My daughter was a little over a year old when she first noticed a piece of art. On a family trip to the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, my husband and I relished the woodland paths with elegant works by Paul Matisse and Andy Goldsworthy. Juniper the toddler, though, took a shine to a dripping, oozing fluorescent yellow blob by Aaron Curry called—rather aptly, I think—“Ugly Mess.”
Juniper was transfixed, wandering around the steel sculpture for what seemed like hours. At first I felt impatient, but then I realized I was a witness to baby’s first appreciation of art. My daughter had an aha moment, which helped me see the piece with fresh eyes.
Sparking kids’ creativity and love for travel with art isn’t new. “From a very young age, children start looking extremely closely at the things around them with curiosity and attention,” says Olga Hubbard, a professor of arts education of the Teachers College at Columbia University. This makes museums and other cultural institutions focus on engaging the next generation of sculpture and painting fans with research-backed activities and challenging exhibits designed to appeal to developing brains.
These trips and tips can get your kids into art on your next vacation. They might ignite a renewed sense of wonder in the grown-ups as well. “Spaces like museums can invite adults to have the kind of attention that young children naturally have for the outside world,” says Hubbard.
Because kids naturally like to look—it’s just a matter of finding fresh things to see.
Step into a storybook
The easiest way to introduce a child to an art museum might be through a familiar face, be it the googly eyed Very Hungry Caterpillar or a fairy tale villain. “Picture books are often a child’s first introduction to art,” says Courtney Waring, director of education at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts.
At the Carle, original works by the author/illustrator of Caterpillar are displayed along with revolving exhibits devoted to other kid-lit stars. Picture book pages are framed and hung on the walls, presented as priceless artifacts. Little ones can’t touch the originals, but they can paw through thousands of books in the nearby museum library.
“They immediately make connections between the art they see in books and the art they see in our galleries,” says Waring. Not only can this give children a deeper connection to their bookshelves at home, it also may encourage them to form “human connections across time and space,” says Hubbard.
Children see or sense that their favorite stories came from real people and places, and this goes beyond commercial attractions devoted to Harry Potter. In Kassel, Germany, where Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm gathered and published fairy tales in the 19th century, the contemporary museum Grimmwelt Kassel tells kids not only about classic stories (Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella), but also about the language and history they contain.
In a Buckinghamshire village north of London, England, the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre pays tribute to the late writer of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Fabulous Mr. Fox with exhibits and activities in his former home.
Museum professionals emphasize that provoking intense responses—a fit of giggles at a painting of a familiar Brothers Grimm fable, an awestruck gaze at a way-larger-than-life caterpillar cutout—can give parents insight into what kids intuitively find exciting, beautiful, or strange. Observe these moments, and later, at home, encourage your children to recall what made a big impression by revisiting the trip through photos or books.
Learn by playing around
The tactical, colorful aspects of art appeal to kids, often inspiring them to DIY their own masterpieces when they get home. Exploring their creativity helps children develop cognitively and physically.
Museums with please-touch exhibits and hands-on art projects “help kids make meaning,” says Sharon Shaffer, who served as the Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Early Enrichment Center for 24 years. “Even if they don’t have the words, ask them questions to help further their thinking. Children see things that adults miss.”
At the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, children can whack helium-filled metallic balloons in the artist’s iconic “Floating Clouds” installation or learn rudimentary filmmaking techniques via the “Screen Test Machine.” Some galleries (e.g. the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Ohio’s Dayton Art Institute) offer gallery guides and other tools for young patrons; as the pandemic ebbs, museums including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., will again host drop-in art workshops for kids.
Parents can make museum trips more engaging for children by pre-picking artworks and even bringing small bag of props. “If you’re visiting a painting that shows a tightrope walker, put down a piece of string on the ground and let them try to imagine being high above a circus,” says Shaffer. If you’re not sure what’s on view that might appeal to children, ask at the front desk.
“Families shouldn’t feel shy about taking up space, making a bit of noise, and enjoying a visit on their terms,” says Grace Attlee, who runs educational programs at the kid-friendly House of Illustration in London, set to open in a new space in 2022. “Contrary to popular belief, most museums and galleries want little people in them.”
While it’s my impulse to direct my daughter’s attention towards pieces that enchant me, experts agree that parents shouldn’t try to control their kid’s museum visit. Ask them open and probing questions, but don’t demand answers. Says Shaffer, “Nobody likes a quiz. Interactions with art are all about quality, not quantity, something we can forget as adults.”
Think outside the gallery
Kids these days are digital natives, so they may be interested in seeing art on different terms. Exhibits that harness video and sound can provoke wonder in younger children.
Meow Wolf, an interactive art space in Santa Fe, New Mexico, ushers families into a music-, mystery-, and art-filled former bowling alley where they crawl through washing machines, dance on lights, and try to solve puzzles. The collective that founded it also has newer installations in Denver and Las Vegas.
The touring Van Gogh Immersive show uses virtual reality to turn the Impressionist painter’s wild colors and heavy brushstrokes into a trippy, high-tech extravaganza. Next year, cities including London and Washington, D.C., will host a similar video and virtual reality attraction, Mexican Geniuses, which recasts and reimagines the art of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
These unconventional exhibits can reinforce the link in your kids brains between art and fun. “A lot of it is simply exposure,” says Shaffer. If your children aren’t around art, they can’t learn to enjoy it. “Whenever you go somewhere new, take advantage of what’s in the environment,” she says.
Appeal to their interests
Experts agree that playing to your child’s interests is another key to helping them enjoy art. My own kid loves the woods and mildly scary monsters. That’s why, this past summer, we ended up at the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden in Boothbay, with its rollicking display of large-scale wooden troll sculptures by Danish artist Thomas Dambo. “I make my art playful because I want it to speak to everybody,” he says. “I want to spread my message about taking care of nature.”
Dambo’s mediums—recycled wood and other “trash”—let him pack environmentalist ideas into delightful shapes. My toddler daughter isn’t old enough to get the point, though she did respond with joyful screams—and attempts to imitate the statues’ expressions—whenever she spotted a troll among the trees. In those moments, she was a dancer, an actor, and a patron of the arts.
It may be tempting to dismiss activities like troll hunting as child’s play, but Shaffer points out, these years of exploration are incredibly important. “Brain research has told us that 80 percent of the child’s personality, intellect, and skills develop in the first five years of life,” she says. “It’s the power of the brain to make sense of the world.”