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Docent for kids

Seattle Art Museum school tour group. Photo courtesy SAM

Docent tips: How to visit a museum with a child

Good questions can help deepen the experience

So, you want to take your kid to a museum. You’re in a good place; the greater Seattle area is home to more than 50 museums.

Docent tips for kids

David Turner, Seattle Art Museum docent. Photo courtesy SAM.

When I retired, I decided to take the training at a local art museum to become a docent. As it happened, they were seeking volunteers to guide 4th graders in what was likely their first museum visit. I had spent ten years teaching Jr. High, so I thought, ‘This will be easy; I can do this; it will be fun.’ 

Boy, did I have a lot to learn.  

So, allow me to share some of that learning to put you ahead of the game.

First, let me assure you that a visit to a museum can be a magical bonding and learning experience for a child. My 50-year-old daughter claims she remembers the trip we took to the museum when she was a little girl. My memory is the look on her face and giggles when she saw a painting of the naked lady pressing her breast to shoot milk into the mouth of her baby. What she remembers is that we had cookies and cocoa that day.  

The most important lesson I take from this is that the art seen doesn’t matter nearly as much as the experience a child has with you, the adult. A wise colleague on my first day of teaching school told me that my job was not about the lesson plan I had prepared, but in keeping them safe. “They will learn about adjectives when they need to,” she said.  “If you turn them off to learning, it may be permanent.” 

I think she was right. 

When I guide school group tours today at Seattle Art Museum (SAM), I spend the first five minutes figuring out which kids are bluebirds, which ones are bunnies, and who are the squirrels. Then, and only then, can I start the real work of introducing a work of art. 

Flow with your child’s style

Bear with me. This isn’t a Meyers-Briggs analysis. It’s just a simple way to understand how kids respond to the experience in a new and very formal environment like a museum.  

Bluebirds are adult pleasers. They work to have the right answer and prove how well-behaved they can be. They often feel responsible for your experience. Don’t let them fool you into thinking you are the perfect guide. 

Bunnies are the quiet internal thinkers. They watch carefully and seek correct answers internally before giving a response. They may also cling to you in a crowded environment. When you encounter a bunny, hold back. 

Squirrels are the wild ones. They are excited and want to take it all in. You may be tempted to discipline and worry that other visitors are judging your parenting. Your job is to adjust the pace for your squirrel.

The good news is that museum educators have been thinking a lot about bluebirds, bunnies, and squirrels, as well as other learning styles, and most museums provide ideas and places of engagement for all kinds of learners. Depending on the museum, you may find corners for drawing, computing, and hands-on discovery. And most staff members are eager to help your child engage. Consider asking one of the security guards about what might be fun to do. These folks are often artists themselves, and far more than telling kids not to touch the paintings, they love being a part of a good experience. 

Some museums have traveling docents who are happy to assist visitors.  They usually wear an “ask me” badge and hope you will. 

Docent tips for kids and parents as they look at Calder exhibit at SAM

Parent and kids take in the Alexander Calder exhibit at Seattle Art Museum. Photo by Joshua Huston

Tips for a good experience

Here are some ideas to make your trip to a museum a good experience for you both.  

  1. Go to a museum that you have already visited.  That way, you can pick out what you want a child to see in advance. Select five to seven artworks or displays you want to experience together and expect to have time to see no more than four. Pick a variety of works. A landscape or portrait may be accessible, but it may not be easy to maintain your child’s attention unless you have an idea of how to look at the piece more closely. For example, at SAK, there is a group of full-body portraits. I ask kids to help me decide which artist has painted the best left hand. There is no right answer here. We both win when we look closer at the work. Some kids are willing to make up a story about what one person depicted in a painting might be saying to someone in an adjacent painting after the museum closes. 
  2. Don’t worry about trying to explain abstract artwork. Kids respond and get it without your commentary. Picasso said that all children are born artists and that growing up kills the artist in us. Seattle Art Museum has a large collection of the work of Alexander Calder, the creator of mobiles. Not once have I needed to talk about what the work is about. I let kids tell me. In truth, he didn’t make his art to say something.  He was interested in giving the viewer pleasure and joy. 
  3. If they aren’t engaged, move on. Attention spans are limited, and forcing an art history lecture on them is just plain boring.  
  4. Think about adding public transportation to the museum trip. It extends the experience and helps you create an event together. Besides, parking is a pain. 
  5. The afterglow is critical. This is the time for your charge to evaluate your performance. Invite them to tell you what they saw, how they felt when looking at pieces, what they thought was ‘cool’ and what they thought was ‘booorrrring!’ And don’t forget to ask what they liked best — you’ll find out quickly if you have given them a memory or not. 

Docent tricks of the trade: Ask questions

And, just in case it’s helpful on your visit, here are a few tricks docents use to engage groups is children.  

  • Explain why the rules of museums exist. Actually, there is only one. Don’t touch the art, which in some cases is a huge temptation. Oil on the hands can damage the work. Security guards get anxious when people cross this line. Encourage kids to stand one shoesize from the line for safe measure. After the rules talk, I always add rule number two: “Let’s have fun.” 
  • Make these questions your mantra to kids: 
    • “What do you see?” 
    • “What else?” 
    • “What makes you say that?” 
  • Repeat as many times as it is working. Your job here is not to get correct answers but to encourage closer observation. 
  • Consider the tools the artist may be using. 
    • Materials. Did the artists use paint, metal, wood, or even garbage and found objects? 
    • Colors. Some colors and shades are stronger. For example, red is often a trick to guide the eye through a painting. 
    • Line. Lines are dots that go for a walk. Some kids respond to lines by repeating them in the air with their fingers. 
    • Texture. Is this smooth or rough? 
  • Ask a child who is looking at a piece of art, “How does this make you feel?” Or even better, how does the person depicted in this work feel?  
  • Ask a child to expand on a comment with “Why do you say that?” Use your deep and active listening skills when discussing a piece with your child. Go a little deeper with this response after your child offers commentary. Your goal is to model empathy with this question.  
  • Strike a pose. Little kids will often adopt the position of a work that attracts them. Encourage them to do this so they can experience a work of art with their full body and attention.

I look fondly at the times I have spent in the company of a youngster in a museum. It is a perfect time away from the usual structures of life for us both, and it helps me look at a work I think I know with new eyes.  

Read more:

Mother-daughter review: Raúl de Nieves at the Henry

Review: ‘Boys in the Boat’ at MOHAI

Mother-daughter review: Calder at Seattle Art Museum

Seattle-area museums to explore for free on First Thursdays

About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is managing editor at Seattle's Child. She is also a certified doula, lactation educator for NestingInstinctsSeattle.com and a certified AWA writing workshop facilitator at Compasswriters.com.