10 Tips for Visiting Museums with a Toddler

Baby with a Pollock
Baby with a Pollock

Before having kids, my husband and I often spent our weekends visiting museums and art galleries together. But once our daughter was born, we wondered if we would ever visit a museum again! While we knew that we wanted our children to be exposed to all the knowledge and experiences that museums can offer, it just seemed too daunting to make a trip with a toddler and all her paraphenelia in tow. We wondered if she would get bored, throw a tantrum, or end up hating museums after being dragged through too many of them. However, we took the plunge and by the time our daughter was 2 we had visited museums from Washington D.C. to Honolulu. Today she is a 4 1/2 year old who loves visiting our local Fine Arts Center and gets excited about a trip to the Natural History Museum nearby. Here are some of the things we’ve learned in the past few years about introducing kids to museums while actually enjoying the experience!

1. Timing is everything.
Try to pick a time when your child is most likely to be alert and happy. Right after a nap and before mealtime is a good idea. Of course, if your child can nap anywhere (like our daughter could, those were the days!), it might be a good idea to go right before nap time. That way, they can have a little bit of time to look around the museum before going to sleep in their stroller, giving you some time to linger at the exhibits that interest you. I know, however, that this a long shot for most children; our 10 month old would never go to sleep in a bustling museum atmosphere.

2. A little research goes a long way.
A quick look at the museum website can yield a lot of useful information. It can give you information about the amenities available (some museums have stroller rental, family bathrooms, etc.), possible discounts on tickets, and just give a general idea of whether or not the exhibits will hold your child’s interest.

3. Bring (non-messy) refreshments.
I, like many parents, have found that a favorite snack offered at a strategic moment can go a long way toward preventing a tantrum. It can be difficult, and expensive, to procure toddler-appropriate food at some museums, so bringing your own is advisable.

4. Find out about kids programs or activities.
We have been pleasantly surprised by the number of kid activities offered by many museums these days. Our local arts center has a tactile sculpture gallery that our kids love and many museums have kid “stations” sprinkled throughout the museum to supplement the exhibits. Some museums also offer special family-oriented days with even more kid-related content, so it’s always a good idea to call or look on the website before planning your visit.

5. Bring a stroller.
In some situations, strollers can be cumbersome and more trouble than they’re worth. A museum is not one of these. A stroller is essential for resting weary toddler limbs, restraining your child around exhibits where they might be tempted to touch, and even napping (see tip #1). The more compact the stroller, the better and some museums even have strollers to lend or rent.

6. Involve your child as much as possible.
It can be tempting to charge through a museum quickly, trying to see as much as possible before your child tires out, but it’s important to slow down a bit and let your toddler soak things in. Although I do recommend bringing along a stroller, I don’t mean that you should leave a child in it during the entire visit. It’s nice to get down on their level (or lift them up to yours), so that they can interact with the exhibits along with you.

7. Make it a treat.
Try to include something your child loves in the visit such as a trip to an ice cream shop or park, after seeing the museum. This way they associate museums with fun instead of seeing them as drudgery.

8. Don’t plan on seeing everything.
This may seem obvious, but try to keep in mind that visiting a museum with a toddler will not be the same leisurely experience as a museum visit sans child. Be careful to notice when your child seems to be tiring or has seen enough so that you can leave before a meltdown occurs. This may mean that you only see half the museum, but the point is really to slowly get your child used to museums at their own pace. If your child seems to tire of museums very quickly, it might be a good idea to get a membership to a local museum. That way you won’t feel like you wasted the admission price every time you have to leave after only 30 minutes.

9. Avoid the gift shop.
Unless you are prepared to support every museum by buying overpriced toys, skip the gift shop when young children are with you. As with any smart retailer, museum shops invariably place pricey, child-related merchandise right at their eye level. This is great for selling stuff, but bad for preventing tantrums.

10. Follow up.
After visiting a museum, I like to check out a few related kids books from the library. This allows my daughter to connect what she saw with the broader world by giving her some context. A short discussion about what you saw or looking through and talking about pictures of your visit are also great ways to help your child get the most out of a museum visit.

Here are some wonderful follow up books:

After the Art Museum – The Art Book for Children , Katie Meets the Impressionists, Mini Masters Board Books

After the Natural History Museum – Dinosaurs Life Size, National Geographic Dinopedia, The Usborne First Book of Nature

After the History Museum – Digging Up History, A Street Through Time, Growing Up in Ancient Egypt