. Introducing infants to works of art promotes early neuron connections in the brain. And for the verbal toddler, interacting with an adult in naming images and describing different characteristics in a work of art lays the groundwork for visual, cognitive, and language development.

  • Looking At Art With Toddlers, a paper on the Smithsonian Institute website, has a number of arguments in favor of children going to an art museum and cites a lot of research.

    Long before children can speak, their responses to shapes, sounds, and other necessary phenomena around them establish their personal personalities and their styles of interacting with the world... Aesthetic experiences can enhance cultural sensitivity, promote language development, and improve the quality of young children's own art making. For aesthetic development to occur, children need experience with beautiful environments within the school and home, exposure to fine art and opportunities to discuss art and beauty with thoughtful adults.

  • Also from the Smithsonian Institute, Early Learning in Museums: A Review of Literature is a literature review with a more academic approach. However:

    This review indicates that: 1) museums, with their real artifacts, dioramas, and immersive exhibitions provide a uniquely positive environment to foster learning by young children; 2) young children are interested in artifacts and exhibitions in traditional museums and can learn disciplinary-specific information, such as history or biology, long before they encounter those disciplines in formal school settings; 3) young children approach artifacts and exhibits idiosyncratically based on their individual motives and interests; they learn by encountering real artifacts which they talk about with others, and about which they sometimes express their reactions in various verbal and artistic ways; 4) appropriate adult encouragement can enhance children’s learning and exploratory behaviors in museums


So we can pretty safely conclude that taking the toddler to the museum is beneficial. I think that the key is understanding the difference between a child's "great" museum experience and a more traditional adult museum experience. So I also have a few general tips on adapting expectations for a museum visit.

  • A stroller or other carrier is pretty critical. Not only does this keep the toddler strapped down (eliminating any chance of an eager rush towards a priceless artwork), but with my kids, the stroller "signalled" that it was time to sit still and take in the scenery. Whether it was a walk through the park, a hike in the woods, or taking a tour of a historic house, they were pretty content to look at the scenery and enjoy the experience.

    Some museums don't allow strollers, but we had a backpack carrier as well that I never heard an objection to.

  • Be willing to walk quickly. Not only does this let you fit in more museum time before boredom really takes hold, but it brings the new visual experiences more quickly. Many adults are capable of gazing at a beautiful artwork for minutes. A toddler prefers to look at it, be interested briefly, and then find something new to look at.

  • Depending on the museum (some prefer a very quiet, contemplative atmosphere), chat with your child about what you see that would be interesting from their perspective. A Sunday on La Grande Jatte may be a wonderful example of pointillism, but a toddler wants to know about the doggies and the monkey. (I didn't even know there was a monkey until my toddler pointed it out.)

  • Look into whether a museum has a child-oriented area in addition to the primary exhibits. Even art and history museums may have a room where kids can create their own art (supplied with paper, crayons, and various craft supplies) or get to handle replicas of artifacts. It's a useful break where they can be childish in between calmer walks through the galleries.

  • Great sources! Your bullet point on chatting with the child would have been my entire answer. – user11394 May 7 '15 at 18:42
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    To provide balance, is there anyone out there saying what downsides there are? I mean, of course the museums are going to say it's great. Now, I've taken my girls (2 and 4) to museums multiple times, and they've loved it. And I can't necessarily see any downsides. But then again, sometimes science informs us of things that contradict "common sense" so it would be interesting to see if anyone has downsides to taking toddlers to museums. And I mean downsides as in detrimental to the child, not "it's stressful on the parent" or "they get bored". – corsiKa May 7 '15 at 20:18
  • @corsiKa, I'm not sure what form a downside that doesn't amount to "they get bored" would even take... wandering around a museum is not a significantly different experience than taking a walk in the woods, or a city. Just different things to look at and hear. – Jason May 8 '15 at 15:54
  • @Jason that's my entire point. We don't have the capacity to monitor such things ourselves. That's why we have scientists who conduct these studies for us. I doubt there are studies into the negative effects of museums mostly because I doubt there are many that would fund a study - but it's worth asking if there are downsides. Just because we can't think of any doesn't mean they aren't there. – corsiKa May 8 '15 at 16:07
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    @corsiKa I'm also not sure what could possibly be negative effects, especially when compared to mundane activities such as taking my child shopping or to run errands. Scientists wouldn't just observe downsides, they'd have to first come up with one, and test to see if the museum visit does indeed cause that downside. But, if no one can posit any downsides then there won't be a study testing for it. – user11394 May 8 '15 at 16:20
12

Yes, visiting an art gallery or history museum is great for toddlers.

We live in London and are blessed with a huge number of world class free museums and I would say that taking a toddler to a museum is an amazing experience for both parents and toddler. You will be surprised by how rewarding it is for all of you.

We have been taking our daughter to museums since she was 1. At that age she wasn't able to walk for more than a few seconds before having to resort to crawling, but that didn't stop her from being able to wander around while we looked over the exhibit.

