I have become my father*…I remember visiting the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washinton, DC as a 10 year old, walking sssllloooowly behind my dad as he read aaalll the words on all the little signs in front of each of the dioramas…and back then, there were A LOT of uninteresting dioramas in that museum. Now I’m the one who wants to read it ALL!
(*I say this with the upmost love and respect for my dad, he’s amazing and I have definitely inherited this trait of his! 🙂 )
The National Museum of Natural History and all of the museums on the National Mall have done an amazing job of updating their
boring dioramas exhibits since the ‘80s to include interactive, interesting displays. Yet, we still sometimes find ourselves in this same situation with our kids today, don’t we?
I’ve found when I try to let the kids lead the way in a busy museum (the museums in Washington, DC are almost always busy) to whatever catches their eye without a strategy, I often feel like I’m herding cats! But I LOVE to see where their curiosities take them and where they decide to stop and spend more time, so I let them lead the way.
6 Strategies for Enjoying a Museum with Your Kids
1. Remember that I’m not really there for me. When I take my kids to a museum, I may choose an exhibit or two that I want to go to and “require” we visit, but for the most part, I’m there for them and to see what sparks their interest. (I realize that living near DC where I can visit more often than a once-in-a-lifetime trip affords me this great luxury!)
2. Guide their eyes. Although I let my children lead the way through a museum’s exhibits, I still gently guide them by scanning the plaques as we walk by to comment on something cool, such as, “Whoa, did you know…” or by suggesting they look for something specific…usually with a fun little twist, like a treasure hunt! (Check out our printables here for done-for-you treasure hunts and detective cases!)
For example, I took my three oldest kids with three of their friends (yes, I was alone with SIX kids in a museum) to the National Museum of Natural History and challenged them to find the Smithsonite, a mineral ore, named after the founder of the Smithsonian Institute. James Smithson (who you can learn more about at the Smithsonian Castle, where he’s buried!), who was an avid mineral collector and discovered Smithsonite.
I told them it would be in the Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals and that is was green. Those were the ONLY clues I gave. It was so fun to see all of them looking at every single green thing in that exhibit until they found the Smithsonite!
3. Plan our visit according to their interests or what they’re studying in school to really bring history, science, government to life!
Studying the solar system? Did you know you could TOUCH THE MOON in the National Air and Space Museum?!
4. Add at least one element of fun into every trip into DC. I like to keep things simple, so adding in a bit of fun may be getting lunch from a food truck, having a fun puzzle, riddle, or mystery to solve, riding the Metro or Circulator, watching the tarantulas eat at the O. Orkin Insect Zoo or walking through the Butterfly Pavilion (both are inside the National Museum of Natural History, free admission to the Butterfly Pavilion on Tuesdays!)…you get the idea.
There are SO MANY WAYS in Washington, DC to add in fun and create learning opportunities that your kids won’t even realize they are learning! Finding a few interesting stories about a monument or memorial may be all it takes to draw them in and get them thinking.
5. If you have younger children, take a stroller for when your youngest ones get too tired and need a break. I didn’t want to interrupt the older kids’ momentum and I found that if I prepared strategically with the toddler’s special blanket, book, etc. I could usually get extra time once they were in the stroller. The few times I took my backpack instead of a stroller and tried to carry my toddler on my back the entire time, didn’t work out so well.
6. Respect their attention spans. Child development experts say that, on average, a child should be able to focus on a task for two to five minutes times the year of their age. I found that by using the above strategies I could plan on about 2-2.5 hours in a museum before we hit my kids’ limit, but they never spent a lot of time looking at one single item or exhibit.
Although you can’t get through an entire world-class museum like the Smithsonian in just 2 hours, you can see a lot and enjoy the experience without exhausting your kids. You’ll probably find that all of you are ready for a break and instead of leaving with a bunch of bored kids, they’ll be excited to go back!