Montessori-inspired tips for bringing toddlers to museums

Jasmine: Many museums offer workshops, activity trails and audio guides- but these cater more to older kids than the youngest of the young. Sometimes, we adults want to go to a museum (and not just the kids’ exhibit/playspace) for our own personal enjoyment but have to tote our kids along.

Meeting Mona Lisa

Andrew: In our technology-saturated world, museums present a rich sensorimotor experience, requiring physical movement within a curated space designed to appeal to the senses. Compared to viewing art in books or on screens, there is a clear sense of scale e.g. seeing a photograph of The Wedding at Cana would certainly have been less powerful than viewing it in its sheer majesty at the Louvre:

Museums, even the ones that don’t seem child-friendly, are thus a great place for children to learn so much. Our kids have visited the following in the six weeks since we have been here:

London

  • London Transport Museum
  • British Museum
  • Natural History Museum
  • Fashion Exhibition at the Barbican Centre

Paris

  • Musee du Louvre
  • Musee D’Orsay
  • Centre Pompidou

Jasmine: These are the strategies we use for engaging our 2yo toddler and 3.5yo preschooler.

Beforehand

1. Let them know the etiquette e.g. no running, talk quietly

Posting this clear violation of etiquette coz parents gotta keep it real. Heh.

Instead of hissing at them when they flout etiquette (and yes, it will happen), we try to use positive language to reiterate our expectations, such as saying “we stand in front of the bars” rather than “don’t go there”. See the difference? As I’m learning from my AMI training,  numerous “nos” break their momentum and disrupt them from absorbing the experience.

2. Fulfil children’s need for gross motor beforehand

Children aren’t intentionally being “naughty” when they start getting restless in museums- they are just hardwired to move and learn through moving. Most museums have an adjoining outdoor space. Even if it’s just running around in circles or jumping (repeatedly) off a bench before entering the museum, we try to let the children play to their hearts’ content. When they have gotten that out of the way, they seem less fidgety and more able to concentrate.

That being said, we cap our museum visits at around 2 hours.

Andrew: At the British Museum, we gave our kids some time to go up and down the stairs in the Great Court. It gives you time to also appreciate the architecture and the space of the museum, without having to worry about the kids touching any exhibits.

We paced our time at the London Transport Museum differently; there was so much for the kids to do that we spent about 1.5 hours there before lunch, then came back after lunch for another 2 hours. As with most museums, you always uncover new things the second time plus we could also help our kids navigate the museum better.

3. Show them what the building looks like

Most museums are also places of architectural and geographical significance. I put my own twist on the Montessori three-part card (a great way to introduce rich vocabulary and word association for a young child), backing it with clear laminate instead of white paper, so that the cards could be held up next to the actual building, and dissolve into the background.

I had to ditch the idea of making these silhouette images from scratch as my photoshop skills are nonexistent, but Google Images to the rescue. I googled “Paris silhouette skyline”, found a bunch of wall decal images and chose and cut up the one that had most of the landmarks I was planning to visit.


These silhouette cards are especially useful for exploring museums in a new city, which is why we did it on our weekend in Paris.

4. Do the museum shop first

This requires zero effort and zero lamination (woohoo). Instead of visiting the museum shop last, visit it first. Why? Find out here.

The postcards chosen give you a glimpse into the child’s mind. Dylan chose Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles (above) and Manet’s Les Fifre, of a drummer boy.

During the visit

5. Follow the child. Literally.

Even if it’s just 10 or 15 minutes, let the child lead the way. Dylan likes to read maps so together we will locate places he is looking for and let him show the way.

And you know, it doesn’t even matter if we don’t get there, as the fun is in the journey, not the destination.


Andrew: It may be tempting to keep the kids in your carrier/ stroller for ease of movement. However, we prefer that they move about freely. The smallest things may catch their attention. At the Natural History Museum, there were moments where Emmy simply stood in front of the avian exhibit for a long time, – saying “bird, bird” every so often. The temptation, of course, was to move on quickly but we gave her time to watch. Like an iceberg, so much may have been going on in her mind as she focused on the bird specimens but she may only have been able to vocalise it as “bird”.  In such cases, you need not explain anything or ask questions as you will be interrupting her concentration.

It’s also useful to link what they see with what they’ve encountered in other settings. For example, at the Louvre, there was a fascinating two-sided painting of David and Goliath by Daniele da Volterra (see point 6), so we spent some time there linking it to what we had read from the Children’s Bible to the kids and walked around the picture, appreciating it from different angles.

