A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Museums & Learning: A Guide for Family Visits - April 1998

Museums Galore!

            ***************************************************  TIP BOX: Look in your local telephone book or newspaper for information on special exhibits that may appeal to you and your children. And keep in mind  that exhibits that may appeal to you and your children. And keep in mind that  historic cemeteries, monuments, lighthouses, factories and even ships have many of the same learning opportunities as do museums.            ***************************************************

Whether you and your children are interested in art, music, history, natural history, science, technology, or a specific topic such as baseball, dollhouses, gems, or spaceships--chances are there's a museum somewhere just waiting for you.

Museums not only differ by their collections but also how you learn from them. For example:

Art museums or galleries are places where we look at the world through the eyes of an artist. We use our imagination to try to understand what the artist is saying in each work of art. We follow the lines of a sculpture and admire the seamless beauty of statues carved in stone. We are surrounded by light and color and sometimes the jarring images of reality portrayed by the artist's hand and eye. Along with paintings, prints, drawings, and sculptures, many museums have collections of jewelry, furniture, and folk art.

History museums and archives introduce us to the people, places, and things that have shaped major and minor events of our world and every day life. We see how people lived in other civilizations throughout history. We can wonder how the medieval knights moved around in their suits of armor. We can imagine what it must have been like to be a Pilgrim, a suffragette, or even a child traveling with the family in a covered wagon on the Oregon Trail. We can read documents that shaped life in America and other countries--the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, peace treaties, and land grants.

Natural History museums, with their specimens of animals, fish, birds, plants, reptiles, and other natural forms such as rocks and minerals, give us a chance to understand how the Earth has changed over time and how it has stayed the same. We get to see firsthand how massive dinosaurs were, how to tell a turtle's age, or how giant squids change their color and texture. We sometimes can see mummies of people who lived centuries ago.

Science and Technology museums explain how things work. We can see working models of inventions and understand where the latest technology comes from and where it's going. Some of these museums even invite you to test out scientific laws: push a button here, pull a lever there, and see for yourself how gravity works. Turn a crank and make your own electricity. Watch how an engine works. Step inside a spaceship. Look at the astronauts' spacesuits and imagine what it's like to walk on the moon or float in space.

Children's and Youth museums encourage youngsters to learn by doing. PLEASE TOUCH! signs are everywhere. There, families and their children touch, feel, and handle materials that in other museums might be off-limits. Children's museums invite us to do such things as build a miniature model city or dollhouse, trick our eyes by watching people dance under strobe lights, try to measure our shadow, conduct scientific experiments, work on a computer, play musical instruments, or slide down a firefighter's pole in a real firefighter's suit.

Zoos are great places to encourage children's interest in the natural world and to introduce them to animals, their habitats, and how they live.

Aquariums give youngsters a firsthand look at life in our oceans and lakes. They can learn about coral reefs, starfish, electric eels, giant octopi, and aquatic plants--all in a miniature universe that illustrates nature's balance.

Special Interest museums are devoted to a single topic such as antique cars, baseball, coins, the circus, toys, trolley cars, stamps, the news, or rock and roll.

Cultural Heritage museums house collections from specific culture groups such as American Indians, Asians, or African-Americans--to name a few.

These Are Museums, Too:

Botanical Gardens and arboretums, with their glass houses and surrounding grounds, introduce children to both familiar and exotic plants and flowers.

Nature Centers help children learn about local plants and wildlife. They are great places to introduce children to natural treasures such as butterflies, beavers, bull frogs, and creeping, crawling bugs!

Planetariums bring the mysteries of the skies to life. Inside planetariums, children can see the entire night sky in all of its glory. They often use telescopes to view the rings of Saturn, and they can step on scales to learn what they would weigh on the moon or on Mars.

Restored Areas such as Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg,Virginia, and Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, recreate whole villages much as they were centuries ago. Visitors mingle with villagers (staff in costume and character) and experience the daily life of people in the past. Children see people shoeing horses and making barrels. Visitors can see how things work, and ask questions of the staff and tour guides.

