Museums as Playgrounds

Many museums nationwide make it a point to be interactive and engaging for their younger patrons.


There are two kinds of museums you can visit with your kids: those with “children’s” in the name and those without. Children’s museums are the fastest growing cultural institutions in the world, according to Janet Rice Elman, executive director of the Association of Children’s Museums in Washington, D.C.

But just because a museum isn’t designed specifically for children, don’t assume it isn’t kid-friendly. Most museums have education departments that develop special programs to help kids (and parents) enjoy their visits.

The best museums for children are highly interactive. Their mantra is “Please Touch.” Children’s museums, usually designed for kids from 18 months to 12 years of age, have a wide range of hands-on exhibits and activities under one roof to accommodate siblings of different ages. However, even “adult” museums have developed hands-on exhibits. The Art Institute of Chicago, one of the pioneers in developing kids’ programs, has a “Touch Gallery,” where kids can explore sculptures with their hands as well as their eyes. Originally developed for visually-impaired visitors, the Touch Gallery lets kids get a better sense of different materials, textures, and shapes than they could with their eyes alone.

Different strokes for different kids

Babies like bold, colorful exhibits. They enjoy recognizing shapes and animals and like to climb on small-scale models of things they see around their neighborhoods, like fire trucks, cars, and buses.

Toddlers and preschoolers love to play make-believe. They like to emulate their parents by pretending to shop for groceries and cook meals. Dressing up in costumes and uniforms is also fun for them. Victoria J. Youcha of Zero to Three, an organization devoted to infant and toddler development, says that natural history museums, with their dinosaur bones, stuffed animals, and insects can be appropriate for children as young as two. When visiting art museums, Youcha advises parents to “choose exhibits a child can relate to—bright Calder mobiles, fanciful tea sets, or photo-realist cars.” Until your child can read, read the artwork descriptions to them, elaborating more about pieces that pique their interest. 

In elementary school, kids are becoming increasingly independent and it’s a good time to let them lead the way through the galleries. Visits can be longer as their attention spans expand; and because kids are developing their reasoning and logic skills, you should ask them open-ended questions about what’s going on in the work of art. These could include “Why is he screaming?” “Why is she smiling?” or “Why is there a urinal in the middle of the room?” Sculpture gardens are easy to visit because kids can run around without fear of reprimand.

Kids also enjoy exhibits that “gross out” their parents. “Grossology,” a popular traveling exhibit based on a book by Sylvia Branzei, focuses on the “slimy, mushy, oozy, crusty, stinky gross (yet scientific) things that happen in the human body.” Actually, parents like the exhibit too, because they can see how much their kids enjoy it (and it teaches science in an easy-to-grasp way). (

Programs for adolescents

Pre-teens are generally torn between spending time with family and friends. To ensure a positive museum-visiting experience, have them bring a friend along with the family. Teenagers, on the other hand, usually prefer to socialize with only their friends, and museums have developed programs where teens can hang out together. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis developed their program for teens by consulting with a panel of teens. Since many teenagers are thinking about their future careers, Walker’s teen programs focus on bringing them together with professional artists. This works extremely well because, as the museum’s former director Kathy Halbreich put it, "Artists and teens have an immediate connection because they are both actively engaged in asking questions about life and culture and in overturning the status quo." One of Walker’s recent workshops had artist Asia Ward teach teens to deconstruct and reassemble secondhand toys into their own hybrid kinetic sculptures. (

Computers have revolutionized museum-going experiences in ways that are especially engaging to preteens and teenagers. At the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center in Mobile, there’s a virtual reality theater that offers state-of-the-art shows on a screen the size of an 18-wheeler. The Exploreum also has a simulation that lets kids use a computer to design their own virtual roller coaster and then (virtually) ride it. Live exhibits, especially those that feature slightly scary animals like snakes, lizards and alligators, are also popular with kids, according to Ilka Porter, the Exploreum’s Education Coordinator. (

Destinations: Mobile, Minneapolis, Chicago

Themes: Family Travel

Activities: Museums

User Comments

Great article I personally could not parent my three year-old without the Museum of Science in Boston.

© 2019     Terms of use and Privacy policy