Because my mother was an art historian, we spent at least part of each weekend prowling European painting collections across New York. I grew up in the West Village and associated uptown with The Met and Frick. To keep me quiet, she concocted all sorts of art games, which I’ve been handing down to my 4.5 year old, Storsh (he thinks of the Louvre and British Museum as playgrounds).
She did such a good job of it that I not only got my degrees in Art History, but when I had Storsh, a premature worry set in over what his relationship to art and museums would be. In his first year of life, I started a company called THATLou, which stood for Treasure Hunt at the Louvre. Now awaiting number two, we’re building THATMuse for museums in London. Our soft launch was generously commissioned by the British Museum, where I hosted a “Friday Late” entitled The Art of Play: A Treasure Hunt Challenge, which took place last week, on 11 September.
“Scour the wall of postcards for their five favourite pieces before setting off to find those paintings”
In my experience, children love museums if you know how to engage them. Here are some of my top games to keep them interested when you visit the painting collections.
The Postcard Game
If you’re travelling and it’s a collection you don’t know well, go to the gift shop before you visit the museum and have your children scour the wall of postcards for their five favourite pieces before setting off to find those paintings.
For older children
Ask them to find the paintings featured on the postcards within the museum by looking at the country/century of the work on the back of the postcard and finding it on the map. This will develop their navigation skills and give them a layout of the space.
For younger children
Have them pose as the subject for a photo with each work and postcard. If they’re in the habit of taking photos with your phone, trade roles with you posing as the silliest character in the painting. They will enjoy looking back at the photos later.
The Category Game
Find a bench in the museum lobby before entering and ask your kids to choose an animal, a type of food and something like grotesque noses (Storsh loves this one) as your categories.
“Giving them a sense of purpose helps stretch their attention – and your visit!”
Write your categories down then see how many of those animals/foods/body parts your children can find throughout the visit. All kids like collecting things, and having them keep count by writing a line every time they find their item is rewarding. And of course, giving them a sense of purpose helps stretch their attention – and your visit!
The Fashion Game
Before leaving the house, go to your wardrobe and ask your children to feel a variety of materials – scratchy wool, smooth silk, heavy satin, luscious velvet, soft fur etc – the breadth depends on the size of your wardrobe…. Choose one material or more and (assuming it’s not an evening gown!) wear it to the museum so the kids can look at the collection from a tactile perspective. Ask them whether they think it looks real.
The Saint Game
Every time I visit a museum with Storsh, we latch onto a saint and their attribute and devote our whole visit to finding that saint in various paintings. At 3, Storsh started out with St George, easily identified for killing the dragon from a horse. Each time we found a St George, Storsh would make the wild hissing sound of the dragon blowing fire. Sometimes I’d get on all fours and neigh wildly like George’s horse. The more vivid the enactment, the easier to remember the story.
“Quick, show me what Salome does?”
Slowly, one per museum visit, I added in St Michael and St Margaret, both dragon killers but without the horse. Then St John the Baptist. The bloodier, the better. I tend to quiz him on site, so that his connection to the painting is clear, “quick, show me what Salome does?” Sometimes Storsh draws his fingers across his throat with quick precision for a good beheading, other times he dances – much to the bemusement of the guards.