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Tips for Taking Challenging Children to a Museum

Kids with significant emotional issues should visit museums, too. Here are tips on how to do it.

As a therapist, my clients included children with ADHD, autism, early-life trauma, and more. Sometimes they screamed obscenities, threw things, rolled around on the floor, trashed my office, and I even occasionally had to call the police. Over time I learned techniques to ameliorate their most egregious poor choices.

by Susan Marie Ward

Grumpy boy. Spark curiosity and improve wellness in children by taking them to museums
Learn to enjoy museums with your challenging child or grandchild

Museums are filled with objects to intrigue, engage, and enlighten children of all ages. If, however, your child, grandchild, or other important child in your life struggles with emotional issues (I don't call them behavioral issues because as a therapist I believe all behavioral issues stem from emotional challenges), you may decide that taking children to a museum is too hard, too risky. There are no guarantees in life, but I'll suggest some tips that might encourage positive experiences whether you go to a children's museum, an art museum, a natural history museum, or any other. Museums and wellbeing are not just for adults but for children, too.

1. Do your pre-visit research

Go online or call the museum and find out the least busy day and times of the week to visit. For many museums that is early morning on weekdays. Also, find out if they have low-sensory days. Some museums--fewer than I'd like--have occasional days where they limit the number of visitors and keep the lights and music low, in an effort to reduce sensory stimulation. Also, decide from the website what objects or galleries will be most engaging to your child.

2. Visit prep

Give your child appropriate information about the upcoming visit. Some kids thrive on lots of detail and some kids get anxious when they find out too much info too far ahead. Provide just what your child needs. Some children might benefit from you reading them a book about museums or by playing a pretend game at home about visiting a museum. This could be a museum version of playing store. Set a few toys or stuffed animals on the table or on chairs and practice admiring without touching.

3. Keep your expectations moderate

Rather than imaging a perfect museum experience, picture your child making it through the experience without a major tantrum, and being intrigued by two or three objects. Look at it as a success if afterwards your child talks about the visit or tells someone else about their museum visit.

Little girl on playground apparatus
Give children exercise before visiting museums

4. Physical exercise beforehand

Children and teens with ADHD, anxiety, PTSD, autism, and more, often become over-stimulated with going somewhere new. Have them do something physical before leaving home: ride a bike, run up and down the stairs, go for a jog with mom. And, when you're outside the museum, again have your child burn off some energy. If the museum has stairs, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have them run up and down a couple times. If there's a sidewalk, have them skip or jump from the parking lot to the building.

5. Fidget toy

If it's appropriate for your child or teen, make sure you have a few fidget toys in your bag. They should be soft so that if your child gets angry and throws them it won't hurt anyone or cause any damage. It might be a tiny stuffed animal, a small fabric heart, or a small squishy hand toy. Studies show that some people learn and absorb information better when they hold something in their hands, even if it looks like they're not paying attention.

6. Give them an activity

In a children's museum there will be lots of participatory activities. Things to move and touch and try out. However, in art museums or history museums, there will be fewer interactive activities. Many museums like the Denver Art Museum have museum activity backpacks with child-appropriate tasks. Alternatively, you might try one of these:

Create and print out a scavenger hunt list of things to look for and check off. The list will vary according to the age of the child and the type of museum you're in. At an art museum, for example, the list might include a statue made of marble, a very tall pice of furniture, a painting of someone who looks grumpy, and something made in China. Or a tiger, in a painting, sculpture, etc.

Focus on what your child is interested in: bugs, cooking, dogs, castles and knights, Egypt, etc. and find things in the museum that relate to your child's interest. Look online ahead of time and make a list in your phone of specific objects that will appeal to your child. Also, ask the person at the admissions desk and also check with the guides/hosts in the galleries where to find objects on your list.

Stairwell with windows and railings
Stairwells can be a quiet place during museum visits

7. Destress during the visit

New experiences can be overwhelming. Find an opportunity or two to sit in a quiet place part way through your museum visit. It might be sitting on a bench in a gallery without many other visitors. Or it might be finding a stairwell where you can sit by yourselves for a few minutes. Or, if the museum has an outdoor area, you might run, walk, or sit there for a few minutes before resuming your visit.

8. Keep it short

Help your child have a successful visit by ending it while they're still engaged and following directions. By leaving when your child is doing well gives you a chance to compliment them, and it might leave them wanting more, providing an opportunity to visit the museum again.

Have you had any positive or negative experiences taking challenging children to museums? What tips do you have to share?

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