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Combine Learning and Fun at Art Museums

By Wenda O'Reilly, Ph.D.

“Mommy, I’m tired. When are we going?” These are familiar words to parents who take their children to an art museum without a plan to make the visit fun and interesting. Here are games you can play on your next museum visit. Each game gives kids a purpose for looking more closely at paintings and sculptures.

Postcard Treasure Hunt
Start your visit at the museum gift shop. Have each child pick out several postcards of art they’d like to see. Then start the treasure hunt. If the museum is a big one, consult a map or ask someone at the information desk to help you plan your route. Once you are in the right set of rooms, start the hunt. Children get excited when they find “their” painting or sculpture.


Once they’ve found their treasure. Ask them if the postcard is a good representation of the work of art. Are the colors in the postcard the same as in the painting? Does the postcard show the whole work of art of just a detail? What do they like best about the work of art?

I Spy an Eye
Nothing is as fascinating as eyes. They can say so many different things. Even very young children are captivated by a person’s eyes. Make a game of finding the paintings with the best eyes…and hunt for as many different kinds of eyes as you can find.

When children select a painting, ask them what the eyes tell them about the person. Or notice how many brush strokes it took to paint the eye.

The great thing about this game is it helps you focus on just a few works of art in each room. Children will have fun scanning the art in a room to find the one with eyes that intrigue them. Answering questions about what the eyes say creates a reason to stop and look more deeply at the painting.

Scavenger Hunt
Give each child a list of things to find in paintings. There are two ways to win the game. One way to win is to find everything on the list first. Another way is to find the most things in a single painting.

The first way to win makes the museum visit into a race (though you can make a rule that no one leaves a room until everyone is ready to go on). The second way to win makes kids slow down and study paintings longer. You can choose how to play the game based on what works best for your children. Or you can play the game both ways at once so there are two winners. Here is a sample of things they might look for. Make the list short or long to fit the ages of the children playing the game:

a baby
a basket
a bird
a boat
a bowl of fruit
a bug
a child
a fancy headdress
flowers in a vase
a furry animal
a horse
a house
a jug
a lion

a man’s hat
a monster
the moon
a musical instrument
a mustache
pictures within a picture
a rope
the sea
a skull
a snake
something bright red
something gold
the sun
a sword
a woman’s hat
Scavenger Hunt Collage

You can vary the list to fit the museum you are visiting. To get ideas, see a sample of the museum’s collection on their website. This will also give you a better idea of what you want to see.

Art Collector
In this game, everyone picks a favorite painting in each room you visit. Then they select their top ten to include in their collection of favorites. You can be your child’s secretary, writing down the ones they pick as their favorites. You can also ask them why they like each one and write down their answers. The game – and museum visit – is over when each child has collected a certain number of favorites.

This gives kids a sense of control over the visit. At the end of your visit, go to the gift shop to find postcards of any favorites to take home as a keepsake.

A few more tips….

1. Plan a short visit.
Set a time limit and let children know what it is…or break the visit up into manageable time chunks: “We’ll visit the museum for half an hour then have a picnic lunch in the courtyard.”

2. Don’t look at every painting.
You and your children will be exhausted within half an hour if you try to look at every painting in a room. Instead, pick a few favorites and look at them more closely. Playing a museum game helps you to hunt for your favorites and then spend time with them. The games work for adults as well as children!

3. Play art games at home.
Before visiting an art museum, play art games at home. This will help children associate art and museums with having fun, and they will become better observers of art.

Look for a game that involves memory and observation, not who knows the most about art already. Kids hate games that are disguised tests. They love games in which they can beat their parents using their great memories and some luck.

The Renaissance Art GameFor example, play “Go Fish” for art or play “Concentration” with three art games from Birdcage Books. Each game has won a Parents’ Choice Gold Medal:

The Renaissance Art Game
The Impressionist Art Game
Van Gogh & Friends Art Game

Or spot the difference between real art and forgeries with Art Fraud Detective, by Anna Nilsen. In I Spy: An Alphabet in Art by Lucy Micklethwait, children search through twenty-six splendidly reproduced museum paintings to hunt for objects beginning with the appropriate letter.

4. Above all, have fun.
Art museums can open up worlds of interest in different cultures, the way people lived in past eras, and different ideas of beauty. The best way to ensure that your children will continue to visit museums as they grow into adults is to make their early visits fun.

About the Author
Wenda Brewster O’Reilly and her school-age children designed The Renaissance Art Game, The Impressionist Art Game and Van Gogh & Friends Art Game. They began designing art games to make their own museum visits more fun. Each game comes with an art book filled with fun and fascinating facts about the artists. Wenda O’Reilly wrote the books and her children and two friends edited them. The young editors made sure every paragraph was interesting for children as well as adults. Dr. O’Reilly holds a masters degree in education from Harvard University and a doctorate Stanford University School of Education.


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