Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Nine fun things to do with children in an art museum or gallery

On Saturday, I was in London where I saw a family posing in front of Tate Modern for a photo.  "I hate museums!" yelled one of the children.  "Museums are boring!" yelled another.

Have you ever tried to drag reluctant kids into an art gallery?  Here are some fun ideas, most of which I've tried myself when the children were young.  (Now they go to galleries voluntarily so something must have worked...  *g*)

The following ideas will work in most places.  So whether you live in Cambridge or in another town, try  one and let me know!

Nine things to do with children in an art gallery or art museum

1. Alarm the kids
Galleries can be difficult.  While some are child-friendly, others don't allow push chairs or strollers, and many have nervous security guards.  Few allow running or touching of the art. 

Turn this into an asset.  Explain how a gallery is full of precious treasures and how these are guarded by guards and wired up to an alarm system.  If visitors come too close, the alarm will go off.  

Tip:  This works well with very young children who find the idea of the 'alarm' quite exciting.  

2. Always take paper and pencils 
Best to bring a pad of paper and some pencils.  Avoid felt pens and crayons; these can get too messy in a gallery.  Go to one room.  Ask the children to choose their favourite art in the room and draw a picture inspired by it.

Tip:  Don't worry about 'copying' the picture.  Encourage everyone to draw what they like.  Join in.  Then talk about the picture and what it was like to draw it.

Source:  Stock.XCHNG

3. Scavenger hunt:  Spot the detail
Prepare this one in advance.  Give the children a sheet of paper with details from 10-15 paintings in the gallery.  Ask them to go and find the paintings.

Tip:  If your local gallery has at least some of their collection on-line, this is easy.  You print out the images, cut them up and paste them onto paper.  If not, you can be more inventive:  for example, buy some postcards in advance and cut them up.  

Variation for a group of kids:  Distribute pads and pencils.  Send each child alone (or in pairs) to a different section or room of the museum and get them to draw details from paintings of their choice.  Then they exchange pads and try to find the paintings whose details they see.

Details from Rebecca O'Hanlon's photo; Helene Fesenmaier, A Bit of Cheese, a Devilled Egg and a Picnic (seen at Trinity Hall, Dec.2012); David Poole, Rodney Thomas, Architect and Artist, in the People's Portraits collection, Girton College

4. Treasure hunt
This is a variation of the detail scavenger hunt but without the preparation bit.  Go to the gallery. Ask the kids to find a picture with:

an animal, an insect, a flower, a dead flower, a man with a beard, a cloud, a bare foot, a candle, a book, the colour blue, a picture that's not rectangular, a dragon, a princess, a baby, a square, something made of wood, a naked person.

(Most galleries will have at least one of the above.)

5. Outdoor sculptures
These are fabulous because in most cases you are allowed to touch outdoor sculptures,  often climb on them, and certainly photograph each other with them.

6. The 'Boring Challenge'
The kids are bored?  Go with that.  Pick a really boring work of art.  Force yourselves to stand in front of it and find one interesting thing about it.

7. Ask questions 
I would avoid telling children facts about a work of art or a style or a movement.  Instead, ask questions and respond to their questions by speculating.  What's your favourite in this room? How many colours can you see? Can you spot anything really weird about this painting?

The great thing is you don't have to feel pressured to know anything about art when you're with children.  Just share your thoughts. 

8. Go to the shop
Everyone gets to buy a postcard of their choice. What can you do with the postcard when you get home?  Send it to someone (surface mail! a radical idea...)  Pin it on the wall.  Draw on it. Cut it up into a jigsaw puzzle.  Make an advent calendar out of it.  Buy several and make a collage.

Tip:  The Fitzwilliam Museum sells ready-made mini-jigsaw postcards of the Chinese vases that were smashed into smithereens a few years ago.  Clever.  And an inspiration for the junior jigsaw-maker.

9.  Make time for the café
Most museums have a café.  Often these cafés are overpriced but they're well worth it for the atmosphere and for the chance to debrief and talk about what everyone liked or hated.

By the way, I've always found it best not to plan a whole day, or even half a day.  Speed is of the essence.  See 4 paintings in depth rather than 50 paintings.  This is why free galleries are so great: no pressure to 'get your money's worth'.  