6. Show them how to appreciate art from up close and afar.

Jasmine: This was something I learnt when I was studying Art History in uni, which your toddler will be happy to oblige: Move around the artwork. Stand close to it to appreciate the details, then stand further back to see the big picture.

Here Emmy observes from the side while Dylan observes from afar. Volterra painted on both sides so one can walk in a circle around it, and view it from multiple angles, symbolising how an image appears to represent just one truth but actually has many versions.

These 16th-century Giuseppe Arcimboldo Printempts paintings exemplify the need to stand at different distances to appreciate art fully. From afar one can see the human faces in side profile, from up close one can see the vegetables and fruits that constitute the faces.

7. Elicit their feelings about art using Facebook-style emoticons.

Look to the variety of Facebook “like” emoticons for inspiration. I know one blog suggested four for an older child: love, hate, yucks and $$$ (which artwork would you buy) which I can imagine would spark off all kinds of intelligent and passionate responses from one’s children! I simplified it to just two for my children, a heart and a sad face. No preparation needed as I simply drew them on the free brochures provided.

At this mannequin wearing a dress made of acrylic fingernails, Dylan was holding the heart whereas Emmy was holding the sad face. A nice starting-point to discuss how different feelings about the same artwork were equally valid.

Our most unlikely choice for a field trip with kids: a fashion exhibition exploring vulgarity in fashion, at the brutalist architectectural icon the Barbican. I told the children that they should go around the gallery and hold up the heart  if they loved an artwork, or the sad face if they disliked it.

As I did so, the museum staffer who had just given me the brochures said approvingly, “I like your style!” When my kids scooted off with their cards, she said to another staffer, “Did you see what she just did?” and told her about the emoticons.

Not a fan of Dior, much to her father’s relief


8. Don’t be afraid to use big words

The main gripe I have with flashcards (different from Montessori three-part cards) or right-brain training methods that purportedly teach vast amounts of vocabulary is that there is no context. Without context, there is no deep retention of that knowledge. A museum setting is the exact opposite. The child is physically immersed in the context. Summarise the little information placards to discuss Impressionism or Coptic History. Once, Dylan surprised me by saying, “mama, what is this artifact?”

9. Ask good questions.

In addition to giving the kids abbreviated versions of the commentaries, I’ve found it useful to probe them to respond to the piece:

  • What do you see?
  • What is it made of?
  • How was it made? (For tool-obsessed children, discuss tools available to the artist in that era)
  • How big do you think it is? What is it as big as e.g. car, elephant?
Dylan was studying the Assyrian bass relief. He pointed out to me the portion of the bass relief which matched the picture on the placard, observing that the picture showed the relief painted, whereas the actual relief wasn’t. That’s how a 3.5yo boy and I spoke about corrosion and fading of pigments.

Jasmine: On a more meta level, discuss what is not there. This opens up critical questions about curatorial intent and hierarchy of values in a museum e.g. who decides that a painting is worth displaying while a vegetable is not.

Of course, we wouldn’t quite put it that way to a 2yo. Instead, we might ask:

  • What could be in here?
  • Where has it gone? (Discuss conservation, loans to travelling exhibits or other museums for purposes of education)
  • What else would fit into this gallery? (Discuss the characteristics  distinctive to an artist’s body of work, or a genre)

Andrew: Also, let them ask you questions. At the British Museum, Dylan asked me, “Is the artist very old?”. I thought that was a rather factual question, but this lady next to me, who I later learnt was a art teacher, looked at me and said, “Wow, that’s a very impressive question for a boy of his age.” She then looked at him and said, “Well, I guess in relation to you, she would be very old. But she’s [referring to the artist] currently teaching art in my school so you can still meet her.” She then told me after that, “Keep getting him to ask these questions.”

It was Dylan who pointed out this alcove to me and asked me what it displayed.

It just reminded me that kids are naturally inquisitive but it seems that as they grow older, this curiosity disappears. We should continually cultivate that curiosity that by allowing them to ask all questions, while we try to answer while also encouraging them to find their own answers.

Post-visit

10. Save those museum brochures and ticket stubs

Our museum-heavy Paris tray: Louvre map, Les Fifre postcard and other trinkets

Put together a museum tray for them! It’s a concrete way of recapping that museum experience.

Dylan uses the Eiffel Tower as a pointer for his Louvre map, while Emmy practises unfolding the city map. They’ve been working with this tray daily, unprompted by us.

Any museum tips you can share?

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