Museums and science centers are a great way to explore art, history and science in an educationally engaging environment. To make the most of these visits with children, experts suggest prior planning and creative thinking.

"Start by getting on the museum's website to familiarize yourself with the exhibits and collections, then talk with your child about what he wants to see," says Courtney Waring, Director of Education at a local art museum. "Also, find out about family programs to see if any are of interest to you."

Terri Seel found this helpful before her recent museum visit. "Getting on these websites helps us to know what [the museums] have to offer and how long we'll need for our visit," says the mother of Peyton, age 9, and Jared, 6. "They are also a tangible way to get the kids excited about our trip. I'll point out specific pictures of things we might see."

Karen Cebenka frequents these sites, too. "A lot of them have online scavenger hunts, printable kids' pages or specific information about the exhibits that are geared for children," says the mother of Matthew, age 13, and Anna, 10. "My two have more fun if they've prepared like this, and it gets them ready for what we'll see."

Another element to consider is age appropriateness. "If there isn't specific information on the website, call and ask what kinds of sensory experiences they have for children," says Paula Holloway, Director of Education and Public Programs at a nearby natural history museum. "Do they have a touch-it area, a discovery room or other child-oriented activities?"

Next, consider sharing the experience. "If this is your first trip to a particular museum, make it a special family time to explore the collections together," says Waring. "On subsequent visits, invite friends to come along and encourage your child to take the lead in explaining what he previously learned."

Cebenka agrees, "I think it depends on the museum atmosphere and what your objective is for the day … If you're going to a children's museum where everything is hands-on, it's more enjoyable with friends. But if you really want your child to focus on learning something specific, it's better one-on-one."

Keeping youngsters focused may be a challenge unless parents prioritize exhibits, add variety and think creatively. "Concentrate first on the exhibits your child wants to see," says Holloway. "But watch for signs he's becoming bored and move on to something else."

One way to contain boredom is to sprinkle variety in your day by taking in special shows, demonstrations or movies. Some venues even have child-friendly audio accompaniments, family guides and scavenger hunts to keep children engaged. Even with all of these activities, parents still may need to take an active role.

"If a museum doesn't have guided material, stimulate curiosity by asking open-ended questions: 'What is happening in this picture?' 'What was your favorite object? Why?' Also ask cause-and-effect questions, 'What do you think will happen if ...'" says Waring.

Simplify exhibit information. "Exhibit labels are written to a sixth-grade level so if your child is younger, read and interpret them for him. Then follow up with simple activities: do comparisons, count items or look for colors," says Holloway.

The most important thing is to help your child make connections between what he sees and everyday life. "This gives them something tangible to hang their knowledge on," says Seel. "One of my boys' favorite things is a stream table with movable plastic gates that change the direction of the water. Then when they see it played out in a natural setting they make that connection."

Cebenka likes making daily applications, too. "One science center we visited had picks and shovels where kids could dig for buried items," she says. "At the time we were making a family history book, so we talked about how things get buried over the years, and what people who come across our time capsule in the future would think about us."

Finally, extend the experience. Continue to communicate after you leave. Call a relative and let your child share what he saw, then follow up with activities. Have him color a picture of his favorite object, or take home an item from the gift shop to reinforce what he learned.

"We always talk about it on the way home - 'What did you like most?' 'What was something new you learned?' - and start dialoguing from there," says Seel. "If there's a related science experiment, we try to recreate it or check out related books from the library."

Whatever venue you visit, take time to enjoy the adventure. The Cebenkas do. But Karen admits her favorite part is what happens at day's end. "It's when we're walking to the car and the kids say, 'Thank you, we had so much fun! Let's do that again!'" she says.


Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children and four grandchildren.