Visiting an Art Gallery with Children: Five tips to make it fun!

We love field-tripping with our kindergarteners! This past week saw our third and final field trip of the year, this time to the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC. All year long the children learn about various artists, study their work, replicate some of their more well-known paintings, and then travel to the gallery to see some famous pieces for themselves.

We always have so many parent helpers for our field trips and this was no exception. It’s a great opportunity for our parents to connect one-on-one with their child and enjoy a fun experience together. Many parents later tell us that they were inspired to revisit the gallery or to explore other museums after sharing the gallery trip with their child! We love that! Yes! Get out there and explore!

We’ve been taking children the NGA for many years and there are a few suggestions we’d like to make to ensure that you and your family have a meaningful experience that is educational and fun! While we’re writing this with the National Gallery of Art in mind, you can apply these suggestions to any art gallery or museum.

Tip #1: Plan ahead – select an artist before you go

There are so many amazing artists to learn about! During our school year we focus on a different artist each month, including Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, Horace Pippin, and Mary Cassatt. We read about them and learn about their lives, their struggles and successes, and what sets them apart in the world of art! You can read more about our art program here.

Prior to your visit, pick an artist! Connect with him or her through books and get to know a little about the man or woman behind the art. We have had great success with the Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists series by author and illustrator, Mike Venezia. And Laurence Anholt’s collection of stories inspired by artists and their work is another great resource. There are so many wonderful books about artists out there! Read up on a few and get to know them before you step foot in the gallery. Get inspired by their stories and understand what motivated and inspired them. You’ll feel more connected to the art work and it will make for a more connected experience for your child.

Tip #2: Be prepared – check the gallery’s website and map

If there’s one thing that will put a damper on a fun outing, it’s tired feet! Plan your visit so you know where you’re going and which art pieces you’re looking for when you get there. Adults are generally fine with wandering around and taking their time, but children need to focus their energy and excitement on a specific goal. After you’ve seen what you came to see, there’ll be plenty of time to explore, so get the purpose of your visit out of the way early and leave room for spontaneity.

Prior to our field trip, we (the teachers) spend some time on the NGA’s website, making sure that we know where to find the paintings and pieces we’re looking for. We would never take our kindergarteners into the gallery without first knowing where we’re going! Did you know that paintings MOVE? From one year to the next a painting might be reassigned to a new space, added to a temporary collection, put in storage for cleaning, or lent out to another museum or gallery!

We were very disappointed this time around to learn that one of our favorite paintings, The Japanese Footbridge by Claude Monet, would not be on display during our visit! But, because we knew that going into the event, we could talk to the children ahead of time and temper their expectations. If your favorite painting is not on view, don’t stress! There are still plenty of amazing pieces of art to enjoy and now you have an excuse to go back at a later date.

Tip #3: Talk about your expectations for behavior before you go

Galleries have rules. “No touching” is a pretty big one and one that many young children struggle with, especially if their only prior experience has been children’s museums, which are designed for touch and exploration. We spend time before we go, talking with the children and setting our expectations for their behavior while inside the gallery:

  1. We walk — there is no running inside an art gallery. Period.
  2. We keep our hands behind our back or at our sides when we look at a piece of art – this one we actually practice ahead of time. Nothing puts a gallery guard on alert like a five year old with a pointed finger standing two feet away from a priceless Picasso!
  3. We show respect for other visitors to the gallery – everyone deserves to enjoy their visit! We make sure that the children know that there will be many people there and that we can be respectful by keeping our voices low, walking, and paying attention to others around us who might be trying to see the same paintings that we are.

Tip #4: Take time to reflect on what you see

Many people are intimidated by art. They don’t “get it” or think that they should feel something when they look at a painting or a sculpture and they’re afraid that they’re doing it wrong. Art appreciation is different for each person, but it all starts with questions, so take some time to ask questions and think about the different pieces you explore with your child. You might be surprised at their answers! You could say:

  • What is your favorite thing about this painting?
  • What do you think (the subject of the painting) was doing right before this painting takes place?
  • Look at that door – I wonder what’s behind that door.
  • She’s reading something! I wonder what she’s reading?
  • Her dress is so fancy! I wonder where she’s going?
  • What’s he doing? Why do you think he’s doing that?

Bring a small notebook or sketchpad and plan on taking a few short breaks from walking to sit down and let your child sketch what they see. Bring a few pencils or crayons (no markers — too much potential for mess) and monitor your child’s use of them to ensure they’re not drawing on the floor or benches. The guards at the National Gallery are great about letting visitors sketch and draw, but be mindful of other visitors and don’t block doorways or high traffic areas.

Tip #5: Keep it brief and leave time for spontaneity

Walking into the gallery with a plan (we’re going to go see the Monets and Cassatts first, then sketch, have lunch, and go to the gift shop) does several things:

  1. Gives your child a framework for how long this activity will last: Excitement will only take you so far! Walking through an art gallery tires out little legs and cranky kids make for cranky parents. So, keep it short, sweet, and to the point.
  2. Lets you know when it’s time to leave: End your visit on a high note with everyone’s energy, spirit of adventure, and good mood intact.
  3. Helps you avoid aimless wandering: Galleries, especially the NGA, are large! You’re not going to see everything, especially with a young child in tow, so be specific, get in, get out, and go back another time to see more.

Once you’ve seen what you came to see, if everyone is still in high spirits, be spontaneous! Take a look at the map and pick a room you didn’t go to yet and head over to see what’s there. Some of our favorite moments with children at the gallery have come from “I wonder what’s over there?” types of questions.

Get out there and explore the world of art! If you and your family head to an art gallery, tag us in your post @chmsreston, so we can see where you went! If you found this post helpful, comment and let us know and share it on social media. Happy adventuring!

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