My husband and I have been taking our boys to art museums since they were infants. Now – ages six and seven – they’ve gone from sleeping snug in a Baby Bjorn, to reaching for Calder’s mobiles from the comfort of their strollers, to experiencing the thrill of finding a painting they wanted to see at the Met.

Friends and family have asked how we keep them engaged and interested for these family museum visits. Here are some a few, key tips.

The work begins before you leave the house

Whether you’re visiting a museum in your hometown or one far away while on a vacation it’s essential that you plan ahead. My approach is to do a little research on the art pieces I’d really like to see.  

Last year we took a trip to Chicago to see all three of Van Gogh’s Bedroom paintings displayed together at The Art Institute. Before we went, I put a few picture books on Van Gogh on hold at the local library. I printed out some Van Gogh coloring sheets (Pinterest) and showed them a few YouTube videos on Van Gogh (targeted for children). When we arrived at the exhibit, they were familiar enough to enjoy the exhibit – and I could as well.

Many museums have interactive websites designed so kids can explore their collection or a special exhibit on their own before they go. Metropolitan Museum of Art’s MetKids is a great example of this. My boys explored the site before our visit and couldn’t wait to see Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware after they read that the painting was as large as a school bus. We gave them the map and made them ask the docents for directions when they got stuck. The sense that they were in charge made them so much more invested in the art.

Bring colored pencils and paper

Each time we go to a museum, I make each of my boys a homemade artist’s sketch pad by folding four sheets of regular printer paper in half and stapling the crease to create a little book. I bring a small pack of colored pencils for them since many museums will ask you to put markers or pens away. (I prefer pencils with different colors at either end simply because it is less to keep track of.)  

As we move from gallery to gallery, I have them sit down on a bench, or even on the ground, instructing them to pick their favorite painting and try to recreate it. This affords my husband and I time to enjoy the artwork in the gallery, and it sheds new light on the art itself when we see how our kids view it.

Sign up for the (kids) audio tour

Many exhibits include an audio guide with the price of admission, sometimes it’s just a few dollars more. Some have audio guides specifically for children (typically for ages six – 12). Now that my boys are old enough to manage the controls themselves, this has become an invaluable tool, helping them to engage with the art. It also gives me a few minutes to look without answering questions.  

At a recent trip to MOMA my sons were silent for nearly an hour as we walked through the galleries. My youngest son broke the silence in front of a Jackson Pollock piece when he tugged on my sleeve saying, “Mommy, it says to pick one of the lines of paint and follow it as far as you can. I picked that fat black one. Which one did you choose?”

Turn your visit into a scavenger hunt

On our last visit, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston gave my boys scavenger hunt cards. They had rows and columns like a bingo card, but instead of letters each space had a different medium, such as “oil paint,” “marble,” “fabric, or “paper,” to find. The game enticed our boys to read the exhibit placards and engage with the art in a completely different way.

They had a blast helping each other find each medium. I started to look at the art differently as well, as I realized several works included materials that weren’t obvious at first glance. This scavenger hunt could easily be replicated and tailored for an exhibit you are planning to visit.

Give your kids a gift shop budget

Of course, every kid wants to hit the gift shop after a day out. My husband and I decided to give our boys a budget in order to subdue all the “Can I have this?” and “Can I have that?” Having a budget amount gives them a sense of responsibility.

We love seeing them negotiate with each other to pool their money together for a more expensive item.  It’s a win-win situation whatever item they choose, a Matisse coloring book, a picture book on Frida Kahlo, or a Van Gogh finger puppet. It all serves to further their art education while teaching them how to make decisions about money.