Last year, my husband added art appreciation to his already-too-long list of hobbies, and to facilitate this, he bought a membership for the whole family to the Art Institute of Chicago.
I was skeptical. Not that I think a membership to an art museum is a bad idea—according to TripAdvisor the Art Institute of Chicago is the no. 1 museum in the world, and like other cultural institutions, I assumed it offered programming appropriate for school-aged children.
But our family is deep in the toddler stage. We can barely let our two-year-old loose in our home, much less in a museum filled with priceless works of art.
But my husband insisted that we could visit the Art Institute as a family, so I agreed to an adult-only trip to conduct reconnaissance. I wanted to see what we were getting into before unleashing our toddler on this world-famous museum.
My husband acted as tour guide, giving me an overview of the museum and showing me exhibits he thought our daughter would enjoy. We picked up the current family programs brochure as well as a piece featuring a museum scavenger hunt game for older children. We checked out the Ryan Education Center and questioned the on-duty staff member about activities appropriate for a toddler.
I was sufficiently convinced that we could conduct this toddler-in-an-art-museum experiment without other patrons giving us dirty looks or having to take a second mortgage on our house to cover the cost of toddler-inflicted damage, so the next weekend, we headed to Art Institute with our two-year-old.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you could take the Metra into the city, but for those of us in the western suburbs, it’s a bit of a hike from Union Station. We drove and found relatively reasonable metered parking on Columbus Drive about four blocks from the museum. The Art Institute also offers valet parking and has partnered with a service called Parking Panda, which allows you to reserve parking close to the museum in advance. Find out more on the Art Institute’s Directions and Parking page.
Children under 14 get in free at the Art Institute, and Illinois residents get a discounted admission rate of $20. If you think you’re going to visit the museum regularly, a membership might be worthwhile. If you live in the city and have a Chicago Public Library card, look into the Kids Museum Passport Program.
Did you know that you can roll your stroller through the entire museum? Not only is it permitted, it’s doable. The Art Institute’s layout offers wide-open spaces, and we found navigating a stroller through the exhibits was relatively easy. And while stroller parking isn’t like, a thing, there are plenty of spots to tuck a stroller outside of galleries if you wanted to let your child roam free. It also provides a convenient location for all of the toddler accessories you are likely traveling with since backpacks are not permitted in galleries.
The most difficult aspect of maneuvering a stroller around the museum is finding the elevators, which often seem hidden. Check out the map beforehand, or plan to stay on one level.
When in a public space meant for people of all ages, it’s important to be realistic about your toddler’s limits. We picked two galleries to take our daughter to before we retreated to the children’s area of the Art Institute.
The first was the Thorne Miniature Rooms. My husband thought she would enjoy these 68 rooms filled with miniature European and American furnishings. The little rooms held her attention longer than I expected. She spent several minutes asking, “What’s that?” and pointing to various pieces of furniture.
The second gallery was the Arthur Rubloff Collection of Paperweights. This is not a gallery where a toddler can left to their own devices, as it is basically glass encased glass, but she loved the bright colors and shapes.
There is plenty to see at the Art Institute, and even if you can’t do a child-free trip prior to taking your young child, check out the website for information on the current exhibits. They even provide recommendations about family-friendly galleries. Pick one or two that you think will appeal to your child and have a general idea of how to get to those exhibits quickly. Avoid anything that may seem upsetting, scary, or bring up questions you don’t want to answer at this point in your parenting career. For example, we skipped the Clown Torture exhibit (as much for her sake as for ours, really).
One thing to note about the exhibits we chose: We did have to lift her up to see the miniature rooms and some of the paperweights—be sure to factor that into your decision making.
Any parent of a toddler knows that keeping them happy means keeping them fed and watered. The Art Institute’s Museum Cafe offers kid-friendly fare complete with your child’s favorites: mac and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, tacos, and more. The museum does have a policy against bringing in food, so prepare according—give your child a snack beforehand or plan to visit the cafe.
The Family Room offers a variety of options for kids of all ages. From blocks and books to computer games and large puzzles of famous artworks, our daughter was happy and occupied in the Family Room. We also visited the Elizabeth Morse Touch Gallery, which allows children to get up close and personal with sculptures.
Our final stop was the [Not So] Still Life gallery. We weren’t planning to take our daughter to this area because we were told it was primarily for older kids, but she loved it. I don’t think she understood that she was supposed to be creating a still life—or what a still life is—but pretend food and household items are pretty popular toy options right now. And she did put together her own little work of art.
If You Go
There’s plenty to do with a young child or toddler at the Art Institute, and it wasn’t as scary or stressful as I feared it would be. Our daughter was more engaged with the galleries than I expected.
Before you go, check out the Visiting with Your Family section of the website, where you’ll find all kinds of useful information, including recommendations on which galleries and exhibition are appropriate for kids, where you can find family restrooms and areas for nursing moms to comfortably feed babies, and a calendar of family activities.