7 Ways To Make A Museum Visit Super-Fun For Kids

We recently spent 10 days in Vermont, including two in Shelburne where we visited one of the most incredible museums we’ve ever been to. The kids learned a lot—and we helped them get even more out of the experience with a few rules of thumb we’ve learned over the years about museum visits.

1. Make the visit easy for everyone. We got to the Shelburne Museum right when it opened, so no lines to get in and no hustle and bustle (particularly key for my son, who gets nervous about crowds). It was simple to get ourselves together early because we were staying just a mile down the road at the Heart of the Village Inn, a bed and breakfast place that dates back to 1886. Sometimes B&Bs are not all that kid-friendly but this one happened to be both charming and very welcoming. The kids loved eating dinner on this porch and bathing in the old-fashioned clawfoot tub.

2. Start with the museum biggies first. We knew the kids would want to spend a long time exploring the Ticonderoga, a 1906 steamboat, so we did it early on in the day, while they still had massive amounts of energy.

Both kids were fascinated by the boat’s overnight rooms, all of which still had clothes from the time period.

3. Leave time for kids to explore in their own way. The Shelburne Museum is one of the most massive, and unique, museums in the country. There are more than 150,000 works of art and Americana in 39 buildings, including 25 historic ones relocated to the grounds. Collections include artifacts, quilts, paintings, carriages, duck decoys, toys, you name it—the founder of the museum, Electra Havemeyer Webb, was quite the collector. You could easily spend days there; we had just one, so we went without an agenda and let the kids wander as they wished.

Max wanted to wheel his stroller up and down the ramp. A lot. We let him.

4. Encourage kids to ask questions. One of the particularly awesome parts of the museum: all the craftspeople and “businesses” you could view in operation. As we stood and watched staffers do their work, I reminded my daughter to ask questions; the more interactive the kids’ experience is, the more they absorb.

She asked the blacksmith (who was making a hook) how hot he heated the metal to. Answer: 1200 degrees. “That’s hot!” she said.

In the 1840s General Store, which housed a post office, doctor’s and dentist’s offices, and all things sold in stores long ago. The narrow wooden thingies in the back of the photo are the first vacuum cleaners; pump the handles up and down to sock up dirt.

Weaving on a loom

At the printing press, where she learned how different kinds work and she got to make her own print.

Giving the 1920s carousel a test run.

5. Divide and conquer! I was really into the carriage and sleigh displays. The kids? Not so much. So my husband took them elsewhere and gave me 15 minutes to explore on my own.

A “school bus” sleigh, from 1910; it transported kids to one-room schoolhouses, pulled through the snow by a team of horses. The inside has long benches and a small wood stove.

6. Contain your photo urges. I am a total photo nut; I take a bazillion everywhere we go. After awhile, it tends to drive my daughter bonkers. “MOMMY! STOP TAKING PICTURES!” is one of her most-heard museum refrains. I wanted her to relax and enjoy, and so I held back.

By the special exhibit Time Machines: Robots, Rockets and Steampunk. After this, I quit asking her to pose for photos.

Child-less photo.

7. Keep up the learning after you leave. The kids adored the Circus Building, which housed vintage circus photos as well as two hand-carved circuses including this one, the Kirc Bros. Circus that has some 3,500 figures. It was made over the course of 40 years by Edgar Kirk, a father of four who worked for the Pennyslvania Railroad; he carved the figurines during work breaks using only a penknife. When we got home, we Googled more information about him and his circus and more photos, too. My daughter had also been fascinated by the quilts we saw, and we’re going to buy a book and see if we can make one ourselves.

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