How to Make the Most of a Visit to the Children’s Museum

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From our ongoing multigenerational travel series with Ludmilla Alexander shares a few much-needed tips  on how to make the most out of a visit to a children museum with the grandkids.

Make the Most of a Children’s Museum
Make the Most of a Children’s Museum

Did you know there are right ways and wrong ways to visit a children’s museum?

Grandfather Jim and I headed to the Boston Children’s Museum with our two grandchildren — Kara, 4 1/2, and Timmy, 2 1/2 — without really taking the time to make an efficient plan. Because we were on a weeklong visit from California, we were eager to cram in as many outings as possible with our two little Bostonians.

Do as We Say, Not as We Did

Mistake No. 1: This turned out to be — you guessed it — over-scheduling their day. We started out by taking a Boston Duck Tour aboard an authentic World War II amphibious-landing vehicle that travels on the streets of the city, then, with a switch of gears, turns into a boat on the Charles River. Kara and Timmy enjoyed it, especially after Kara was allowed to drive the “boat” for a short time.

By the time we arrived at the Boston Children’s Museum, however, the kids were hungry and tired. They were oblivious to the giant aardvark mascot, Arthur, sitting on the roof of the three-story glass building. We stopped to have lunch at a nearby restaurant and that’s when we made…

Mistake No. 2: Not knowing what food they would eat, Timmy, a picky eater, refused everything on the menu except fruit. I accidentally spilled his dried-fruit snack on the floor and he had a meltdown. So far, our outing was not going well.

When we entered the museum and the kids saw the New Balance Climb, they perked up considerably. The New Balance Climb is a three-story structure made of netting and curved platforms that meanders upward above the lobby floor. Kara started climbing immediately, bypassing children who were hesitant about going higher.

Timmy followed behind, but when he lost sight of his speedy sister, he decided he had had enough. He became confused about how to maneuver down against traffic. We yelled instructions and encouragement to him from the ground floor. Finally, he crawled down himself, a bit shaken but proud of his accomplishment.

Mistake No. 3: Stopping early in the visit at an exhibit you know they will love. Our third mistake was taking Timmy into the PlaySpace area geared for children as old as age 3. This area held Timmy’s favorite toys — little trains. Fascinated with the lavish layout, he rolled one train along the tracks, then another. We waited for him to tire of the trains. He didn’t. Timmy didn’t budge even when we promised him better exhibits in adjoining rooms. Finally, Grandfather Jim lifted him up and carried him screaming in protest to the next room.

The drama didn’t last long. Both Timmy and Kara became fascinated rolling balls down curved and straight tracks. They also enjoyed floating boats in an 800-gallon tank, dancing with Arthur and his cartoon friends on a video screen, and dressing up as construction workers to climb on ramps and bridges. Jim and I spotted the Parent Tips that were posted on many of the exhibits. Reading the sign above the steel beam in the Construction Zone, Grandfather Jim asked Kara, “Is it easier to balance if you hold your arms out to the sides?”

Ease Into a New Environment

While we learned a few tips for a successful museum outing through trial and error, Grandmother Betsy Hanscom of Scarborough, M.E., has become an expert on children’s museums. She chooses a children’s museum as a mid-point rest stop when transferring her grandson, Nathaniel, age 4, from her car to his parents’ car during the little boy’s long ride from Maine to his home in Albany, N.Y.

“When we’re visiting a new museum, I have learned to let him play at what interests him,” says Hanscom, who sees her grandson about 10 times a year. “At one museum, he wanted to play on the playground instead of going inside. I argued that he could always swing and slide, but he couldn’t always see the exhibits. He insisted, so I gave in. Sure enough, after five minutes, he found the playground boring and we went into the museum.”

Depending on the museum’s specialty, Hanscom explains the science principles or the environmental habits of the animals they’re about to see beforehand. “I try to make the information fun, not a lecture. If Nathaniel doesn’t listen, I don’t force the issue,” she adds. She also packs a picnic lunch to eat outside because she knows his food preferences — and it’s cheaper.

Hanscom’s biggest fear — losing Nathaniel in a crowd — occurred at the Children’s Museum of Maine in Portland. Because they go there often, Nathaniel runs from one favorite exhibit to another. One minute he was in sight, the next minute he was gone. “Of course, I panicked,” she says. “When we were reunited, I explained to him how important it was always to tell me when he was leaving an exhibit so I could follow him.”

Amanda Black, a former member of the youth staff at the Children’s Museum of Maine, says some children like to explore by themselves, whereas others are shy and need guidance. “It’s always best to let children figure out an exhibit by themselves and not give help until asked. Children, ages 8 and older, often wander off by themselves with instructions from their parents or grandparents on where to meet at a certain time.”

“Still,” said Amanda, “it always surprised me to see adults sitting by themselves in the lobby, reading or talking on the phone. Children’s museums are fun for all ages. Why wouldn’t you want to experience it with your grandchild? My best advice is to get involved and have fun together.”

Have you ever taken your grandkids to a children’s museum? If so, did you experience an epic meltdown or were you one of the lucky ones who actually found some quality bonding time? Join the conversation at the My Itchy Travel Feet page on Facebook or send us an email with your comments or questions.

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