Docent Educator Logo

Peek and Do! Making Museum Visits Meaningful for the Youngest

How can I get and keep their attention on the exhibits?” and “How can I make this meaningful?” are questions that confront docents, teachers, and parents as they participate in museum visits with young children. Good answers to these two questions mean you won’t find yourself asking “How can I control them ?” and “Should children this age even be here?”

Orientation and follow-up are the keys to success, along with careful watching and listening for cues from the children as you go along.

The Orientation

An orientation need not be long to be effective, but it should include several components. First, establish the groundrules, positively. These will vary from museum to museum (and sometimes from exhibit to exhibit). In our hands-on children’s museum and nature center we say:

  • The things here are for you to touch, climb up into, crawl through, and explore. Be gentle with them so you can use them again and so other people can use them.
  • The floors are hard and we don’t want anyone to get hurt. Please walk.
  • The live animals can get scared and hurt just like you. Be kind to them. They are wild and aren’t for touching.
  • We are here to help you. Ask any questions and we’ll try to answer them.

In many museums “hands-off’ has to be the rule. Children will comply if you explain: “These beautiful dresses will get stains on them and even fall apart if we touch them. That’s why they have to stay behind glass. But I have a piece of brocade for you to feel and look at up close.”

Second, present the alternatives.

Briefly, let children know what there is to see or do. This will usually change somewhat over time and may vary with the age of the children. Currently we say:

  • We have three rooms. In this one you can paint, draw, and use stamps and other things to create a portrait of yourself and what you like to do.
  • In the room to the right you can learn about animals and the kinds of habitats in which they live. You can watch Hissy the owl; you can compare different kinds of animal bones; you can climb up into a bird’s nest or crawl through a prarie dog tunnel. You will discover other things to do there, too.
  • In the room to the left you can learn what it was like to be a young Arapaho Indian or Oregon Trail emigrant 150 years ago. You can go into a tepee, play Indian games, listen to stories and think about the boys and girls you see crossing the land in the covered wagons, or you can load a covered wagon, listen to stories about the long trip, and think about the Indian boys and girls you might meet at the trading post.

Giving children alternatives allows for individual differences of age, temperament, and interests. With a school group, a decent might be able to say, “I’m going to take everyone on a walk-through of two painting galleries. We’ll be looking at colors to see how the different combinations make you feel (quiet, excited, gloomy, happy, etc.). Then we’ll divide into two groups. If you want to look again at very new paintings, your teacher will take you back to the modem gallery. If you want to look again at the very old paintings, I’ll take you there.” If there is no way for the children to have choices in what they do or where they go, it is especially important that the docent create opportunities for mental choices in the activities and discussions that make up the tour.

Third, conduct a warm-up activity that introduces the children to the exhibit, concept, or thinking process on which you wish to focus. We have as one goal wanting children to look closely at the animals in our displays to begin to learn how animals are adapted to their habitats. We might begin by bringing to our orientation area one mounted bird specimen. After talking about its beak and feet, the children can guess about where it lives and what it eats. Then we encourage them to go on a “treasure hunt” in the nature center to discover how many different kinds of beaks and feet they can find that suggest different ways of life.

A class of 1st – 3rd graders I once observed in an art museum watched the process as a teacher made a silhouette of one class member— shining a light to create a shadow, tracing the edge of the shadow, cutting it out and mounting it on contrasting paper. She also mounted the remaining “frame” on contrasting paper to show them the idea of negative space. The class set off with great enthusiasm to look at a collection of silhouettes, with the promise they would make their own at the end of the class.

The Tour

Once orientation is complete, the exploration or tour can begin. Whenever possible, build exploration in. Young children need to be active, moving, thinking, and talking — not standing or sitting and listening. A key part of the adult’s role is to listen and observe. Whatever you may have planned to ask, tell, or show must constantly be revised based on the questions the children have, their observations, and their degree of engagement (as judged by their behavior). It’s better to change the planned activity or shorten a program or tour when the interest runs out than to hold onto a predetermined plan and have it fail as children begin to misbehave

It is also important to be able to repeat or expand a planned activity if the children demonstrate interest. Once a group of parents and I took my class of four year olds from an inner-city public school to the art museum nearby. A traveling exhibition on “Dali’s Jewels” featured a sumptuous display of Salvador Dali themes such as the melting watch done in gold and jewels and displayed against dramatic crystals. It was accompanied by a visitor-activated slide show. The sub-group of the class with whom I explored the exhibit looked at the display with curiosity and amazement, then played the slide show through three times. I was wondering what was holding their attention. Finally, one little boy, with evident relish, announced, ” That elephant (on stilt legs) is bad!” He thoroughly enjoyed the absurdity. Later I noted that he had even picked up the word “surreal” from the tape.

