Using the buddy system helps family enjoy museum expeditions

How many times have you seen a classroom's worth of children being herded through a museum by a harried teacher? I'm afraid that's the way our family, six children and the usual two parents, once looked when we were museumgoing. Too much parental energy and attention was expended in keeping the group together, locating drinking fountains, and promising that yes, we would go to the chick incubator next!m

We decided there had to be a better way. Our solution was to let them pair up and go off on their own explorations. Allow children ages five to 12 to wander through a museum without an adult at arm's reach? Yes! We felt free to do this because first, we teamed a younger one with an older one; and second, we knew our children had developed good museum manners over the many such visits we had made with them. We were also aware that when children are totally absorbed in what they are seeing, discipline is not a problem. Nor is fidgeting or complaining.

It worked beautifully. At the science and industry museum, the youngsters most interested in the sound-and-light demonstrations teamed up to find their adventures in those exhibits. The children who needed to compare the airplane models they were building with the real ones hanging from the museum ceiling headed for that space. At the natural history museum, our American Indian buffs took off for Hopi country, while the dinosaur lovers eagerly went upstairs to count the spinal plates in a brontosaurus.

This method also served us well at the aquarium, zoos, and county fairs. Sometimes we would take in part of a museum together, then split up to follow special interests. Vital to the success of this plan, of course, was the establishment of a definite time and place to reconvene. Generally, it was something like, "Let's all meet here by the ticket booth in 90 minutes -- that's at 3 p.m." Even if children don't have watches, museum guards or visitors are happy to tell them the time. Seldom was anyone more than a few minutes late for our departure.

If our youngsters did get lost during their adventures, they were able to re-orient themselves with the help of printed guides, maps, or guards. They found drinking fountains and restrooms for themselves. They enjoyed their independence and grew thereby.

An unexpected bonus from this experiment was that we quadrupled what we learned from our museum visits. In the car on the way home, we practically had to issue numbers so that each excited youngster could tell what he had seen -- "A chick was just hatching when I got there. . . ." "You should have seen the big Navajo hogan. . . ." "Robin whispered to me from one end of this big room and I heardm her!"

We have notm used this method with young children in art museums. In those more sacrosanct halls, we always stayed together and went only after some homework. I remember one particular visit, inspired by the children's fascination with Renoir's "Two Little Circus Girls," a print of which was in one of those mammoth art books. (We keep such books open on a music stand and turn the pages frequently.) At home the children has speculated about whether the girls were sisters, laughed at their funny high shoes, and wondered how the orange balls had come to be on the ground.

The book stated that the original was at the Art Institute of Chicago. Since we were living in northern Indiana at the time, an hour's trip took us in to see it. Our plan was to observe this painting and nothing else. We didn't want the children to get bored or tired. They were fascinated to learn how the oil was applied to the canvas -- the "caressing strokes," as the art book had described them.

After 15 minutes with "Two Little Circus Girls," we headed right out again. Well, almost. The children became entranced with Seurat's huge picnic picture, "La Grande Jatte," and so we stopped to study it, too. Our entire stay wasn't longer than 30 minutes. But next time the children were eager to attend, since they knew we wouldn't drag it out beyond their endurance.

For certain museums, certain exhibits, there is a just-right time to take your child, and only you will know when his or her development calls for a particular excursion.We took our youngest son on a solo trip to the Art Institute of Chicago to see the Thorne miniature rooms when he was about seven or eight. He was fascinated with every one and mentally climbed inside to "live" in each, from the Colonial cabins to the 1930s "moderns." The exquisite 18th- to 20th-century American reproductions, perfect in every detail, caught his imagination, young as he was.

When you are in the city for the day, it's better to combine a museum visit with some outdoor park activity or special child-oriented shopping, rather than attempt a whole day of museums. I found this out when I took one of our sons, who had been studying dinosaurs in fourth grade and owned a collection of small plastic models, to see the real thing at the natural history museum. I wisely limited our visit there to just his special interest. Then, however, I got carried away and figured that while we were in town, we might as well take in the aquarium and the planetarium. A couple of hours later, in the soothing darkness and reclining seats of the planetarium, we both f ell asleep.

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