This Homeschool How-to is the first of three articles about using museums in your homeschool. Part 2 will be about how to effectively use museum exhibits, while Part 3 will discuss how to use museum resources and “virtual visits.”

The word “homeschool” is misleading. It makes it sound like we’re stuck at home all day! However, some of the best educational experiences that we can have involve going on field trips. As a museum educator and homeschooler, I know doubly well that museums are an excellent way to enhance your child’s education.

Why visit museums?

Here are a few ways that museums can be integrated into your curriculum:

Kicking off a study

Generate excitement about a new topic or time period by getting up close and personal. Actually seeing artifacts, artwork, or specimens is a great way to spark curiosity and make the subject “come alive”.

While individual objects or scenes are great, museums can introduce more than just “looking at cool stuff”. A well-organized exhibit can lay out the key points or questions about a subject, allowing a visitor to get the “lay of the land”. Exhibits about a time period might be organized chronologically or by theme, providing the “big picture” in addition to individual items of interest.

For example, the 4th floor of the American Museum of Natural History is laid out as a cladogram, a branching diagram showing relationships between living things. Lines on the floor lead you towards the next point in evolutionary history, a clue to how scientists think about how ancient organisms evolved over time. A walk through the full exhibit leads you from the distant past up to the Ice Age!

Investigating a specific topic

Your child can use the resources of a museum to do research. She might visit visit a specific fossil, artifact, or work of art. If your curriculum references a well known specimen, it’s likely to be on display somewhere! And while reading about it is great, standing next to an enormous ray finned fish or tiny trilobite is very different from seeing a picture that fits on a book page.

Culminating experience

Wrapping up a unit study and looking for ways to celebrate? Use a museum visit as a culminating activity! Your child will feel like an expert as she walks through the museum viewing now-familiar objects.

For pleasure and fun

You don’t have to have an academic purpose to visit a museum. Or align your visit perfectly to the content of your curriculum. Museums are delightful places to explore new interests!

When you hear “museum” you may immediately think of fine art, but many art museums exhibit artwork and artifacts from historical time periods, while others focus on a particular culture, region of the world, or style of art.

Types of Museums

Depending on where you live, your region may have many different museums, or just a few. Here are just a few of the many types of museums that can provide great educational experiences:

Natural history museum

Collections frequently include fossils, rocks, preserved plants and animals, dioramas depicting different environments, and original fieldwork notebooks from scientists. Sometimes these museums include displays and artifacts from other cultures as well.

Planetarium

Frequently connected to natural history or science museums, planetariums focus specifically on the study of space. As this is a rapidly changing area of science, planetarium displays are updated frequently and often include digital features, like interactive screens or rotating films. You might also be able to see meteorites – check if you can bring a magnet!

Science museum

Exhibits might include interactive displays, moving parts, models of the very large or very small, and displays of live creatures in specially designed habitats.

Archaeological or restored historical site

Depending on the state of excavation, you may get to see actual archaeology in action. Or you can tour the ruins, then visit a museum with the key finds on display.

Historic building, house, or boat

This is a great way to get “hands on” with history. Many smaller institutions in this category offer superb educational programs and tours.

Botanical gardens

These are “living museums” of plants collected from all over the world. Great for life science studies and nature walks. My local botanical garden also puts on annual culture-themed exhibits.

Art museum

This is what pops into many people’s minds when they think of “museum.” Within this category, there are so many different ways that an institution can specialize. Many art museums exhibit artwork and artifacts from historical time periods, while others focus on a particular culture, region of the world, or style of art.

Children’s museum

Often geared towards young children, these visits are especially active and fun! Children’s museums incorporate play and hands-on activities in creative ways. Many museums have discovery rooms or children’s areas within them.

Specialty museum

A catchall category for museums that delve into highly specific areas. These are gems if they align with your child’s interests. My favorite example is the New York City Transit Museum, perfect for my train-obsessed child!

General Tips for Visiting

So you’ve decided to visit a museum – how can you make the most of it? Here are a few tips that can apply to whatever type of museum you’re visiting:

Check the website or Facebook page for special exhibits, closures, and events.

If the specific exhibit you want to see is closed for maintenance, or leaving the museum on tour, you can plan around it. You also may want to visit during a special event (or avoid it, depending!) In general, school days off and holidays are busier than weekdays.

For larger museums, set priorities.

You may want to focus on a section of the museum and linger there, rather than rushing through trying to see it all. It’s tempting to “get your money’s worth” or cram in more if you know you won’t be back. In that case, see the suggestion below about food.

Scope out food options.

Museum cafeterias can be noisy, filled with school groups, and overpriced. Or they can be delightful and kid-friendly. If you scope out food options in advance, you can plan more effectively. You may be able to leave the premises for a nearby cheaper lunch, or fortify your family with a big breakfast beforehand. If you’re planning on doing a full day in a big museum, consider scheduling in a snack/rest break as well.

Download the family or educator guide.

Your museum may have a family friendly map or educator guide available for the exhibit you chose. These guides are written by professional museum educators and often include questions and activities for kids, highlights of the exhibit, and suggestions for further learning.

Exit through the gift shop?

While visiting the gift shop is NOT required, you can often find some great items for use in your homeschool! You might find games, replicas of artifacts, books, and toys that have been vetted for accuracy by the museum. You may want to discuss “gift shop rules” with your family beforehand. Mine include “it has to fit in Mommy’s bag” and “not something we can get at the regular store”.

Lisa is a homeschooling mom, science educator and curriculum developer with classroom experience ranging from pre-K students to 7th grade. After almost 20 years in traditional school settings, Lisa currently works as a curriculum consultant to schools and families. She also teaches weekend, after-school, camp programs, and graduate courses for science teachers at the American Museum of Natural History. Lisa blogs at  Inquiring Minds Homeschool.