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| Children’s Museum Links |

Making the Most of Museum Visits

World-class art or dazzling science displays are sometimes no match for that special fatigue that accompanies some museum visits. Even the most curious kids can fall prey to dreaded “museum syndrome,” as any parent will tell you. So what can parents do to make the most of museum visits?

For suggestions, we spoke with Katherine Neill Ridgley, a senior staff member of the Smithsonian Institution’s Visitor Information department in Washington, D.C. Ridgley shared her insights—gleaned from 17 years on the job and her own experience as an aunt and a grandparent:

What’s the most common advice you offer parents?

Have a game plan and pick things that kids can relate to. The first thing I ask people is, “What are your children interested in?” You don’t want to lose a child’s attention the minute they walk in the door. So find out what they are interested in—whether it’s dinosaurs, rocks, aircraft, gardening, or history—and plan from there.

What should adults keep in mind when browsing exhibits?

Don’t assume children are going to understand what they’re looking at. You need to explain exhibits to them in terms that they can relate to.

If they’re seeing a dinosaur for the first time, you might say, “You know the character Barney the purple dinosaur? Well this is the original. This is how dinosaurs really looked. Scientists don’t know if they were purple. Maybe they were. But we don’t know that.”

Talk to kids. It’s your job to educate them, as well as to be a companion in the museum.

What types of exhibits appeal most to kids?

Interactive, hands-on exhibits are really big: things kids can feel and touch or that they can relate to and find later in their own backyard—like insects, fish, snakes, or special plants.

What’s the best way to structure a day?

Break up your visit. Schedule snack time. Let kids run off excess energy outside for a while. At the Smithsonian we have an outdoor carousel that is popular with adults and children. The key is to plan some play activities in addition to the learning.

Any parting advice?

Don’t underestimate kids. You’d be surprised what they’re interested in and pick up on.

More Tips

  • Generate interest ahead of time. Read bedtime stories about subjects you will explore later in a museum.

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  • Plan a scavenger hunt. Stop in at the museum gift shop and buy postcards of exhibits in the museum’s collection. Then track them down.

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  • Check the museum’s Web site to learn about fun, hands-on family activity offerings. Schedule your visit accordingly.

—Sean Markey

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