09 June 2013

Culture Vulture Kids: House Museum Hunting

The Winslow Crocker House
This post starts a new blog angle, "Culture Vulture Kids" (a working title), as I periodically share my experience / attempts at exposing my toddler to cultural and historic sites.

My husband and I are aficionados of visiting historic sites / museums. When our daughter was born we agreed that wouldn't abandon our cultural interests and we agreed to "take turns" watching our her while one of us explored something that was too adult-focused to drag her along. (For example, while she naps one of us sees, tours a house museum, etc.) This model has worked well, but we've decided that we're at a turning point.  

We're big fans of children's museums and have found a few historically focused museums that do an outstanding job of reaching visitors of all ages. But there are many more adult-focused historic sites (which we want to visit) than there are children-friendly museums, and we struggle to find appropriate cultural attractions for the family.

Since our daughter is two and a half, she can follow directions reasonably well, and recently stopped taking naps, we decided that it's time to attempt a house museum tour with her in toe.

This weekend we visited the Winslow Crocker House, a c.1780 site owned by Historic New England, in Yarmouth Port, MA.  Here are a few toddler parent tips that we made during our visit:
  • Look for tours that are short and sweet. Our tour lasted just about 30 minutes, which was the perfect length given a toddler's short attention span. 
  • Have an exit strategy
    • If your toddler turns into a wiggle worm part-way through the tour, have a predetermined system to leave to prevent a tour tantrum. 
    • Know where you'll go once you leave. (We established that one parent would take her outside to run around.)
  • Sit down and "relax". Many less trafficked house museums are not set-up in the traditional museum style. The exhibits are not presented behind glass or ropes leaves centuries' old antiques an arm's length away--which could turn into a parent's worst nightmare. How can we parents make this work? Ask your child to sit on the floor in the middle of the room while the guide speaks. I've used this approach on school group tours and found that it works equally as well with a two year old as it does with a large group of fourth graders.
    My daughter loves getting her hand stamped.
  • Small groups. Look for sites that do not pack dozens of people onto the tour. A squirmy or angry child can be a terrible interruption that could distract a novice guide and / or create angry looks from others on the tour--aside from creating an uncomfortable situation for you as a parent. (Maybe you'll get extra lucky, as I did this weekend, and your guide will also be a parent who understands the challenges you face.)
  • Engage your child. During the tour, try a simple round of seek-and-find. "Do you see the broom? Can you find something that's blue?" For a slightly older child ask more open-ended questions like, "Can you find something in this room that would have been fun for kids? Do you know where mommies would cook?"
  • Offer a reward. I've long been a fan of the behavior modification approach to parenting. When we're asking our toddler to do something that's going to be a challenge, we offer a reward (a sticker, go see a lighthouse, some fruit snacks, etc.) for good behavior.

Showing off her stamp.

Of course, it goes without saying, don't schedule the visit for naptime, make sure your child has had a snack or drink before the tour begins, clean diaper / just made a potty stop, etc.

Why go to all this trouble? I'm committed to not abandoning that which I love (museums and material culture) just because I'm a parent. I hope to instil in my daughter at a relatively young age an appreciation for cultural history and hope to create a little culture vulture...which I think is working. (When we toured a lighthouse today she asked, "Why did they built it?") Do you have any tips or tricks for visiting cultural sites with a young child?

Scroll below to see a few photos from my visit. For more details about the Winslow Crocker House, check out HistoricNewEngland.org.



  1. Wonderful! And I applaud your including your daughter. Perhaps as the less experienced guides see you talking about the exhibits they will learn how to engage the kids. And kids are such great mimics. I used to go to exhibits and hold my hands behind my back as I peered closely at something. Makes the guards and docents less nervous. My son and daughter adopted this pose too. Really cute!

    1. What a great idea to have a certain pose for viewing exhibits! Thank you!

  2. We did military sites because you can't break them...but I find, even with a teenager, that checking out the Family learning pages and materials on museum websites can be helpful. Sites/musuems usually have links to kids' activities, and if they don't, it's worth calling ahead. If a museum doesn't have a treasure hunt sheet, you can usually find a theme to work on. We look for dragons or animals even now. Ball and claw feet or foo dog finials can buy you some time and teach observation skills.

  3. Awesome advice! I have very distinct memories of my parents taking me to all sorts of house museums as a kid, I think it influenced my choices today.

    I hope you will come visit Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, NH. Most of the houses contain a berry basket full of toys for kids to touch and play with, plus there is a children's garden and discovery center to visit in between houses. I'm there Tuesday through Saturday.

    1. We haven't been to Strawbery Banke since I was preggos. You're right, it's probably time for a trip! If we can make it that direction this season, I'll let you know!


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