Now she is 19 months and absolutely loves museums. She'll wander around and although she doesn't speak much, she will hold her arms up if she wants to be lifted because the exhibit is too high for her to see. We always try to get to the museum for opening so it's at its quietest, so she has the space to herself and is less likely to be tripped over and follow her as she walks from room to room. Even at her age, for the last few months she will wander up to an exhibit and point at it and babble away about it in toddler language, and then wander on to the next thing that interests her. She will do this for literally hours and often we, the parents, get hungry and bored of the museum before she does. Of course sometimes she's more interested in a sign on the wall or a random mark on the floor than the real exhibit but most the time she 'gets' what it is she is supposed to be looking at.

In my experience, what you don't want is exhibitions designed for children. With these they aren't designed for young toddlers and there are often far too many 'bigger' children running around and it can become unpleasant for the toddler.

But in relation to your question about how to balance what you do for you and what you do for the toddler... when on holiday, after spending a long time in the push chair and maybe a long time sitting down at lunch, we will visit a museum specifically as an activity that is for our toddler.

So, to all these people who are saying that museums are boring for toddlers, just try it once and you will see that that is really not the case. Just remember to let your toddler dictate which rooms and exhibits she gets to look at rather than you taking the lead.

  • This is a great answer. Our kids (6 & 3) have loved museums for years, in large part because museums offer a place for them to lead the way in exploring. In fact we hit our wonderful array of local museums (in Belfast, Northern Ireland) on rotation, at least once a month. – ctokelly May 7 '15 at 19:21
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    Thanks for a good answer :) Please don't turn the Q&A into a conversation (i.e. referring to Darius) as it isn't one: other answers will not appear in the same order; they may be edited or deleted, and a host of other reasons that will make a statement like that even more unnecessary. Stack Exchange is trying to build a library of useful answers to questions, not of public debates in any form. This sounds more formal than it needs to be; that's mostly for brevity. Thanks again for the answer :) – Robert Grant May 8 '15 at 9:46
5

In contrast to most of the other answers, I don't come with statistics or scientific basis for my response, simply a personal anecdote from last weekend.

If the museum is reasonably child friendly, and it aligns with things that hold the child's interests in a way that's accessible to them, it can be great.

As an example, here in town there's the National Nuclear Museum. Of course my 2 and 3 year old couldn't care less about nuclear science, and I'm not going to explain to them the political/moral/historical ramifications of thermonuclear weaponry. However, they have a large enclosed outer lot with number of decommissioned missiles, rockets, ICMB components, aircraft, and even the sail of a decommissioned nuclear attack submarine (quite out of place in the New Mexico Desert).

So they didn't learn anything about the history or context of America's nuclear weapons program, but they got to gawk at a bunch of airplanes and "space ships!". Most of the exhibits I took them through are outdoors, and the museum wasn't busy, so they caused minimal disruption and were easy to handle.

So I think it's about choosing the setting. It'll still be a while before I try to introduce my boys to a more traditional museum, but this was a great time and good practice for keeping them sane in public :).

5

Especially with art museums, you can easily construct games that will make things more interesting. For example, keep a running tally of the appearances of Baby Jesus and Baby John the Baptist--counting is fun, and babies are fun. And then when your kid is old they'll realize you sneakily taught them how to recognize the art historical customs for representing Jesus and John the Baptist. Scavenger hunt-style games are good in general, and easily modified for different museums and different ages--can you find three things from another country? Ten stripy things? How many airplanes can you find with wings on the top and bottom?

When I was little we had board books from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, one for colors and one for counting. They were more fun to look at than other similar books, and then when I saw Renoir's Girl with a Watering Can later, I thought, "OH MY GOSH! It's One: One Watering Can from that book!"

5

I'm intrigued by Erica's challenge to list reasons why museums can be a bad idea for kids. We'll need to assume the average museum here, not a children's museum, a science museum (bring 'em on!), or a museum with programs for kids.

  1. Kids kind of need to be in strollers or arms, unless you want dirty looks. In strollers, from their vantage point, they must almost always look up, which tires their necks. They will see a lot of people's derrieres. Not very exciting. In a back carrier (our method), Your back and neck will get tired.

  2. Subjects of historical paintings can be gruesome. Mommy, why are so many arrows are stuck into that man? Why is that man holding a man's head on a plate? Is that lady going to eat it?

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  1. Kids say the darndest things. And loudly, too. Mommy, does that lady have a penis or a vagina? Mommy, that lady's sabas are bigger/smaller than yours. Why is that clock melting? What is that swan doing to that lady? Why is that man killing a dragon!!!?

  2. Most young children can only take two hours or less in a museum. Then they lose it and it’s not pretty. If looks could kill, you'd be dead a few times over before you reach the door.

