By Denise Yearian
Museums and science centers are a way to explore art, history and science in an educationally engaging environment. To make the most of these visits with children, consider these 10 tips:
- Plan ahead. Get on the museum’s website to familiarize yourself with the exhibits and collections. Also find out about family programs. This will help you know what they have to offer and how long you will need for your visit. Confirm hours of operation, admission and parking; ask about parking validation too.
- Initiate interest. To get your child excited, talk with him about what he wants to see. Consider his interests, as well as subject recently learned in school. Point out specific pictures of things you might see on the website. Some sites have online scavenger hunts, printable kids’ pages or specific information about the exhibits that are geared for children and get them ready for the experience.
- Consider age-appropriateness. If there isn’t specific information on the website, call and ask what kinds of sensory experiences they have for children. Do they have a touch-it area, a discovery room or other child-oriented activities?
- Set expectations. Before leaving home, talk with your child about museum manners and why it is important use indoor voices, walk rather than run, and not touch objects unless otherwise instructed. Make it easy for your child to obey by visiting when he is rested and well fed.
- Share the experience. Consider the venue and the day’s objective. If you are visiting a children’s museum where all the exhibits are hands on, it may be more enjoyable with friends. If, however, this is your first visit to a particular museum consider making it a special family time to explore the collections. On subsequent visits invite friends to come along and encourage your child to take the lead in explaining some of what he previously learned.
- Prioritize and diversify. Consider your child’s attention span and plan an itinerary based on the exhibits he wants to see. To keep boredom at bay, add variety to the day. Plan shows, demonstrations and movies toward the middle or end of your visit to give your family a break from walking and something to look forward to. Be flexible and keep the experience positive. If your child is becoming restless, get your hands stamped and go back after lunch, a snack or nap. Or consider a return visit.
- Foster awareness. Some museums and science centers have family guides to promote critical thinking of different objects or child-friendly audio accompaniments that give age-appropriate background exhibit information. If a museum doesn’t have guided material, stimulate curiosity by asking open-ended questions: “What is happening in this picture?” “What was your favorite object in this room? Why?” Also ask cause-and-effect questions: “What do you think will happen if…?”
- Bring it down to his level. Exhibit labels are written to a sixth-grade level so if your child is younger, read and interpret them for him. Help him make connections between what he sees and everyday life. This will give him something tangible to hang his knowledge on. If, for example, your child plays at a stream table with movable plastic gates that change the direction of the water, talk about how it is played out in a natural setting. Look at the exhibits from his perspective; recognize and validate his unique comments and observations. Follow up with simple activities: do comparisons, count items or look for colors.
- Extend the experience. Continue to communicate after you leave. Call a relative and let your child share what he saw then follow up with activities. Have him color a picture of his favorite object or take home an item from the gift shop to reinforce what he learned. Talk about it on the way home—“What did you like most?” “What was something new you learned?”—and start dialoguing from there. If there’s a related science experiment, try to recreate that or check out related books from the library.
- Membership matters. Museum and science center memberships may be helpful if the venue is too large to see in one day or you want to return sometime within the year. The benefits to memberships are families can return as often as they like and receive free or reduced admission to special events, programs and classes. Members may also obtain regularly mailed educational material. Some museums even have reciprocal memberships with other venues across the nation and worldwide. So if you plan to travel, you may be able to visit an affiliate for free.
Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children and four grandchildren.