10 No-Fail Tips For Taking Kids To A Museum (Sans Disaster)

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S.F.’s De Young Museum, Photo Courtesy of Drew Altizer Photography

This article was originally published on February 17, 2017.

While many of us are still in the thick of a cold, dark, and soaking wet winter season, it leaves figuring out what to do indoors with a baby or child top of mind. When you’re ready for a break from the indoor playground mayhem, and the runny noses that often accompany it, we recommend penciling in a bit more culture into your schedule in the form of a museum visit. Sure, we know the idea of bringing your little ball of energy to what qualifies for many as a “holy space” can conjure major anxiety, including visions of a bull in a China shop. However, the visual stimulation and countless opportunities to interact and connect with your child around art can result in a newfound inspiration for both you and your little muse, as long as you come prepared. Below, we’ve put together our top 10 tips for taking kids to a museum sans disaster.

Get inspired. If you have an older child, a little research ahead of your museum visit can get you both eagerly anticipating the upcoming experience. There are a ton of great children’s books available, often about the theme of the exhibit, art, or visiting a museum in general. Former SFMOMA curator and mama-of-two Linda Leckart suggests How the Sphinx Got to the Museum by Jessie Hartland, I’d Like the Goo-Gen-Heim by A. C. Hollingsworth, and Where’s Warhol? by Catherine Ingram. After your visit, keep the creativity flowing by recreating your child’s favorite piece of artwork from the visit at home. Draw, paint, or even do some early performance art inspired by the pieces they saw and loved!

Don’t expect to see everything. Know your child’s limits and respect them. Plan to spend two hours max at the museum and dedicate your time by exploring just one floor or special exhibit per visit. Accept that you really can’t do it all and focus on enjoying and being present and immersed in what you do get to see.

Go early. Beat the afternoon crowds and meltdowns by hitting the museum early. You’ll be able to see more and feel less rushed to get through before nap time or hunger officially sets in.

Bring a baby carrier. If you want to go on a solo stroll with your babe, we suggest getting cozy with a carrier or baby wrap. Note that some special exhibits are also no-stroller zones, so it can be a pain in the neck (literally) to lug your little one around the whole time, plus in crowded museums it’s often easiest to have your child strapped to you and checking out the art from your perspective.

Bring snacks. Snacks can be a cure to all types of kid dilemmas. However, be mindful that food and drinks are typically not permitted in museums and galleries, and this rule applies to children, too. Don’t fret, though, as more and more local artisan coffee shops and world-class restaurants—along with designated snacking areas—are quickly popping up inside museums for those much-needed breaks to refuel and recharge. Research the options before you get there.

Explore kid-friendly spaces. Upon arrival at the museum, swing by the Visitor Services desk to ask if there is a special map, guide, audio tour, or other program designed especially for younger visitors. Most museums have kid-friendly spaces that many visitors don’t even know about. You can also get non-traditional and skip the exhibits altogether and explore the museum’s unique outdoor spaces or sky-scraping views for a change in scenery.

Visit economically. Regular trips to the museum can be costly, but there are also tricks for doing it more economically. First off, many spaces have an admission-free day every month, and you can plan your trip around that. Otherwise, if you think you’ll be visiting the space time and time again, a membership is a good idea (and is a great gift to ask from relatives!). Considering the high price tag on entry to some of the more traditional, kid-friendly indoor spaces, a museum membership can give you a lot more bang for your buck, especially if you plan to make museum visits a regular part of your out-and-about repertoire. With rotating exhibits and huge permanent collections that could take weeks to get through, there’s always something new to discover with each visit. Plus, with your membership, you can usually bring along another gallery-hopping mama friend and her little artiste for free!

Bring backup. Come armed with a few favorite toys from home just incase those tiny hands absolutely need to touch something…right…now! You can also keep an older child entertained by making up engaging games such as “I spy…” with the artwork.

Model good etiquette. We all know that children emulate what they see adults doing from an early age, so be sure to model positive museum behavior and teach older children some general ground rules before you go. Beyond the typical “DO NOT TOUCH!” motto, remind both yourself and older kids that photos typically aren’t permitted, but if cameras are allowed, be sure to keep the flash off, leave the selfie sticks at home, and we can all use a gentle reminder to patiently wait our turn when viewing a popular work of art. You can brush up on more museum etiquette tips here.

Have fun! A museum experience should be enjoyable for all, so if you find that your kid just isn’t into being there, don’t force it. Nobody ever grew up to appreciate art by being dragged around a museum at all costs. Keep it light and soon both you and your child will be enjoying the members-only opening parties…20 years down the road!

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Lauren Gersick

I think all of this is great. I will add, as a regular with-kid museum-goer, I think two hours is a bit long even with school-aged kids (if this includes the coffee/snack breaks maybe it’s more appropriate). A napping toddler in a stroller might get you beyond the two hour mark!
I actually think that if you are willing to go ahead and join a local museum, paying for a membership and being willing to do SHORT 30-45 min visits with a kid as a regular thing can be more economical and takes the “omg my parent is dragging me to a museum” edge off of things. Go in, 20 min walk through a single gallery/exhibit. Water break. 20 more minutes and if things start to go off course don’t push it! Head for the coffee spot/cafe or snack bench and then head out. Repeat a few weeks later.

Caitlin | Our Natural Heritage

Your local library may have free or discounted tickets too. And if you are a Bank of America customer, you can use your debit card and an ID to get into a variety of museums for free the first weekend of every month!


About to hit SF MOMA today and this was super helpful, thank you!


great article! i run the family exploration gallery at the Cincinnati Art Museum so i am all about family friendly activities at museums!

two suggestions -another way to little hands busy in the galleries is by bringing a pencil and small sketchbook. most art museums allow pencils and notebooks in the galleries (no pens or colored pencils though) and it’s a great opportunity to practice observational skills. also, picking one or two things to look for in the museum (animals, specific shapes, hair dos) is a fun way to frame a museum visit for your kids.

also! if you want to check out a museum with your little ones for the first time and are feeling a little nervous or intimidated, check your museum’s website to see when their next family day is happening! most museums have a museum family day at least once a month (or quarterly) where there will be family friendly activities and more families in the museum. often admission is free or discounted on these days too.

happy museum-ing!


When visiting the San Francisco Bay Area, please stop by the
Burlingame Museum of PEZ Memorabilia and see an example of
every Pez dispenser ever sold!