  3. While kids get in free, adults don't usually. That's a decent bit of change for only an hour of gazing.

  4. Kids get hungry. Museum cafeterias don't have good food, and what they have is pricey.

  5. Kids learn by playing and exploring. It's hard to do that in a museum. There was an incident at the Tate Modern where parents let their child climb onto a $10 million Donald Judd sculpture and use it as a bunk bed. That can be embarrassing as well as potentially costly. (Granted it does look like the appropriate way to explore that particular sculpture.)

  6. Museums ask that you keep an eye on your children at all times. That makes it hard to look at anything else. It's also hard on your back and your neck.

  7. Children are quite likely to learn that adults don't like them. Parents are quite likely to get a lot of rigidly polite parenting advice. From people who look like they can't possibly have raised children without nannies and boarding schools.

  8. The museum store is heaven to the tired child and hell for the parents who are chasing the kids and pulling expensive stuff out of their hands.

There, I did my best.

We took our kids to museums all the time. They've been to museums in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Seattle, Vancouver, London, and Dublin among many other cities. Most of it they can't remember. But I remember all of it!

4

We visit quite a few museums with our kids. You might be surprised at the experience. Some museums are very clearly geared toward adults, but the vast majority make a great deal of effort to appeal to all ages. They are designed as places for active learning rather than shrines for silent pondering.

Even if the kids don't learn anything directly, they still learn:

  • The topic is interesting and important to you.
  • Learning is a lifelong pursuit than even adults enjoy.
  • Why I find the topic interesting.
  • To have a deeper, more physical connection to a subject.
  • To spark further interest in the topic.

A few weeks ago the topic of President Andrew Jackson came up, I don't remember how. I asked my son what he knew about him, which wasn't much, and he seemed very apathetic about it. Then I reminded him that he was the man whose house (now a museum) we visited a few months back. My son's eyes lit up, and he enthusiastically described Andrew Jackson's garden.

I don't know what was so interesting about the garden in my son's eyes, but it turned Andrew Jackson from a dull entry in a history book into a real flesh and blood person worth knowing about. That small spark we lit that day made it worthwhile, even if he didn't learn anything "academic."

1

One of the most important devolopment of a toddler is his/her visual imagery.

Even before they could speak, they could watch.

Museums having displays of various kinds are surely going to tickle their minds, arouse curiosity.

There is no harm in this at all. The more stuff they see, more things they understand in the longer run. Getting their minds run when they see something new is good and will help them in their development.

So go ahead with the Toddler's Trip to The Museum.

0

In general in museums you:

  • have to be silent
  • can't run (at least it's frowned upon)
  • can't touch anything
  • mustn't destroy anything!
  • spend a lot of time (hours or even a day or two - like in Louvre)

Which of these things seem to be compatible with toddlers? :)

I once visited toys museum with my (then) girlfriend. I guess our toddler would have some fun there, she loves different dolls and teddys.

A museum with paintings - I guess could be ok, depending on the child and the paintings.

History, sculptures, war, technology - I find it unlikely that a toddler would enjoy it at all.

However, there are some "museums" which offer a lot of fun (and education) specifically for children, perhaps even for toddlers. We've got one here in Warsaw, take a look at Copernicus Science centre. There's a lot of interaction, a lot of installations you can discover with multiple senses.

So if you find such "museum" in the town you're headed to, your toddler will be happy you brought her along:)

  • Museums require you to be silent like in a library? – user11394 May 7 '15 at 18:43
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    Why would a modern art museum be inappropriate for toddlers? A lot of modern art has bright colours, fun patterns, textures and so on that a young child would recognize from their own art (he said, trying to be insulting to neither modern art nor small children!). I don't see why that would be less toddler-friendly than paintings of flowers and people and landscapes. – David Richerby May 7 '15 at 19:40
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    @DavidRicherby On second thought, you may be right about modern art museums. Toddlers actually may enjoy it! Thanks for pointing it out. – Dariusz May 8 '15 at 17:30
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At some magical time between toddler hood and being a young child, they will be ready. Take them a bit early to get in the habit of going to the museum so that when they cross the threshold, they'll be ready. But don't take them too early because it is a waste of their time.

Be wary of doing activities with prestige-- symphonies, reading prestige literature nominally aimed at kids, art museums-- if it is over their head, it is time wasted. A toddler only has so many waking hours, spend them on something he gets some developmental benefit from.

My toddler at the museum finds the elevators, ventilation grates to be most fascinating, so I get lots of cues that the experience is over his head, worse, he doesn't enjoy the crowds and I don't see any reason to hang out in crowds just to get used to hanging out in a mob of tourists.

  • 1
    There's actually a great deal of research that indicates toddlers do get developmental benefit from going to a museum, and spending time with their parents talking about what they see. It's true that if there are enough other negatives (crowd anxiety, e.g.) the benefits may not be worth it, but it shouldn't be outright declared a "waste of their time." – Acire May 8 '15 at 18:33

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