How to Visit an Art Gallery with Kids without Losing Your Cool

Imagine you’re a kid. You’re standing in front of a giant transparent sculpture that looks like it’s assembled out of floating bubbles. It’s hovering over the gallery floor, anchored to the walls and ceiling with a collection of ropes. What would you want to do?

Climb it, of course!

Art galleries can be challenging environments for kids because there are usually too many rules of engagement: Don’t touch the Jackson Pollock. Don’t dash with your arms flailing toward the priceless Van Gogh. Don’t step past that line. Don’t scream like a banshee. Don’t laugh too loud. Don’t munch on those pretzel sticks. Don’t play hide-n-seek behind the marbles. Don’t lick the Claes Oldenburg sculpture.

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A Day at a Gallery with a Bunch of Kids

Quiet, serene, still—all the things I love about art galleries are the things that often make them a dreaded destination for kids who tend to be active, tactile learners.

But looking at art with kids is a way of exposing them to the marvelous diversity of artistic expression and to a range of cultures. A visit to an art gallery or museum can be an opportunity not just to cultivate self-control and attention, but also to nurture creativity and curiosity. How kids respond to a gallery visit—whether they find it inspiring or torturous—often depends on the expectations and aims of us as parents.

Last week a friend and I took our kids to the Istanbul Modern art gallery on a breezy summer morning. We had five kids aged two to twelve in tow.

My primary goal for the visit was to give my kids just enough of a taste of art that they would want more. I wanted them to walk out of the experience looking forward to visiting a gallery or museum again sometime. Today I asked them if they’d be up for another visit. I got a chorus of “Yes!” in response.

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Here are 9 Ways to Make your Gallery Experience with Kids as Happy as Possible: 

1. Plan for a gallery hour or a gallery morning, but not a gallery day: We kept the visit short. In my experience, an hour is about right for a gallery or museum visit with kids. I studied art at college, but even I get tired of looking attentively after about an hour or two. I can’t expect more from my kids. My sense squares with advice from the Kimbell Art Museum—“Don’t try to see too much in one visit. …Aim for thirty to sixty minutes, depending on your child’s age.”

2. Prepare the kids beforehand so they know what to expect: Rather than giving kids a list of what they’re not allowed to do, try to frame the boundaries in a positive way. Start by emphasizing what they can do: Use their eyes. Ask loads of questions. Try to find a certain color or a certain shape in the art.

3. Make sure they understand what is in and out of bounds, but if possible make the rules sound fun, like a game. For example, my son loves soccer so I encouraged him to remember that visiting a gallery is like playing soccer. Soccer players can’t use their hands to touch the ball and when we visit a gallery we’re not allowed to use our hands to touch the art.

His response was on point, “But mom, what if I’m the goalie?” (Touché, son!)

I answered: “But you’re not the goalie today. Only the curator is the goalie and only the curator gets to touch the art.”

4. Make sure to visit when they’re not hungry or sleepy: I know this seems obvious, but if you’re traveling in a new city it can be tempting to try and fit too much into a day. All of us are grumpy if we’re hungry, but kids’ irrationality moves into another dimension when their tummies are rumbling. We visited first thing in the morning just after breakfast. We were at the gallery a few minutes after it opened and we were done with our visit before lunch and nap time.

5. Prompt kids to talk about what they’re seeing by asking open-ended, thought provoking questions. What’s the first thing you notice when you look at that painting? Why do you think the artist chose that color for that shape? What does the sculpture remind you of? How does that picture make you feel?

There’s a wonderful series of books called Come Look with Me  that are designed to help parents introduce kids to art. They are perfect preparation for a gallery visit and they’ll give you loads of ideas about the kinds of questions to ask.

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6. Let them set the pace: Don’t stress if you miss a painting or even an entire floor of the gallery. It’s absolutely fine to let the kids wander, moving to paintings, sculptures or installations that grab their interest. If your kids are young, don’t expect them to read the descriptions on the wall or to wait quietly while you read to them. Go for exploration rather than information, unless they’re really engaged.

7. Keep in mind that some art may not be age appropriate. Great art often deals with adult themes. You might scope out the gallery before your visit by checking the exhibitions online. If you’re traveling, that kind of advance planning isn’t always possible, so keep an eye open for works that may raise issues that are too mature your kids. Creatively steer them in another direction by drawing their attention to another work.

