Did you know you can take a free tour of San Francisco’s City Hall? It’s gorgeous and historic, and the docent we had gave us a terrific history of not just the building but also of the city. We loved learning about several different mayors and what they contributed, as well as some intrigue that has taken place under several.
Tours take place Mon-Fri at 10am, noon, and 2pm. They’re free for individuals or small groups, but there’s a small fee if you have over 8 people. School groups are free. Sign up at the Docent Tour kiosk.
I tend to be a big museum person, and I get asked occasionally how we manage museum visits or art-and-history focused tours like this with small children. First of all, well, it does sometimes get crazy and we’ve just learned to not lose OUR cool quite as much. 😉 We are by NO means experts, but we have found a few things to be helpful for our kids’ behavior, and in us actually getting something out of it. Here are 5 of my favorite tips:
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1. LEARN AHEAD. I am such a big believer in this first tip and it really has made all the difference in many of our museum and tour visits. Give your kids (and yourself!) something to listen and look for. If you know there’s a certain piece of art that you want to see, look it up beforehand. Show it to your kids so they’ll be waiting to find it; kids are always so excited when they see something familiar. Learn about why it’s important, about the artist, about the time period in which it was completed. Learn about the museum itself. Talk about what the building will be like, and look up pictures. Discuss the different areas, so it will feel familiar when you get there (“oh, this is where the arms and armor is!”). Look up a children’s book that talks about an artist or style and read it. Do a craft project that relates to what you will see. Kids get so excited to learn, and are usually thrilled and feel so smart when they recognize and expect something in a typically unfamiliar world.
We’re traveling in Europe for two months this summer and are studying one country each week (find our learning guides on Instagram under the hashtag #LPgloballearningguides). I’m hopeful this will make for a much better experience for all of us!
Along with learning ahead of time, go in with a plan. Many museums will have a general map online, so you can at least figure out what floor or wing you want to visit first. Think about how you want to divide your time, and by when you want to leave. Communicate that to your kids so they know what to expect, too.Finally, learn while there, too – many museums provide child-friendly scavenger hunts, games, and booklets, or even full family packs with audio and laminated guides. Even if they don’t initially care about the content of the museum, or if we haven’t had time to prep them in advance, these always help them get excited. Take advantage of these to make learning fun for everyone!
2. HAVE SOMETHING TACTILE. Kids tend to be fidgeters. Even though it sometimes seems counterintuitive to me, I often find that my kids actually listen and retain BETTER if they have something to do with their hands. I tend to assume that if they’re doing something else, they’re distracted and not paying attention, but somehow, moving those little fingers can help sharpen their ears. Some ideas are to let them pick up a postcard at the start of the visit so they can look for whatever is on there, bring a pencil and small notebook so they can draw things they see, or even letting them hold a favorite small toy. It can be helpful if you tell your kiddo to “teach” a small (maybe pocket-sized) stuffed animal how to behave, and to model that behavior.
3. ASK QUESTIONS. My kids tend to lose interest if I’m just telling them things the whole visit. Kids don’t tend to love lectures. But they DO tend to be great observers and typically respond well to questions. So instead of telling them things, I’ll rephrase as a question.
Here’s an example. I could say, “Look at how it’s difficult to tell what the image is up close, but it becomes clear as you step further back.” But my kiddos tend to respond much better when I say, “Step up close to the painting, but look with your eyes and not your hands. Can you tell what the picture is?” Then ask them to step back and ask if they know what it is then. Ask for their impressions of what the shapes, colors, structure, and content is trying to convey. I’m always so impressed with how much my kids observe! Truly, kids are little sponges and will often notice things we adults miss, so it’s great to hear their thoughts.
4. KEEP IT SHORT. As an adult, my own max at a museum is 2-3 hours. It would be silly to expect my kids to focus for longer than that. We usually aim for about an hour max. And while I personally may want to sit and drink in one piece of artwork for 20 minutes, I know that I don’t have quite that long with my children. So I keep it moving and don’t typically spend more than 5 minutes at any particular spot. We ask a few questions, I get THEM to ask questions, we discuss, we move to the next thing. If, at the end of the hour, my kids are still engaged, we keep going for a bit longer. If they’re done, we leave.
This is true for tours, too – if a tour runs an hour and a half to 2 hours, we may consider cutting out early. So often both for tours and museum visits, we feel we have to “get our money’s worth” and stay as long as we can possibly endure. But if that’s going to make everyone miserable, what’s the point? I’d much rather have a really enjoyable 45 minutes and leave with everyone wanting to come back, then spend 3 hours and have my kids kicking and screaming the next time I suggest a museum visit.
5. PRACTICE. Practice at home. Describe good behavior and what they SHOULD do. Role play. Go to small galleries or 30 minute tours so your kids can practice using that stellar behavior in a lower-key setting. The more they do it, the easier it will become.
And a bonus tip – always have an emergency plan. Whether it’s another parent to take a kiddo out, some fruit snacks stealthily popped in mouths, or even a last-resort smart phone (or all of the above!). You’ll feel better knowing you have just one more trick in your bag. 😉
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[…] If you do go during the day, limit yourself to a couple hours and try to get out to lesser visited parts of the museum. We love the underground fortress area, the Napoleon III apartments, and the regalia. The gift shop has an excellent family guide that has short, fun activities to visit different sections of the museum. (And here are some more tips for taking your kids to a museum.) […]