This post is for all the wonderful women who have (alongside me) been taking part in Melissa's online blogging course over the past week and many of whom have young children.  You've been an inspiration!

Content Brew Course

In Cambridge, your children may like:

Dinosaur sculptures (updated 2014:  These are no longer here, alas!)

Read more:
'Mother of all Trips' has some great ideas here:  How to take kids to an art museum.
Sandra's great day out with art and her grandson in Los Angeles (fabulous pictures: I especially like the amazing Metropolis II sculpture). 


  1. LOVE "The Boring Challenge." Great post!

    1. I've done the boring challenge to myself a number of times. Am now plotting a post about 'How I bored myself in the gallery on the purpose, and why boredom is good for you'. :-) Psst: I find certain still-lifes with lots of snails and wilting leaves rather dull but have forced myself to stand in front of them for 15 minutes and get something out of it. Funny: I still remember those paintings years later!

  2. Nice! :) I've NEVER thought about taking a pad of paper and a pencil with us! That's something we'll have to do next time and I think it'd be more interactive as the kids can draw as they're inspired instead of waiting until we're home. :)


    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. I'm so happy I could give you a good (and really easy-to-implement!) tip. Let me know once you've been! :-)

  3. Excellent post! We have only taken Miss Nearly Three when the national gallery here has their annual children's art focus. It is truly wonderful with lots of hands on activities to keep the children interested. I might have to get brave and take her to see a standard exhibition and see how she goes.

    1. Thank you for your generous comment! It's great when museums and galleries run their own activities but don't let a day of non-activity stop you from going! :-) All best with your next visit.

  4. Cool post, and some interesting ideas. Especially the boring picture, and the scavenger hunts based on each other's drawings -- must try that one!

    1. You commented! What a sweetie you are, and I am totally honoured. Today I told my students 'Being bored by a film is good for you'. It's the theme of the week!

  5. Competition to find the ugliest baby in the Italian Renaissance collection has worked well in the Fitz also spotting the bugs in the boring Dutch flower paintings :-)

    1. Ugly baby competition is brilliant! I love it. Am now keen to find the candidate myself. :p read your comment about the bugs just after I'd returned from 20 minutes self-enforced boredom in front of those very still lifes! Post about being bored by art is coming up: watch this space. ;) Any more tips? These are fab.

    2. There are some particularly horrible babies-possible because of faded paint meaning they look sickly green and positively geriatric faces (Di Bartolomeo is my favorite). Spot the naughtiest dog in the background of a picture (Canaletto is brilliant for this). Particularly gruesome deaths and torture equipment especially of saints again in the Italian renaissance collection, and how many skulls can you find with bonus points awarded for finding the one in Georg Flegel's flower painting. Also find the drunks in the Dutch pastoral scenes :-)

    3. This is brilliant! I am absolutely going to look out for all of these next time I'm in the museum. Can't wait to see what rhe Canaletto dog is up to...

  6. Visits with kids is about expectation management. If you are always sold something as "exciting" then you will be disappointed when you find it to be otherwise. Similarly if there is a prejudgement that this is "boring" then it will be a self fulfilling prophesy. A visit to an art gallery/museum should be for explorers and with luck, there will be great hot chocolate afterwards.

    For children restless for independence try "synchronise watches" then they have 20 minutes to explore and report back ready to guide the entire party to something they have found that they think is interesting. Give them a map and say which gallery they will find you in and they are learning other skills too. Explain about alarms first!

    1. Oh, I love the synchronised watches idea. Plus giving them a map develops their orienteering skills at the same time!!

  7. Great suggestions! We just visited the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, and the kids (11 and 14) were bored after 30 minutes or so. But a visit to the outdoor sculpture garden was fun for them; I took a photo of my daughter posing next to each sculpture - she tried to copy each one's pose. Whatever works, right? Visiting back from Sharefest - have a great weekend!

    1. Hey, thanks so much for responding and telling me what you did! The story of your daughter posing next to each sculpture is so great. "Whatever works" -- too true. Have a lovely rest of the weekend!


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