8. Give them some freedom to play after the visit. When the kids start whining for snacks and racing down the corridors, it’s time to leave. It can be tempting to push kids a little and try to see EVERYTHING, but the result may well be a meltdown. After our kids had done a decent (but not perfect) job attempting to exercise self-control for about an hour, we rewarded them with some time to run in the garden outside and a treat from the gallery café. We let them lounge around in the sun on the grass and search for bugs. I waited until we got home to debrief our gallery visit.

9. Don’t be surprised if you learn something from your kids: While looking at one large portrait painted in a range of colors from green to brown to lemon yellow, I asked the kids what the colors made them feel. One of the kids piped up and said, “They make me feel good, because they remind me of Brazil!” (His mom is Brazilian). In a split second I realized that colors that may have appeared anxiety inducing to me had only positive associations for him. His response was a pointed reminder that the experience of color is often culturally conditioned. A color that suggests anger or aggression in one cultural context may communicate celebration and joy in another. With young kids it’s important to allow them to openly respond to the art without correcting their interpretation. If they’re reacting to the art and talking about it, then your trip is a roaring success.

The Value of Experiencing Art with Your Kids

Art can unsettle us or lift our spirits. It’s an invitation to pause and look with empathy and sensitivity. It may arouse our emotions by distilling the experience of color, of light, of line, of form. It can introduce us to people and environments we never would have seen elsewhere. It can immerse us in an alternate reality. It can be an escape or a refuge.

Art stimulates kid’s imaginations, and that’s well worth a morning out.

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Here are few additional helpful online resources if you’re interested in learning more about looking at art with kids:

Art Curator for Kids

How to look at art with toddlers

Many museums and galleries provide family guides or activity sheets designed for kids:

MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) NYC, offers gallery guides and activity cards for kids and families

The National Gallery in Washington provides a number of guides for kids 6 and up.


Copyright © 2016 · All Rights Reserved · Tina Boesch

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10 thoughts on “How to Visit an Art Gallery with Kids without Losing Your Cool

  1. We have enjoyed using artwork as writing prompts– or, in the case of the “prewriting” child– storytelling prompts. My youngest loves narrative– she sees stories everywhere. Our local art museum is a rich source of inspiration for her. With children old enough, sitting and writing in a beautiful journal in a lovely gallery is a joy I love to share. Admittedly, this can be an acquired taste. I am not above bribery. (You may recall that Doumar’s was right nearby my local art museum– with wonderful ice cream cones!)

    1. I live the term incentive, rather than bribery! 😉 Great idea on the storytelling prompts. I didn’t think of that, but my oldest is the perfect age to do a little reflective or narrative writing in the wake of a gallery visit.

  2. I love this article & your tips & thoughts! We love museum visits with our kids!

    Audio guides are wonderful for the kids sometimes, also. It helps them find smaller details in paintings that they might otherwise miss, for example. Balancing these with times when they simply look, explore & interpret themselves is good. But I found the audio guides were good “training wheels” to teach them to look deeper at the art. It’s also great for my auditory-learner!

    1. So true, Angela, audio guides can be fantastic in helping kids begin to read visually. I actually love to read the descriptions myself. And as they get older, they can process so much more. My 12 year old often pauses to listen and to read. Once kids start to engage with art and the concepts the artist is developing, the experience and the conversations become much richer.

    1. Thanks so much, @mypetitepicassos. So glad you got something from this! My kids are too restless and too mobile to stay in strollers, but I could definitely see that strategy working for younger kids. Great idea. The beforehand talk helps a lot. We were actually in a gallery earlier this week, and I had to remind them several times not to touch the surface of the paintings or sit on the modern sculptures (that honestly, look like they’re made to climb!). Sometimes I find myself wanting to reach out an touch the impasto on a painting, so I can hardly blame them!

      1. This makes me think of burner babies-kids who go to Burning Man. I’ve never gone, but I know people who have. The kids get to experience art in a totally hands on approach there. One of the Burning Man artists brings his Life Cube project to downtown Vegas and invites kids to create on the cube. I’ll be doing a post about it-my son had a blast!

      2. Looking forward to reading that post. Hands on is undoubtably the best way to experience art with kids. I don’t think I have the courage to do Burning Man with kids because it strikes me as an event better for mature and discerning viewers/participants. Although I love art, there are some exhibits I wouldn’t take my kids to. There is a lot of work that deals with violence, brutality and sex—important topics—that I don’t believe my little ones are mature enough to process yet. If I have a sense that a show might not be appropriate for them, I try to see it first. With Burning Man, the art happens on the fly and everyone is a part of the event and happening. That could be immensely exciting, but for young ones, it could be overwhelming and disturbing, especially if the content veers into adult territory.

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