How to introduce your children to museums
By Susan Kerr

Many parents overlook one of the best aspects of being in the Bay Area: the huge assortment of museums readily accessible to the public, some even in your own neighborhood. If your first reaction is to say "not with my kids," think again.

When my kids were small, museums were a lifesaver. Sure, we went to the park all the time, but at least three times a month I packed them into the car, stroller and all, and headed off to visit some museum. One reason was because that’s the way I had been raised. As a girl growing up in New York City, I went to a museum almost every week, culminating in working at New York’s Museum of Natural History when I was a teenager. Here are some tips to get your family started on a lifelong journey of enjoying history, art, and science.


Museums have changed a lot since we were kids. To get started, you may need to rethink what a museum is if you’re still imagining a huge place with room after room of dusty exhibits. Sure, there are still those traditional painting and sculpture-filled structures, but today we also have places designed especially for kids, as well as for just about every specialty, hobby or interest imaginable. There’s no reason you and your family can’t feel at home at any of these sites.

As a mother, I learned what my parents knew but never told me: museums are a great way to spend time (and, let’s be truthful, to kill time!) with your kids. If you’re a stay-at-home parent, a museum outing can be planned to take the entire day. If your kids are older and at school, or if your time is limited, a trip to a museum can be tailored to all of your schedules.


First, figure out how much time you can afford. If you have an hour, try visiting a smaller site such as the many house museums around the Bay Area. One of my kids’ favorites was the Woodside Store , built in 1854 and now restored as a country store in the 1880s. Many Bay Area cities have local historical buildings that have been refurbished. These serve as good introductions for kids to California history but aren’t too overwhelming nor do they involve a lengthy trip.

If you have a little more flexibility in the time department, a little planning goes a long way. Avoid weekends if possible. If you go during the week, be aware that most school groups visit museums in the mornings through lunch time. Thus it’s better to visit in early to mid afternoon. This particularly works well if you visit one of the many hands-on kids’ museums where your little one stands little chance of actually trying out the exhibits if he’s up against 20 busloads of students.

On the flip side, if you have small children, or are bringing two or more, think nap schedules. When my younger daughter, Vanessa, was under the age of two, it worked well to push her in the stroller while my older daughter, Lydia, was walking alongside. Timed correctly, Vanessa would fall asleep in her stroller, giving me more quality time with Lydia. Likewise, one reason I liked big outings was that they’d both fall asleep on the car ride home if we visited through lunchtime and then left. But the most important thing is to pick a time when your child isn’t too tired or cranky.


If you like, why not pick a place tailored to an interest of your child? If she’s fond of animals, try the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo . If science or space intrigues him try some of the wonderful science museums in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland or around Silicon Valley. Or if you’re in a more historical or cross-cultural mood, try the Rosecrutian Museum in San Jose, which is filled with Egyptian artifacts and a tomb, or the Hakone Gardens in Saratoga, one of our many local Japanese cultural areas. Or think even smaller, like the museum of Pez memorabilia in Burlingame. If you think something is really going to click with your child, go for it!


Eventually, however, you’ll want to visit an "official" art museum. With a few ground rules, these visits can work well with kids. You need to explain clearly the 'no touching' policy and why it exists. This is harder for some kids than others, but you need to make sure they follow it. The best way to enforce it, again, comes down to time. Don’t expect to spend a long time at an art museum. Instead pick a very limited area to visit, and maybe break up your visit with lunch or a snack, or even a quick exit. In addition, some of the big museums have special rooms with activities designed for their younger visitors.

When you’re at an art museum, pick just a few pieces of work to talk to your child about. Don’t embark on a college-level art history lecture but rather try to convey a thought or two. Remember, you are trying to ignite a love of art, not teach it all in one day. Be sure to ask him what he thinks about it. You’ll be surprised at how what’s obvious to kids isn’t to us adults.


And the big question: do you go to the gift shop or not? While you may not want to get in the habit of bribing your kids to get them to behave, sometimes a trip to the gift shop (after you’ve looked at the exhibits, of course) is a treat and reinforces what you’ve seen. It doesn’t need to be expensive. My mother occasionally let me purchase a single postcard at the end of a museum visit, a tradition I continued with my girls. These small pictures of a painting or exhibit are still favorite momentos of ours.

Remember, just because you have kids there’s no reason not to take advantage of the many wonderful museums in the Bay Area. In fact, it can soon become a family tradition!


Here is a short list of local museums to get you started:

Museums specifically designed for children :

Bay Area Discovery Museum, Sausalito:  
Children’s Discovery Museum, San Jose:  
Coyote Point Museum, San Mateo:
Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo:

Art and Cultural Museums :

Asian Art Museum, San Francisco:  
Cantor Arts Center, Stanford:  
Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum, San Francisco:  
Rosecrutian Egyptian Museum, San Jose:  
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art:   
San Jose Museum of Art:

  Science Museums:
California Academy of Science:  
Lawrence Hall of Science, Berkeley:  
The Tech Museum, San Jose:

History houses:

Los Altos History House:  
The Rengstorff House, Mountain View:  
The Woodside Store:  

Freelance writer Susan Kerr lives in San Francisco with her husband and two daughters. They continue to go museum hopping whenever possible.

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