Remember that each child, no matter how young, is an individual and that each one’s responses, interests, and tastes may be unique. Another four year old, in a different institution, had spent so much time looking at geology museum displays and going on field trips with his geologist father that he incorporated into a typical preschool picture of “Springtime” (a child, the sun, and a rainbow) a whole underground cross section of geological strata. It was obvious that the child’s individual interests had been noted and fostered by an attentive adult.

The Follow Up

The post-tour follow up may be the most essential element for making the visit meaningful. Whenever possible it should include some concrete, hands-on activity. The art class learning about silhouettes came back after a short visit to the silhouette collection. While the teacher and an assistant made silhouettes of each child, (they were too young to do this successfully themselves), pairs of children put simple objects under lights, traced outlines, cut out and mounted on contrasting paper both the silhouette of the object and the negative space from which it had been cut. Those children will remember most what they actually did — the process. Their silhouette portraits will serve as a bridge to remind them of their observations. The experience of making them will form a base to which other experiences with silhouettes or with negative spaces will connect.

The post-tour follow up has another important function. It gives an opportunity to correct misunderstandings and to clear up confusions. When my older son was still a toddler, my husband and I took him with us (for our convenience) when we visited an art museum. One time he wandered around a comer just ahead of us, then came tearing back to me, clearly frightened. “Mommy, mommy — part lady, part lady” was all he could manage. I rounded the corner and there, on a central pedestal, was a bust of a Roman goddess. To the unprepared two year old, whose perceptions of reality are distinctly different from adults, this armless, headless apparition was truly alarming. When we went home we got out the familiar playdough. I modeled an approximation of the bust and we talked about the “part lady.” I introduced the word “sculpture” and noted that sculptures could get broken and fixed and that people who make sculptures can make them of parts of things if they want. Then he rolled a ball of playdough for a head for our small statue and “fixed” the part lady. Similarly, a docent might lead a preschool, kindergarten, or primary group in using playdough as a follow-up to a visit to a sculpture gallery or a ceramic or pottery exhibit.

This summer, as I toured a gem and mineral gallery at a major science museum. I observed a situation that recalled another experience with my own son when he was a preschooler. “Come on. Mom, there’s nothing here!” I overheard from a five year old boy tugging his mother past the cases of gems and minerals. His mother, annoyed, glanced at a few cases, then walked quickly out the door. My mind leapt years into the past to a visit with my own four year old to an exhibit on stained glass at an art museum in New York. “This is boring!” was his response to the multi-colored wonders. But as I looked, we talked, and he began to look, too. “What kinds of pictures would you make if you had lots of bits of different colored glass?” “How would you hold them together?”

For years I kept the reminder, the follow-up, of that visit. When we got back to our apartment in the Bronx we noticed lots of different colored bits of glass from broken soda, beer, and wine bottles in the gutters. Very carefully we picked them up, took them indoors, and washed them. Carefully, reflectively, he glued them to a piece of shirt cardboard backing, creating his own stained glass marvel.

What did he learn from the experience? Not the names or dates of artists, or the location of masterpieces. Nothing about periods or styles. Not the technical intricacy of stained glass making. But I do think he learned to look and to wonder, and that a museum can be an interesting place. I also think he learned that beauty can be created out of improbable materials and that he himself could be a creator. At age four, that’s a lot!

Cleta Booth is the founding President of the Wyoming Children ‘s Museum and Nature Center in Laramie, WY, where she also serves as a docent. Formerly the Vice President for Programming at the Children ‘s Museum of Richmond. VA. Ms. Booth has been an early childhood educator for 18 years. Currently, she teaches at the Wyoming Center for Teaching and Learning, the laboratory school of the College of Education at the University of Wyoming. Ms. Booth holds a B.A. in English from Rice University; an M.A.T. in English from Harvard University, American Montessori Certification, and an M.Ed, in Early Childhood Special Education from Virginia Commonwealth University.

Booth, Cleta. “Peek and Do! Making Museum Visits Meaningful for the Youngest,” The Docent Educator 3.2 (Winter 1993): 4-5. 



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *