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How to Take Your Father to the Museum

Last year Child voted New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art the second most kid-friendly museum in the country. Not only does it have family guides for the galleries designed to make the content understandable to kids, but it offers classes where children can make things of their own and discover the riches of art history.

But here's why I think the Met should be number one. Unlike many museums, it's a wonderful place for small children even if you don't get into all the programming designed for them. Parents may not know this at first. But the research for my survey was done by my 5-year-old daughter, Kate, and while I did bring her and walk her around with a little guidance, the opinions are hers. You may be surprised that none of her favorites are part of the Met's efforts specifically to reach out to kids -- we haven't even done any of that yet. They are just things in the museum itself that have always been there that make the Met more kid-friendly than maybe it knows. Wander around and you will find them. The point of my story is that we saw things my daughter would enjoy because I stopped thinking like a parent and just walked in with her so she found them. Here are some highlights of a 5-year-old's recent visits to the Met. Since it's the right time of year, walk with us to...

Take Your Father to the Museum 1

If you are lucky enough to be in New York City at Christmastime you know about Rockefeller Center, the Tiffany & Co. window displays, and the illuminated trees on Park Avenue. But here's the best of it: Every year since 1957 the Met has displayed a collection of Baroque Neopolitan angels and creche figures around an enormous 20-foot Christmas tree, which is like nothing else in the city. It's astonishing, full of majesty and vivid detail. The figures are 18th-century, made in Naples at a time when wealthy families vied with each other for extravagance in their Christmas displays (the same thing goes on in Queens today, though I'm not sure the museum exists yet for the ornaments; it will). Equally beautiful is the architecture at the base of the tree, with models of Roman ruins for the manger. Some of my first awareness of architecture came from looking at this tree, and the modeling of the animals -- camels, sheep, and donkeys of fantastic beauty -- is as lovely as the people are. Kate was particularly fascinated with the Three Kings, one of whom sits astride a black horse rearing up in wonder at the moment of seeing the Christ child. You will know how he feels. As you take in this world of treasures, bathed in holy light, you might realize that for a child it's like being inside an 18th-century painting. It teaches kids how to relate that kind of imagery (the drapery, the frozen expressions) to reality. But mostly it's just beautiful and fun.

Take Your Father to the Museum 2

After this incredible experience, walk over to the Arms and Armor galleries, on the ground floor very close to where the Christmas tree is. This is a good one for a rainy day for some reason. Maybe because it makes the empty suits look spookier. I am hardly the first parent to discover his child's interest in medieval knights and armor, but I was a little surprised at how quickly Kate got into the very adult displays in the gallery and looked at the details as much as the big idea. Velvet pants ("Knights wore underwear?"). Lots of intricate gold tooling on armor for a young king ("How was it made?"). The realization that people were much smaller in the Middle Ages than now, which a 5-year-old might even notice before you do. This is one of those places that are perfect for a child once a certain interest in knights and castles has taken root. While she's busy playing with toy ones, you might say, "Want to go see a real Black Knight?" and surprise her.

Take Your Father to the Museum 3

Now we go upstairs to what turns out, somewhat surprisingly, to have been Kate's favorite stop on the Metropolitan Museum grown-ups/kids equal-rights tour. Climb the big staircase and walk back toward Fifth Avenue, then travel north along the second-floor Asian galleries. You will walk through many rooms full of mysterious and exotic things, with your 5-year-old just starting to get bored, to a Chinese courtyard, which is like entering another world. This is the Astor Court, a reconstruction of a 16th-century Ming garden. There is a koi pond with enormous fish that kids are drawn to, but I think it's the surprise of finding this impressive, serene, skylit, and seemingly secret outdoor space after trudging through gallery after gallery that elates them. And of course, the unexpected sound of water. But after all the fun stuff -- angels, knights -- things you think a child would relate to better because of their familiarity, this was Kate's favorite. She told me this long after I thought she had forgotten about it. In other words, a child will like it for the same reason we do -- the strangeness and sense of magical peace, all by surprise. The Met is full of those moments.

Okay, it's been almost two hours, so you're probably done for now. Why not take what a child will think is the biggest elevator in the world down to the first floor and go out to the front steps on Fifth Avenue to have an ice cream and talk about all the great things you saw? If it's freezing, the Nectar coffee shop on 79th and Madison has excellent hot chocolate and cinnamon toast. Warning: You'll have to walk through ancient Egypt to get out, a notorious favorite for all children, so expect much tugging and dawdling. But we don't want to get exhausted, so we'll save that for the next visit.