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"MUSEUMS & LEARNING: A GUIDE FOR FAMILY VISITS" offers suggestions on how to make museum visits enjoyable learning experiences for families with children ranging in age from 4 to 12 years old.

Below are excerpts on how families can make the most of a museum visit. Titles, descriptions & URLs for "virtual museums" are also below. The full text of the 30-page booklet is at:

"Museums & Learning: A Guide for Family Visits." Published by the Department's Office of Educational Research & Improvement (OERI) & the Smithsonian's Office of Education. (April 1998)

The Museum Visit: Making the Most of It

There is no magic formula for visiting museums. A spur-of-the-moment trip can be just as rewarding as a planned visit. But if you have the time, some things that you can do before, during, & after the visit may help to enrich the experience. Here are a few tips to help make your visit to any museum an enjoyable learning experience.

Before the Visit Children may be more excited about the visit if they are involved in the planning. Ways to do this include:

> TALKING about what they will see in the museum, especially if it's the first visit. This conversation may include some basic information about museums & also how objects get there & why people collect objects in the first place.

> FINDING out what excites them. If your youngsters are interested in meteors or mummies & your local museum has exhibits on these subjects, you're ready to go! If not, just choose a place that sounds interesting such as a museum in a nearby city. Or look for a museum online.

> RELATING what's being learned in school to a museum visit Children can use the visit to do research or to find out more about a subject they're currently studying. Your local museum may have exhibits that will help bring the subject to life.

> REVIEWING personal safety & behavior rules. Make a safety plan with your children in case you get separated, including the role of museum guards & other staff. Talk with your children about how to behave in the museum by explaining that museums have rules of acceptable & unacceptable behavior. For example, art & history museums generally have a no-touching policy because the items displayed are rare & can't be replaced, but children's museums are always hands-on.

Things You Can Do Before You Go

> BE FLEXIBLE & follow your child's lead. Don't be surprised if your planned visit to see the dinosaur bones is put on hold because the huge elephant has caught your children's attention. Let them enjoy the exhibit at their own pace. Be ready to discuss any questions they may have. If you don't know the answers, jot down the questions in a notebook. > TRY TO RELATE FACTS about the exhibit that you're seeing to what your children already know. For example, a knight's suit of armor serves the same purpose as a catcher's mask, a bicycle helmet, or shin guards--to protect the body. > ASK YOUR CHILDREN to tell you a story about an object in the exhibit that interests them. "Who do you think wore that suit of armor?" "How did they make it fit?" Encourage them to use their imaginations. If labels or wall text provide more information, include it in your discussion.

Play Museum & Gallery Games

Children of all ages love to play games. Museum games or treasure hunts focus a museum visit & help to break up the time as you go from exhibit to exhibit. They stimulate your child's curiosity, sharpen observation skills, & generally make the visit more enjoyable. If the museum does not provide games, make up your own:

POSTCARD GAMES. Buy some postcards at the museum gift shop. Then turn your children into detectives & ask them to find the pictured items. Not only will they enjoy the hunt, but they'll be thrilled to discover the real thing. Were the colors the same? the details? the textures? the size? Later at home, the cards can be arranged for a home exhibition.

I SPY. Have youngsters find an object in an exhibit & describe it to other family members so that each one can take a turn guessing what the object is: "I spy something red & brown with sharp edges" or "I spy something that inches its way along the ground."

SEEK & FIND. Ask your child to find paintings that have his or her favorite colors, shapes, or objects in them. This game is not only fun but teaches children to look very closely at each object. Games like this give children a sense of accomplishment when they successfull find or identify everything asked of them.

WHERE IS IT? Ask your child to find something in the exhibit that is very old soft... hard... strong... shiny ... Or something that feels rough... smooth... hot... slippery... bumpy... itchy... Or something that smells yummy... burnt... sweet..

TELL ME WHY OR HOW? Begin the game by saying something like, "If I could ask one question, I'd ask: Tell me the steps in building an Indian tepee?" The answers are usually within the exhibit. This game is fun in any kind of museum.

Visit the Museum Gift Shop
Families are sure to find books, posters, toys, games, postcards, & other mementos that remind children of what they saw & expand their knowledge.

Child-Size Your Visit
Young children, especially preschoolers & those in early grades, usually learn best in 10- to 15-minute sessions & can be overwhelmed by seeing too many things at one time. Thirty minutes to 1 hour may be the limit. Should your children say things like "I'm bored," "it's so hot in here," or "when are we going home?" -- you know that they've seen enough & it's time to take a break or leave. Plan another visit to see the exhibits you missed.

Electronic Resources

More & more virtual museums & field trips appear on the Internet every day. Many of the sites listed here have been recommended by museum professionals & librarians working with children. Note sites containing lesson plans for teachers.

Museums in General

Museums around the World --
Smithsonian Institution --
World Wide Web Virtual Library Museum --

Art Art Institute of Chicago -- Art Museum Network -- WebMuseum, Paris --
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York --

Children's Museums

Children's Museum of Indianapolis --

The Boston Children's Museum often has exhibitions with folklore content.


Illinois State Museum, At Home in the Heartland exhibit --

Library of Congress --

Natural History


American Museum of Natural History, New York
Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago

Science & Technology


Chicago Academy of Sciences
Exploratorium --
Franklin Institute Science Museum --
Miami Museum of Science --
Museum of Science & Industry, Chicago --
Science Learning Network

Special Interest


The Firehouse Museum --

National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum --

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame & Museum --