Taking young children to the museum can be a trying experience. Short legs and short attention spans aren’t necessarily suited to how we traditionally think of museums—as massive somber spaces with wonderful things to see, but no running or playing allowed. But the Smithsonian’s Early Enrichment Center (SEEC) thinks that even infants as young as eight weeks can benefit from the experience.
With children that young, what you’re doing is visually showing them things they’ve never seen before. Their brains are still building brand new databases of shapes, colors, and patterns, and museums are a motherlode. Explaining the exhibit to the baby is also going to provide a whole dictionary of new vocabulary. They won’t understand it yet, but every word they hear is building a foundation for their future grasp of language.
As your child gets older, their interactions with museums will age up, too. They learn to ask questions about the things they’re seeing, and you should ask questions back, letting them exercise their skills of observation and interpretation.
For example, at an exhibit about a ship, you can ask your child what they know about boats. Where do they go? Have they ever been on one? What was that like? Are there other boats they see or remember? If the child is a little older, be prepared to explain flotation, or how sails work.
Pre-gaming like that can be important. You can choose exhibits that mesh with your child’s interests and bring supplementary materials to help them engage. Books are good, or toy versions of what they might see. Paper and colored pencils are a fantastic resource; young children can try to draw what they’re most interested in, and older children can be tasked with writing a little story using what they learn.
Knowing your child’s limits is the last important step. We all remember being dragged around something long past our interest in it. The SEEC estimates visit lengths of about 15 minutes for toddlers or infants, and 20-25 minutes for preschoolers. Any longer, and you should plan to break your museum trip up with lunch, going outside to run around, or visiting the gift shop’s toy section.
Photo: A small group of children accompanied by adults explore an ancient Egypt exhibit at the Bristol Museum. Credit: 1000 Words / Shutterstock.com