Early grade school is the sweet spot for broadening your kids' cultural horizons. Why? Well, kids of this age are often as much into learning as they'll ever be. Their attention spans have lengthened, so slightly more sophisticated fare isn't out of the question. Exposure to cultural activities provides great fodder for parent-child conversation and a wonderful medium for shaping values. And finally, parental opinions still count for a lot, so if you say culture's cool, they're likely to believe that it is.
They work better than you might imagine for this age group. Modern art, for example, can be surprisingly appealing to younger kids who get a kick out of the color, size and media mix. More traditional museums can also be worthwhile if they offer enough variety to keep childish interests from waning. Few six- and seven-year-olds spend a lot of time on the Impressionist exhibit at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art; however, they can happily while away quite a few moments visiting the Temple of Dendur and associated mummy tombs, running through the Arms and Armor exhibit, and throwing money in the pools at the English Sculpture Garden. If you're worried about your ability to play tour guide:
Use museum literature. It's designed to help families wend their way through galleries. Some require kids to navigate the galleries by solving a series of clues. For example, the The Getty Museum in L.A. has Art Detective cards and NYC's Metropolitan Museum of Art hands out museum hunts.
Don't ignore "family" programs. The most successful combine a tour or lecture with other activities: story-reading or -telling, an art project, sketching, even a full-fledged theatrical production related to the art being viewed. Boston's Museum of Fine Arts has a series of workshops for 6 to 12-year-olds which integrate gallery visits with music, dramatics and art projects. Their studio art programs mix gallery walks with art experimentation for kids as young as five. In a nod to the busy parent, some of these programs are offered at night '- like the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Art Evenings for Families, at which parent and child spend an hour talking about and sketching museum art.
Put your child in the hands of a professional. Consider someone like Judith Shupe of Manhattan's Art Smart Adventures, who takes children on her very popular themed museum tours ("safaris" where kids look for claws and jaws, scales and tails in African, Ancient Egyptian, Medieval European and Southeast Asian works). If you can't find someone like her in your neck of the woods (ask the staff at your local museum), check her website at www.ArtSmart.com for themes you can build a trip around.
Places to consider: Family programs at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, Los Angeles's Getty Museum, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago
(Photo: Hands-on museum exploration with Judith Shupe of Art Smart Adventures. © ArtSmart Adventures)