The day after Thanksgiving is one of our highest visitation days of the year and many families bring along tiny bundles of joy. This made us wonder what babies get out of the experience. Museum fellow Sarah Erdman explains why museum exploration is a great activity for tiny tots.
My son got his first taste of the museum at about eight weeks old. It was August, it was hot, and I was going crazy looking at the four walls of our house. Rather than take yet another walk through the mall (the shopping kind, not the National Mall), I brought him down to National Museum of American History. There was air conditioning, things to look at, and plenty of space for the stroller.
When you talk about babies in museums, the scenario of it being "for the parents" is what comes to mind. This shouldn't be discounted. New parents are sleep deprived, have a whole new schedule (or lack thereof), and still want to hang on to a bit of their adult-life and interests. This makes museums an excellent place to visit as a family. There are plenty of things to look at, whether you are wheeling the baby in a stroller or feeding them, and you don't have to hunt for necessities like a changing table or place to sit down. The hours are generous, too, making it easy to visit when it fits in your day. Weekdays are particularly good days to explore museums because there are fewer visitors (judging from our visitation numbers, Wednesday is a great time to swing by Smithsonian museums if you want some extra space).
However, that isn't the only reason that you should bring a baby to a museum. Museums can actually offer babies a lot, even if they aren't reading gallery texts or even aware of exactly what they are looking at. New parents are bombarded with ways to "stimulate" their baby. Toys, books, colorful mobiles, and baby classes are just a few of the options that new parents have for helping their baby's brain develop. When you look at it, this is exactly the kind of thing that museums offer as well.
In those first weeks of life, babies eyes are developing rapidly. Not only can they see color but they love colorful objects, enjoy bold images, and show an early preference for photographs and human faces. Note a very young child's body language, eye movements, and sounds, and you'll be able to pick out what they're finding fascinating, whether it's a ceiling fan or a Huey helicopter, like the one on display in our Price of Freedom exhibition.
Large, colorful objects in a museum (whether it is a First Lady's vibrantly colored dress or the John Bull engine) give babies a wealth of new things to take in, while the ability to go at your own pace prevents them from getting overwhelmed. The hands-on parts of the exhibitions let you give them a taste (not literally!) of new textures and materials that is hard to replicate at home.
Museums also help you, as the parent or caregiver, have a conversation with your baby. As a new mom, I was continually reminded I should talk constantly to my baby to help him develop language. Well, that can be hard to do and got a little tiring for me. However, going through the museum gave me new things to talk about and a change of pace for our one-sided conversations. Audio and video components found in exhibitions also added an interesting soundtrack during exploration.
The other great thing about the museum is that they "age" with your baby. His interests moved from just the big colorful lights to the trains and buses. The quiet corner where he could lay on a blanket led to walking practice up and down the ramp. My one-sided conversations are now peppered with his interjections of "Car!" or "Choo choo!" and a definite opinion of what to see next.
Visiting a museum isn't just "for the parents" or "for the baby," but something the two of you can enjoy together—in your own ways.
Sarah Erdman is the Goldman Sachs Fellow for Early Learning at the museum and the founder of Cabinet of Curiosities. She has also blogged about the best things to pack for a museum trip with kids and how to handle tough topics in museum exhibitions with kids and well as why toddlers belong in museums.