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Why You Should Take Your Little Ones To Explore An Art Museum This Summer

children explore an art museum with a docent
Image CreditKET/PBS/Screenshot

An afternoon spent looking at art, punctuated by discussion, sketching, and storytelling, will engage the entire family.


After learning of my position as a school docent at the National Gallery of Art, a woman at a party asked, “My daughter is 4 years old. Is she too young to visit an art museum?”

“Oh no,” I replied. “An afternoon spent looking at pictures and sculpture can be a wonderful experience for a young child.”

As a school docent for the past seven years, I’ve led tours for students from pre-kindergarten through high school. With summer upon us, here are some ideas for parents on how to make the visit to an art museum fun, educational, and memorable. 

I’ve found that even at 4 and 5 years old, children are open and receptive to the riches of a museum. As a docent, it’s lovely to act as a sherpa for a child’s first few visits. Because such institutions can be vast and overwhelming, the trip is an opportunity to help youngsters feel comfortable with the often-sprawling structure and to demonstrate how best to behave among original, and often large, works of art.

Quality Family Time

A visit to the museum can be an opportunity for quality family time. Unplugging from phones, computers, TV, and social media presents a window for observation and old-fashioned conversation. Taking in the richness of a painting or sculpture is about stepping away from the many distractions that dominate modern life.

Quiet, close looking is an optimal way to experience works of art, providing the rare opportunity to slow down and focus. “To see takes time, like to have a friend takes time,” the artist Georgia O’Keefe explained.

Rather than trying to view as many works as possible, it’s best to focus on a select few. Even for an adult, visiting an art museum can be overwhelming. To alleviate confusion or anxiety, make a quick check of the museum’s holdings online. My tours for 4-to-6-year-olds usually contain just two or three works of art.

Ground Rules

Once inside, clearly explain the rules. Museums are big buildings, and it is easy to get lost! Make certain that children understand they must stay with Mom and Dad. To be courteous to other visitors, running or shouting is not permitted. Also stress that touching the art is never allowed, and visitors must stand a safe distance from all works. My favorite way to do this is to have an adult, acting as a sample statue, take a pose. I then demonstrate with hands behind my back, fingers laced, how to remain at least one foot away from our stand-in work of art.


One of the best ways for children to enjoy a museum is to experience interactively. On my tours, I utilize sketching, writing, and imaginative exercises. Check ahead to learn what kind of art supplies the museum allows. If permissible, bring along pencils, crayons, and a sketch pad.

Start with the Basics

After 30 to 60 seconds of close looking at your first work of art, discuss shape, color, and line. Do the children see squares, triangles, or circles, or are the shapes unrecognizable? Which colors do they spot? Are the lines thick or thin, straight or curvy?   

Let’s All Draw

Sketching facilitates a deeper understanding of a work of art. For children a bit older, instead of focusing on the entire painting — which can be overwhelming — I suggest the kids put their thumbs and forefingers together to form a diamond or viewfinder. Using the space within their viewfinder, the child can identify an area of particular interest. They then sketch, blowing up that area or detail; the sunflower on the woman’s dress in Mary Cassatt’s 1905 “Woman With a Sunflower,” or the green bow featured on the back of Edgar Degas’ dancer’s tutu in “The Dance Lesson,” for instance. Once finished, I ask the kids what they might have discovered in focusing on one specific piece of the painting.

Storytelling and Character Identification

Classical and representational art present imaginative options for visiting youngsters. To help children engage, I invite them to identify characters in a painting. A canvas like Jan Steen’s 1663 “The Dancing Couple” offers plenty of opportunities: newlyweds dancing, men eating and drinking, women clapping, fiddlers fiddling, and children playing. After identifying the characters, I welcome the children to provide names for the figures and, if they are game, a bit of backstory for the participants of the festive event. One interesting fact to share: The smiling figure on the left, tickling the chin of the woman drinking wine, is the artist himself.

Children Love Animals

Paintings where animals are central to the theme or story present many narrative possibilities.  Sir Edwin Landseer’s “Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler,” for example, offers two large alpine dogs, ancestors of the modern-day Saint Bernard, coming to the aid of a distressed traveler. Having the children take turns contributing a line to the story about the dogs or the traveler helps spark creativity.

One of my favorite animal paintings is Sir Peter Paul Rubens’ massive canvas “Daniel in the Lions’ Den.” In it, the artist depicts Daniel in the cave the morning after his ordeal, surrounded by 10 giant lions. I encourage the children to pick their favorite lion, give it a name, and then draw, just as Rubens did at the royal menagerie in Brussels and the zoo in Ghent in preparation for his painting.  

An afternoon spent looking at art, punctuated by discussion, sketching, and storytelling will engage the entire family. Parents can enjoy talking about a work of art with their children and watch as they make connections and discoveries. Or simply stand in front of a great masterpiece and let its complexity wash over you.

Then write and let me know who had more fun, you or your kids.

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