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Art to Heart

Museum Activities for Young Children

The Art to Heart series includes numerous segments showing museum-based learning for young children, offering ideas that both teachers and parents can adapt to use with museums. In Program 1, parents and children play and learn together at the Speed Art Museum's Art Sparks gallery. Program 2 includes segments about activities combining books and art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institution's Early Childhood Enrichment Center. An interdisciplinary activity using objects from the Smithsonian in combination with storytelling is found in Program 5.

If you live near a metropolitan area, you probably have major museums nearby that offer education resources as well as special exhibits and activities aimed at families. And many smaller communities have art, history, and/or science museums; nature centers; or zoos with collections that will be of interest to young children. "Almost every museum has something valuable to offer teachers and children," says Sharon Shaffer, director of the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center, in her guidebook Preschoolers and Museums: An Educational Guide (see excerpt).

Whether you are planning a family trip or a field trip, be sure to call ahead or visit the museum in advance. Check the museum's web site for information and advice. Find out what types of exhibits the museum includes and about family or educational services to help plan your visit.

Plan a Family Visit

Find out in advance ...

  • Are there special exhibits and activity areas for young children?
  • Are special family tours, guidebooks, or activity packs available? Do you need to make reservations for these?
  • What are the admission fees? Can you avoid waiting in line by ordering or reserving tickets in advance?
  • Does the museum have any restrictions in terms of strollers, backpacks, etc.?
  • Are there certain days or times that are more conducive to visits with young children (for example, times when the museum is less crowded)?

The visit itself

  • Keep it short. Don't try to take in everything in one visit. Cyndi Young, an art teacher and mother in Louisville, has taken her preschool daughter to museums since she was an infant. "But our visit may only last 10 minutes," she notes.
  • Think about your child's interests and visit places and exhibits that relate.
  • Ask your child to talk about what he or she sees and is interested in.
  • Share your ideas about what you see with your child. Don't feel you have to be an expert-there's usually plenty of information on exhibit. Focus instead on sharing what you find interesting, what you like, and how the art or exhibit makes you feel.
  • Try to relate the exhibit to something your child already knows or has experienced.
  • Bring along a sketchbook or paper for your child to create his or her own souvenir, or allow your child to choose a postcard from the museum gift shop.
  • Before or after the visit, read books that relate to what you are going to see or have seen.
  • With toddlers and older children, discuss appropriate behavior and praise it during and after the visit.

More Resources

  • Preschoolers and Museums: An Educational Guide is available from the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center Store. The store also offers a Museum Magic video, an overview of museum-based learning for preschool and kindergarten children based on the center's experience.
  • Many museum resources are available online. has extensive links to all kinds of museums, exhibit information, and online activities for youngsters arranged by topic and geographic location.

Back to Program 1 »