Grab a backpack.
But not just any backpack. These backpacks at the Denver Art Museum are designed to inspire kids to become lifelong art lovers -- and art museum visitors.
You can Live Like a Chinese Scholar in one exhibit or create an American Indian horse mask in another. Become a detective, as you make your way through the furniture gallery.
Did I mention these backpacks are yours to borrow during your visit? That they're designed for different age groups, including preschoolers? If you are short on time, the kids can grab an Art Tube with one simple activity, like decorating special eyeglasses to enhance your viewing pleasure. This might explain why on weekends and during school breaks one in four visitors to this museum are kids. And, given Denver's large Hispanic population, every activity is bilingual.
You'll also find hands-on family activities throughout the museum. For younger kids, there is a dress-up area where they can try on Chinese robes and make their own paper robe.
In the museum's famous Textile Art Collection, which includes everything from pre-Columbian textiles, contemporary works of art in fiber and quilts, there is a "thread studio" where kids can try their hand-weaving and two kid-sized embroidery tables where they can create a quilt pattern out of small shapes or weave on a giant loom.
Kids can create their own fruit and vegetable faces on magnetic boards with small magnetic strawberries, red peppers, bananas, squash, pears, lemons and more in the European Gallery, which features the fanciful "Fruit Faces" of 16th-century artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
"I like that you can do your own stuff at this museum, not just look at things," said 10-year-old Roisin Mooney, visiting with her mom, Theresa.
That's the idea, of course. And these days you'll find plenty of activities to engage kids and the adults who accompany them to art museums across the country:
-- The San Diego Museum of Art offers a downloadable activity book/guide to the collection, which introduces the family program mascot, ARTie. Every Sunday afternoon, there are gallery mystery games and drop-in, hands-on activities.
-- Kids under 14 are always free at the Art Institute of Chicago. Families love the Artist's Studio at the Ryan Education Center where they can drop in and create an art project -- themed to something in the vast museum's collection -- to take home. There are also special Artist's Studio programs offered every weekend.
-- The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York not only offers Sunday art-making workshops near particular exhibits, but there are also special programs for teens and kids with learning challenges and for those who are visually impaired.
-- The Museum of Fine Arts Boston offers Art Connections activities you can download to make exploring a particular exhibit a fun scavenger hunt guaranteed to help you answer the kids' questions about what they are seeing. Stop at the Family Art Cart that offers activities like uncovering ancient Egyptian mysteries. On weekdays after 3 p.m., weekends and on Boston public school holidays, kids up to age 17 are free.
Heather Nielsen, the Denver Art Museum's assistant director, who helps oversees the museum's education and family programs, says the biggest barrier to parents' bringing kids to art museums is their own insecurity about their lack of knowledge. "We want to show them that you don't need to know anything about art to enjoy it," she explains.
Whenever you visit an art museum, Nielsen suggests:
-- Ask the kids questions. What is the first thing you see in that painting?
-- Stand in front of the art and pose -- like the people, animals and shapes in the art.
-- Make up a story about what you see.
-- Imagine what you would hear, or smell, if you were in the art.
There's plenty here for even the littlest museum goers, like 16-month-old Tristan Cox, who was busy adding wings, arms, legs and eyeballs to make a puppet based on the fanciful creatures in the Hieronymus Bosch painting hanging in the gallery. Kids a little older can put on puppet shows at the puppet theater. "What's nice is he plays and we can look at paintings," said Tristan's mom, Spice Cox. "I became a member because of all the family activities here."
I loved the "Just for Fun" area, complete with a dollhouse that is a model of the museum -- and small plush objects that depict the museum's collections -- a mummy cover, the famous red painted horse, a pre-Columbian ceramic or a horse mask.
Roisin Mooney is hard at work at the studio where other children and parents are sketching whimsical items on tables with paints, chalk and crayons -- a wire dog, a tiny chair, a wooden hand.
"We are huge fans of this museum," says Theresa Mooney, Roisin's mom, who adds that the museum is ideal for a home-schooling family like hers. "It's the best thing about living in Denver."
That, of course, is what museum officials want to hear. Parents these days are seeking an alternative to children's museums -- as terrific as they are, Nielsen believes. "They want a place where everyone can all play, imagine and create ... parents want to feel a sense of satisfaction, too!"
When was the last time you put yourself inside a painting?
Eileen Ogintz is the creator of the syndicated column and website Taking the Kids. She is also the author of the ten-book Kid’s Guide series to major American cities and the Great Smoky Mountains. The third-edition of the Kid’s Guide to NYC has just been released.