7 tips for taking children to art galleries

15 Jul

I recently read an article on visiting art galleries, which said “Don’t bring children”.  The writer’s argument was that there are lots of perfectly good children’s museums where they can charge around and press buttons, so why bring them to an art gallery where they will be bored and  behave badly.  Well, I disagree and I like a challenge, so here are my 7 tips for taking children to art galleries. 

1. Prepare them in advance

DSC_0584Find out what works of art are in the gallery and try and find stories related to these paintings or sculptures to fire their imagination before they go.  When we visited the National Gallery in London last December, we walked through the galleries spotting as many baby Jesus’ as we could.  They were all doing nativity plays at school and we had lots of “look, there’s a king like me”.  They were engaged and enthusiastic, and the adults got a chance to look at a few paintings too. 

Some galleries even publish their own children’s books, like the excellent ones written by James Mayhew and produced by the National Gallery (above).  Each book focuses on a different area of the gallery’s collection, such as Impressionists or British painters, and tells a story about a little girl called Katie, who steps into the paintings and has adventures with the characters in them.  They are lovely stories in their own right, and we often read them.  The first time we took the children to the National Gallery, they spotted a couple of the paintings from their book and were really excited.

2. Don’t let them touch anything

It is obviously really important not to touch any of the artworks “to see what happens”, or ping the little ankle-height elastic barriers, however enticing they are to a two year old.  It is worth pointing this out to children when you arrive, as incurring the wrath of a museum guard will make for a very stressful visit.  This is from someone who has had to rapidly scarper when a small child put their foot under barrier, “to see what happens” and found that the alarms do actually go off.

 3. Let off steam safelyVictoria & Albert Museum garden

After all that good behaviour and not touching, they are going to need to let off steam.  Again, do your research and work out in advance where they will be able to do this without crashing into priceless artworks.  The turbine hall in Tate Modern makes a great rainy-day playground, and the Victoria & Albert Museum has a lovely central courtyard garden (right) where they are allowed to have a paddle.  Just don’t let them poo on the lawn like one of my children did recently.  It upsets the other visitors.   

 4. Don’t try and see too much


Spending hours in an art gallery can be overwhelming for an adult, and even more so for a small child.  Aim to see just a few pictures and everyone will be happier.  You could create a gallery treasure hunt, either using a leaflet produced by the gallery, or go to the shop first and let them choose a few postcards they like.  You then have to hunt around the gallery to find your pictures.  It keeps them busy and focussed and means that you are looking for a small number of pictures you have chosen, instead of every picture in the room.

4. Make the most of the facilities

DSC_0529Most museums these days have great cafes, loos, cloakrooms for buggies and other facilites for children.  Many art galleries welcome small children with a year-round programme of activities.  The National Portrait Gallery has a weekly storytelling session, based around a new portrait each week and Tate Britain has an ‘Art Trolley’ every Sunday, when children are allowed their pick of the fantastic materials to create a picture inspired by one of the gallery’s masterpieces. 

Speaking of facilites, all galleries these days have large, prominently placed shops, some of which you have to walk through to get to the exit.  If you don’t want to spend money in these, work out your exit strategy in advance.

6. Guided tours

Some galleries have guided tours specifically aimed at children.  We had a great Roberto, Dulwich Picture Gallerytime recently being entertained by the fabulously expressive Roberto at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.  A group of three and four year olds (and their parents) were kept entranced with tales of kings, princes and boys drinking goats milk, directly from the goat.  As well as tours led by humans, some galleries also have audio tours specifically for children, which tell the stories behind the pictures.

7. Installation art

DSC00458Our children love installation art.  I know this sounds unlikely, but it’s true.  I think it’s because they take it at face value instead of trying to work out it’s meaning.  It was with some trepidation that we paid good money to visit the Anthony Gormley exhibition at the Haywood Gallery a couple of years ago (above), wondering whether it would be money wasted.  But they absolutely loved it and we had to drag them away for lunch.  We’ve since visited a number of modern art exhibitions, all of which they’ve enjoyed.

I am firmly of the opinion that it is possible to visit an art gallery with small children, without them trashing the place.  If you are lucky, you might even get to see some art.


16 Responses to “7 tips for taking children to art galleries”

  1. Mike 15/07/2009 at 12:07 pm #

    Great tips. I’ve been taking my pair to galleries since they were born. They’re now seven and five respectively, and they can both negotiate the trickiest of shows with the minimum of fuss. What I object to is when invigilators single them out for attention when they’re doing nothing, while adult gallery-visitors are touching stuff and lurching around willy nilly.

    • itsasmallworldafterallfamily 15/07/2009 at 12:20 pm #

      Thanks. Sometimes it feels like you are being followed by the guards, as they expect them to behave badly.

  2. That Girl 15/07/2009 at 12:33 pm #

    I would definitely give it a go – great post! Small Child has a book about Miffy Rabbit going to the gallery – if its good enough for Miffy….

  3. Amy @ The Q Family 15/07/2009 at 2:01 pm #

    Great tips! I agree that preparation is important and actually a lot of art museums have great family programs.

  4. Jen 15/07/2009 at 2:44 pm #

    I have yet to take my mobile children into an art museum but reading this makes me more willing to attempt it! I love the idea of stopping by the gift shop to pick postcards of paintings out so that you can go on a scavenger hunt. What a cool idea!

  5. Maternal Tales 15/07/2009 at 9:49 pm #

    I love it – you make it sound so plausible…I might even put it to the test (haven’t done it yet – bad Mother that I am)!! And yes, I am also ridiculously proud of you to have managed to squeeze in a poo story – who would have thought?!! xxx

    • itsasmallworldafterallfamily 16/07/2009 at 8:38 pm #

      I’ve learned from the master of poo stories.

  6. Dancinfairy 16/07/2009 at 4:22 pm #

    Great tips, I love the one about picking the postcards and then hunting out the paintings.

    • itsasmallworldafterallfamily 16/07/2009 at 8:25 pm #

      I didn’t make that one up, but it’s a goodie!

  7. Dim Sum, Bagels, and Crawfish 24/07/2009 at 1:17 pm #

    Great tips. As a child I spent a lot of time visiting museums and galleries with my parents (both artists) and I am trying to do the same thing with our kids. Love seeing what strikes them as interesting and many times they will point things out I hadn’t even noticed. And like you, we have discovered that our trips are usually pretty brief . I loved visiting the Tate when I was in London glad to hear you suggest it for a rainy day outing with kids.

  8. Sarah V. 07/12/2009 at 10:37 pm #

    These are great tips! Glad I’m not the only one who thinks it is definitely worthwhile to take children to art museums.


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