Enjoying Museums with (young) Kids

Paleis Het Loo

Paleis Het Loo

Paleis Het Loo

I have to confess that I don’t enjoy most “kids” activities. Playgrounds drive me a bit nuts. Indoor playgrounds seem like they were invented by the same people who invented the asylums and then led tours through them. I love culture and history and books in a bad way! My kids have plenty of art supplies and I’m working on a killer library, but amusement parks? No thank you. With summer vacation coming soon, how do you do museum or “cultural” outings with little kids? Mine are 3 and 5 and I think we’ve got it figured out. Today, we left the house at 9:30, drove an hour, spent an hour in a thrift store, spent about three hours at Paleis Het Loo (one of the Dutch royal palaces), and then they opted in for a second thrift store before we drove home, arriving at 6pm. We had a great time, all three of us. Read on and I’ll tell you how we make it work!

First of all, my kids are relatively normal kids (refer to picture #2). They run, jump and get silly with the best of them. Remember this little photo shoot? They do not ask for day trips to royal residences or textile museums. Peanut’s kindergarten gets a free day every other Wednesday and I’ve been using these days for fun outings that usually involve a museum or something like. I’ve developed a few tricks that make these outings more fun every time and I want to share!

#1 : Eliminate Obligation
The best way to make a museum trip miserable is to insist on seeing the whole thing and appreciating it along the way. In the Netherlands, you can get an annual Museumkaart (museum card) that gives you free entry to hundreds of museums in the Netherlands. The card pays for itself after you’ve made 4 or 5 visits to major museums and eliminates the feeling that you have to get everything you can get out of your first visit. When we went to Scotland, I did this by opting to visit Warkworth Castle instead of the Alnwick Castle. By choosing a less flash castle, we saved about 2/3 of the entry fee that’s the difference between feeling like we have to be there and feeling like we can leave when the fun’s over. Make sure you and your littles don’t feel burdened by the “specialness” of the destination before you get there. It will help you all relax and actually enjoy.

#2 : Eat, Drink, Sleep, Pee
Taking care of bodies first is a golden rule in our family. If someone has to eat, drink, sleep, or pee, we take care of that first. We agreed to this rule long before we had kids and it’s even more important now. We take frequent potty breaks, bring food, and carry water. Read that last sentence again, it says “bring food.” I don’t bring a lot of snacks and we don’t eat all day long. We pack sandwiches and fruit and one treat in the form of crackers or rice waffles. We try to eat on the same schedule as we do at home. This helps me distinguish between hungry, tired, or just plain done when the kids start complaining. We used to bring a carrier or stroller for sleepy kids. Now Pumpkin can more or less keep up, but I make sure the day doesn’t get too long and tell her if it’s going to be a longer car ride and so she can close her eyes. Taking care of bodies frees up minds to enjoy what’s on offer!

#3 : Follow
This one is hard. It’s tempting to take on the role of tour guide and show and tell and talk and direct all through the outing. It’s more rewarding and fun for the kids if you let them lead. Their curiosity and enthusiasm will surprise you. I usually set our itinerary and route. Today we did the house before the gardens, for example, against Peanut’s wishes. However, once we get inside, I try to let them set the pace and to respond to what they are interested in. Today, it was paintings. They were blown away by the number of people paintings on display. I read names and shared some observations, but tried to remember to ask them what they saw and what they thought of it. Asking what they like is usually a dead end, but “what do you see” can be interesting. If the destination is of serious interest to you, try to plan your own trip so you can take your time where you want to. In a couple years, the littles will be more patient but for now, these are training trips!

#4 : Treat
You knew this was coming, right? Since we have the Museumkaart, these aren’t expensive outings for us. That leaves room in our budget for a treat. Today it was a shared muffin and juice at the cafe. Other times we’ve gone out for lunch. Once, the kids chose a treat at a shop and we saved it for the playground at the museum (outdoor museums are the best). The kids don’t know this is coming and I like to keep it low key, but it’s a challenging outing for them and one that requires awesome behavior. There is a whole lot of don’t touch, don’t run, speak quietly, don’t stand on that, and “no” going on in these places. In my book, doing that well gets you a treat!

#5 : Leave
This might actually be the most important thing. Be ready to go home. Be ready to give it up. Be ready to walk out the door whenever it’s not working. That’s it, but knowing it and remembering it might keep you sane.

#6 : Repeat
Go again. Go to the same museum or another. Let the kids get familiar with a place. Tell them about new exhibits. Try again if it didn’t work out the first time. Returning to the same place a few times can be a lot of fun. Most museums are on their game these days and there are new exhibits and kids activities to enjoy. The kids might surprise you by asking to go back!

There you go, my top tips for museums with young kids. They aren’t a gospel, they aren’t foolproof, and they will certainly change over time. In fact, they could well change next week! But sticking fairly close to this approach has made museum visits a whole lot less intimidating for me and a whole lot more fun for the kids. So, will you be trying a museum visit any time soon?

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