When the Buckman Boys were younger, we made frequent trips to the "old" Please Touch Museum. As pre-schoolers, the boys could spend hours "shopping" in the Museum's grocery store, playing with the boats in the water display and planting and harvesting vegetables in the barnyard. They loved climbing through the Maurice Sendak exhibit, and finding treasures in the giant elephant sculpture.
As they got older, we joined the Franklin Institute - or "The 'Tute" as they renamed it. Week after week, they rode the locomotive, walked through the heart, swung the pendulums, made objects float on tubes of air and compared their vertical leaps to those of professional athletes and their reaction times as racecar drivers in the sports exhibit.
In kindergarten, their teachers took their classes to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a series of children's art programs. All three boys loved the knights and armor exhibit, laughed at the urinal in the Modern Art section and remember being transported by the Japanese teahouse. The teachers reinforced their lessons by having them sculpt their own versions of Degas's Little Ballerina, build their own Calder mobiles, along with other projects. Twelve years later, Jason's kindergarten teacher still reminds me how, at the beginning of the school year, he told her, "Art really isn't my thing." Something must've changed, because in elementary school, he had a piece selected for exhibition at the Main Line Arts Center, and in high school, he took ceramics as an elective.
The point is that it's never too early to start giving children museum experiences. Visiting museums is a great family activity - and a fun way to build wonderful memories. Your kids will learn a lot - even though they probably won't realize it, because they're having so much fun. Getting a family membership is a great idea, because you can make an unlimited number of shorter visits, which is better for kids' short attention spans than trying to squeeze everything in during a single visit. Most family memberships cost about the same as visiting the museum two times, and have the added bonus of entitling you to dining and gift-shop discounts.
If you're planning on taking your children to a museum, this Wall Street Journal article has some great tips - including limiting visits to about an hour and letting your child's interest level determine how long you spend at a single exhibit. It also suggests trying to go on weekdays, when crowds are smaller.
We're very lucky here in Philadelphia, because we have so many wonderful museums. Here are links to some of them, where you can check out the costs of getting family memberships for a full year of museum fun:
Please Touch Museum: http://www.pleasetouchmuseum.org/
Franklin Institute: http://www2.fi.edu/
Phila. Museum of Art: http://www.philamuseum.org/
Academy of Natural Sciences: http://www.ansp.org/
National Constitution Center: http://constitutioncenter.org/