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Is My Child Too Young for an Art Museum? 

Is My Child Too Young for an Art Museum? 

Most parents understand the pros and cons of visiting art and history museums with tiny tots in tow. While hand-on children’s museums are a no-brainer, some think twice before bringing young kids to other types of arts spaces.

When visiting one of the many museums in Mississippi — such as the Walter Anderson Museum or the Ohr-O’Keefe, both on the coast; the B.B. King Museum in the Delta; the Lauren Rogers Museum in the Pine Belt; or the true centerpiece of the state’s art scene, the Mississippi Museum of Art — parents often worry: “Is my child mature enough for this?”

According to Elizabeth Williams, Director of Interpretation for the Mississippi Museum of Art, parents should have never have a second thought about exposing children to such soul-enriching, imaginationsparking culture.

Most all are capable, in some way, of rising to the challenge.

“It’s true that the way that a lot of exhibitions are arranged in art museums seems geared for adults,” Williams said. “And there are always a lot of rules when you’re in an art museum.”

She said rules such as “don’t touch!” may seem overwhelming to parents and restless kids.

“But art museums are definitely not just for adults,” she stressed. “In fact, research shows that kids develop a lifelong love of museums around the age of seven or eight, and it’s all about the way you engage them.”

That very thought is echoed almost word-for-word by Malika Polk-Lee, Executive Director of the B.B. King Museum, located in the Delta town of Indianola.

“Parents need to ensure that they engage the children during their visit or tour,” she said. It’s not enough to just leave them to their own devices.

But how, exactly, is this done? Well, this is partly the job of the museums, and partly the job of parents.

Don’t Just Let Them Wander Around — Get Kids Engaged! 

“At the Mississippi Museum of Art, we actually use college-age kids from Jackson to guide our school groups through the Museum,” Williams said. “They get down on the floor with kids, lead them in conversation, and bring out gallery-safe, tactile elements like felt, yarn, drawing materials, and model magic to help kids translate what they’re seeing.”

There’s also an array of other organized programs geared towards all ages.

“We also develop self-guided materials called Family Guides,” she said, “which help parents and kids navigate the Museum together.”

At the Ohr-O’Keefe, located in Biloxi, many children enjoy the physical space of the museum itself. They climb the steps to the museum’s higher points and look outside over the Mississippi Sound.

“We are always coming up with new programs for kids,” said Kevin O’Brien, Executive Director, OhrO’Keefe Museum of Art. “We regularly participate with other organizations to produce programs for special needs kids, gifted kids…”

He said the Ohr-O’Keefe offers features such as “Clay Art Academy for Homeschoolers,” where kids learn “hand-building and wheel throwing” as part of the museum’s regular curriculum.

Over at the B.B. King Museum — which traces not only B.B. king’s life, but contains lessons about music history in general — Polk-Lee suggests consulting a museum’s staff when visiting with kids.

“Ask the museum staff if they have activities to help enhance the child’s experience,” she advised. “The B.B. King Museum, just as others, has activity sheets and scavenger hunt activities for children of all ages to help make the tour a fun learning experience.”

“We have an exhibit curriculum written to meet the Mississippi state common core standards that is free on our website,” Polk-Lee said, explaining it’s a great tool when used by parents and teachers.    In terms of exhibit design at Mississippi Museum of Art, Williams said kids are certainly considered.

“We generally don’t tailor any one exhibition to children,” she said, “though kids are always on our minds when choosing exhibitions. One thing we recognize is that we are all innately storytellers, and this is especially true for young kids.”
“In one way or the other, works of art all can be the basis for good stories,” she said, “so even if a specific exhibition isn’t geared towards children, there will always be a way to engage young children in the works of art on the walls.”

How Young is “Too Young”?

Even with all this great advice, surely there must be an age that is simply “too young.” That age is actually much younger than many would suspect.

“I actually think you can be quite young and still have a meaningful visit to an art museum,” Williams said. “I have a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, both of whom love museums and regularly recall things they’ve seen.”

Williams said her youngest child “was recently enamored with a Buddha figurine he saw at an art museum, and when playing with a dress-up crown recently, pretended he was the Buddha.”

Such creative imagining would not have happened had he not been exposed to the Mississippi Museum of Art.

“That absolutely is a result of an art museum visit,” she said, “so in my mind, it’s never too early. Who knows what it will do to their imaginations.”

Why Museums Matter

Williams summarizes why exposing kids to art not only enhances their imaginations, but also can exercise the mental muscles that give kids a greater attention span.

“Just like we emphasize literacy skills in reading and writing,” she explained, “we should be equally concerned with developing visual literacy skills. Research shows that the earlier you start, the better your ability to understand and appreciate complex works of art.”

“Especially in a time when we as a society encounter so much visual stimuli,” she added, “the ability to sit, focus, and appreciate an original work of art is increasingly urgent.”

Kara Martinez Bachman is an author, journalist, editor, and parent of two teens who visited art museums as young kids. Her book of humor essays on parenting and relationships, “Kissing the Crisis” — described at Huffington Post as “Delightful” — is available in select bookstores, from KaraMartinezBachman.com, or via Amazon.com.

Helpful Tips for Parents — Get Your Kids Interested In Art and History 

Elizabeth Williams, Director of Interpretation for the Mississippi Museum of Art, has a few suggestions for engaging children:

  • Don’t try to see everything; focus instead on just a few works of art. “This way,” Williams said, “they’llactually remember what they’ve seen as opposed to the ‘cramming’ approach, which often means they will get bored and not remember anything.”
  • Ask questions that encourage looking closely at art. “Artists spend a lot of time creating works of art,” Williams said, “and we typically spend just a few seconds looking. If you sit and look, you’ll be amazed at what kidsnotice.”
  • Make it clear that there are no right answers! “Adults, especially with art, sometimes feel like they should know something about a work of art,” Williams explained. “It’s ok not to have all of the answers.”
  • Bring a pencil and paper. “Almost every museum allows a pencil and paper inside the museum galleries,” Williams said, “which can be a huge help in allowing your child to be active. Drawing and writing stories in the galleries are really wonderful ways to get kids looking. Bring your own, or check in at the front desk for pencil and paper that you can use in the galleries.”

About The Author

Kara Bachman

Kara Bachman is a married mom to two children. She's the author of the humor essay collection, "Kissing the Crisis," which deals with the zanier aspects of parenting, relationships, and turning 40. She's read her work on NPR radio and over 1,500 items have appeared in dozens of literary and commercial publications, including The Writer, The Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and Nola.com, Dogster, Mississippi Magazine, American Fitness, and many more. She's a New Orleans native, but lived for over a dozen years on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, including during 2005 when her house was flooded by Hurricane Katrina.

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