Tips for Visiting Museums with Kids

This page has my advice for visiting any museum with kids. Five key tips that will help every visit go more smoothly, for you and for the kids. For tips specific to each museum, visit the museum page from the menu at the top.

Go Slow and Have Fun

From my perspective, there are two main goals for why I go to a museum with kids: to have fun and to learn. Both of those happen best when adults let kids go at their own pace or even slow them down. I can't say that I love sitting at the Chicago Children's Museum fire truck for an hour while the kids connect pretend fire hoses, drive the truck, and go up and down the stairs, over and over and over again. But kids learn a tremendous amount through repetition and they're having a lot of fun at the same time. If I try to force them to another room, they're probably going to have less fun and learn less due to the lack of repetition. To quote Mr. Rogers, "Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood"

Having fun typically means me letting go of a lot of control. What to do when I'm at the zoo with a beautiful rhino running around it's enclosure, but my child is turned the other way around, fascinated by a goose? I try to ask myself: is she having fun? Is she learning? Typically the answer to both is yes, so I'm the one who shold turn around, not her. Let's start talking about the goose, watch what it's doing, and figure out why it's doing that. It doesn't matter that we could have seen geese at home: she's having fun and she's learning, so my goals are being met. If I try to get her to watch the rhino, she's probably going to end up unhappy and unwilling to talk about the rhino's behavior, so if I force that, I'm not going to meet either goal.

Similarly, what if we're at a new museum, but we've only seen a couple of rooms, and I'd really like to explore the rest of the museum? Well, we've probably haven't seen much because the kids are loving what we have seen. Maybe I'll poke my head around on the way out (or, if I'm with another parent, sneak away for a couple of minutes to look around), but mostly I'll stay put, because the kids are having fun and learning while they do it.

These aren't hard and fast rules. My kids love to play with the interactive displays at Shedd, and I hate them. I just want them to watch the animals themselves instead of the screens. I compromise by setting time limits, after which they need to leave the displays alone. Once they began to read, they also needed to read aloud to us what they were learning during their time with the displays. It's not perfect, they sometimes end up grumpy about it, but I don't want them to spend all day looking at screens. And there are still a variety of reasons I do hurry kids along sometimes, from wanting to make a timed event like a dolphin show, to needing to negotiate between the desires of multiple kids. If the kids will be disappointed to miss the dolphin show, then I'll try to get them there on time. Or if I have multiple kids, I want to make sure each child gets to choose an exhibit and we spend a similar amount of time at each--but I'll check with the child whose exhibit we're about to go to, to make sure they would still like to go to that one and not keep playing where we are. (And once kids were old enough to each choose an exhibit, I got to choose one, too, so I could make sure there was variety in what we saw, or just so I could go to the exhibit I was most excited to see.

Pack Well

The last point was philisophical; this one is totally practical. Nothing cuts a fun trip short like realizing you're missing something you really need. My worst ever was realizing I didn't have a bottle at a museum 45 minutes from home, but I've hobbled through a wide variety of problems, from running out of wipes to forgetting the diaper bag entirely (that time I decided to risk it and stay for a while--I got really lucky considering that the baby blew out her diaper 30 minutes after we got home). And you'd think I'd remember something important once I forgot it once, but I can't tell you how often I've forgotten a sippy cup, resulting in a very stressful lunch, and usually ending up with a soaking wet toddler after I try to make do with a regular cup.

A few suggestions for babies and toddlers:

And some more suggestions that apply to a variety of ages:

Go to lunch early

A hungry and unhappy kid being forced to wait in line is a sure way to regret having gone to a museum. Instead, go to lunch early, whether you're buying lunch or you've brought it yourself. I always get to lunch by 11:30, meaning I'm probably wrapping up an exhibit by 11:00 at the latest so I don't have to rush the kids to the bathrooms and then to the cafeteria to make it there in time. It also means I usually give smaller than usual morning snacks, and trying to start them earlier than usual, so kids are hungry for lunch by 11:30.

At 11:30, I can usually get through food lines pretty quickly, pay and grab a table before the rest of the museum shows up. By noon, museums are often running short on food and tables, making the long lines even longer. Even if you've brought lunch to the museum, available tables often go quickly so I recommend still planning to eat by 11:30.

Come Back

If you live in the Chicago area and you have the money to do so, plan to come back. Having that plan, even if it won't be for another year, helps you slow down and fight back against the urge to rush through and see everything the museum has to offer. And just like letting a kid play repetitively at one exhibit is great for their learning, coming back again will give them more time to observe, experiment, and just play.

If you have the money, buy a membership or two. A membership makes it easy to go when you or the kids want to, so the trip is almost free. Plus it motivates you to make sure you go in order to get your money's worth out of the membership. Most memberships can pay for themselves if you go just 2-3 times per year.

For a first membership, the perfect museum is large with lots to come back and explore, and either includes free parking, or you can get there on public transit. That way, it's basically free when you think about going, and there will be something new to explore for many, many trips. (If you live near Brookfield, the Brookfield Zoo is pretty perfect on both of those categories.)