Historic Homes give us a glimpse of how people lived in the past. These buildings may have been the home of someone famous or may be of a typical building from a particular period.

Online, too! Point ... click ... and you're there!--the Louvre in Paris, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, the Exploratorium in San Francisco, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York! Virtual museums and exhibits--electronic representations of art and artifacts--offer children a new kind of learning experience. Visits or tours can take place wherever there's a computer connected to the Internet. The sites are educational, informative, and entertaining. Many sites have interactive activities for children as well as connections to other museums around the world. Children and their families can virtually travel the world exploring and learning together. (See the Resources section for a listing of some sites to visit.)

Learning from Objects

What can children learn from objects in museums? By carefully looking at the objects they're seeing in the exhibits, children's minds become engaged and the objects become learning tools. Careful observation acts as a springboard for new thoughts and ideas, stimulating the use of critical thinking skills. Some of these skills include:
  • Comparing and contrasting--recognizing similarities and differences in objects;
  • Identifying and classifying--recognizing and grouping things that belong together;
  • Describing--giving verbal or written descriptions of the objects viewed;
  • Predicting--guessing what might happen; and
  • Summarizing--presenting information that has been gathered in a shortened or condensed form.
Learning from objects is easiest when families know their children's learning style. Research shows that most children learn best through one of three ways: hearing (auditory), seeing (visual), or touching/reenacting (tactile/kinesthetic), and some by a combination of all of these.

Generally, children who are

  • Auditory learners like to be read to, understand more by hearing explanations of things, and are better at following verbal, rather than written instructions;
  • Visual learners often like to read on their own, love books with lots of pictures, like information that is presented on a graph or chart, and like to draw diagrams and pictures; and
  • Tactile-kinesthetic learners like to touch objects and feel textures, enjoy arts and crafts, and like to be in skits or plays, often pretending to be the person they're studying.

Museums curators consider a variety of learning styles when designing exhibits. Docents or tour guides explain and interpret the exhibits for visitors, all exhibits have written descriptions that tell a story about the objects, and many museums have exhibits that are interactive--hands-on. Tour guides are also available for individuals with visual and hearing impairments.

Questions, Questions, and More Questions
Is it real? How does it work? What is it made of? Children are naturally curious and ask lots of questions. Families can have a good conversation with their children by listening carefully to their questions about the objects and asking them to complete statements such as:

  • A good name for this is ...
  • What does this remind you of?
  • What do you think will happen if ...?
  • What if ...?
  • What words would you use to describe this object?
  • How are these two objects the same? different?
  • How does it make you feel?
  • Imagine that ...

Talking with and listening to your children helps them gain confidence in their thinking and verbal skills and also helps you to know what your children understand.

Collections and Collectors

Museums hold many of the best collections in the world. Many people donate their precious collections to museums so that they can be shared with the public and also be preserved. In addition to giving collections a home, museums are collectors, adding to their collections as objects become available.

Why do people collect objects? Some people collect objects because they're rare and beautiful. Others collect objects because they remind them of a certain period in time such as their childhood, or of a favorite relative or friend. Occasionally, people start collecting by accident.

A collector of American political items said that he started his collection of Teddy Roosevelt campaign buttons with a Roosevelt bandanna that belonged to his grandfather. A woman who collects tea cups and saucers started her collection by while sifting through someone else's unwanted junk (to the seller it's junk, but to the finder it might be a treasure) at a yard sale. A well-known rare book dealer got started as a result of collecting Wizard of Oz books as a child. In fact, many people choose their careers based on the collections they had as a child. Serious collectors study the subject matter and acquire better objects and specimens to add to their collections.


[ Introduction ] [ Table of Contents ] [ The Museum Visit: Making the Most of It ]

This page was last updated December 13, 2001 (jca)