a peek inside the fishbowl

02 Mar, 2009

Top ten tips on how to do the National Gallery with kids (or any other art gallery for that matter!)

Posted by andrea tomkins in: - Ottawa for kids|Easy ways to make kids happy|parenting

I am trying to convince people that the National Gallery in Ottawa is not a place for snooty old art lovers, but is accessible to anyone and everyone, especially kids. Kids are such creative little critters. Shouldn’t we do everything we can to encourage them?

Perhaps it sounds daunting to bring the kiddies downtown for an afternoon of art appreciation, but it doesn’t need to be. We’ve been taking the girls to art galleries for years. This is what’s worked for us:

1. Early bird catches the worm and avoids the crowds. Worried about your rambunctious toddler and/or fussy baby? The National Gallery is super for strollers and is fairly easy to get around. Check the hours and time your visit for when the gallery opens. They’re open at 10:00 a.m. most days. 

Indoors at the National Gallery 

2. Co-ordinate your visit with the gallery’s Artissimo program.It’s free with general admission. Artissimo is a wonderful and thoughtful children’s program. The photo pictured above is looking down at Artissimo. There were kids of all ages – from toddler to tween – all working on different projects when we were there on Sunday.

(Sidebar: it was a big day for Sarah. Her landscape – pictured below – will be hung on a gallery wall for other children to admire. She is thrilled. She said it was a dream come true! I really love helping my kids’ dreams come true.)

Artissimo at the National Gallery

Sarah's abstract portrait

Emma's 3D art at Artissimo

3. Full tummy = happy mummy

The cafeteria at the National Gallery is shockingly inexpensive. The four of us had a big lunch there for twenty bucks. Check out my grilled veggie sandwich:


I had a tough time deciding what to eat because the other sandwiches sounded so good. Salmon was the most expensive at $5.95. There was chicken too. 

A grilled cheese (I haven’t seen bread this white in a long time) set us back about $2.50. Other lunch entrees (I think there was an eggplant parmesan) hovered in the $7.00-$8.00 range. 

4. Leave your bulky sweaters and coats in the coat room or else you’ll be forced to listen to that familiar refrain (there’s a facial expression that goes with it too): “I’m hawwwwt mummy!” If you’re wearing winter boots, consider switching them for runners or other lighter footwear.

5. Enjoy the architecture as well as the art; both inside…

Climbing the stairs at the National Gallery

… and outside:

Maman and the church

6. Teach your children the how-to’s of art appreciation. Hands are best kept in pockets or behind our backs. Don’t lean in too much. It makes the security guards jumpy. If you’re closer than one arm’s length that’s too close.

7. Don’t try to take in too much during your visit. I used to make my kids stop and look at special paintings (“See kids, this is by a guy named Van Gogh. He’s a Dutch post-impressionist who cut off his ear!”) and read out the information on each little card. I found myself getting increasingly annoyed at their increasing boredom. It was a surefire way of getting our kids to hate going to the gallery.

Our new strategy is to let the kids lead us. We pause to look at things of interest and skip all the rest. That’s why it’s a good idea to …

8. Get a family membership. It pays for itself after only a few visits, especially if you factor in their special exhibits which always cost extra. You can easily zip in and zip out and not feel pressured to stay. When we had our family membership (since expired, sadly) it also gave me the luxury of visiting on my own time and catching up on everything I missed, sans children.

If money is an issue you should go on Thursday evenings. It’s free between 5-8 p.m. (This happens to be the only night they’re open late.)

9. Get them talking. Ask a few age-appropriate questions about the art but try not to turn the whole experience into a huge teaching lesson. (Which might be a huge turn-off.)

  • What colours do you see? What shapes?
  • What is this made out of?
  • What do you think the artist is trying to say?
  • What does this remind you of?
  • What’s going on in this picture?
  • If this was your own art, what title would you have given it?

10. Don’t forget the gift shop. Postcards, sketch books, or a set of shiny new set of watercolours might be enough to inspire your mini-Monet.

Any other tips to share? I’d love to hear them.

17 Responses to "Top ten tips on how to do the National Gallery with kids (or any other art gallery for that matter!)"

1 | Wendy

March 2nd, 2009 at 2:39 pm


Hi Andrea:

Great post for wintery weekends.

The National Gallery is a favourite for us; my crowd specially likes the contemporary sculpture galleries; much more to talk about than in the painting galleries. Where else can you meet life sized camels, walking tables and a machine that throws money? If you find contemporary art ‘difficult’ just try to relax; Kids usually ‘get’ it better than grown-ups and most pieces are really only ‘about’ your reaction.

My favourite question is “How does this make you feel?” Followed by ” How do you think the artist was feeling?” Often gets kids thinking. We have also been known to try to stand/sit/lie in the same pose as a sculpture to keep things active (also amuses other gallery visitors)

I am always so pleased to see kids in the gallery that nothing they can do would disturb my visit. Still I would agree; visits should be short and interesting, and the cafe is an important part of the treat.

See you there sometime. I’m the happy- looking Mum with 2 or 3 kids squirming on the floor, playing (gentle) hide-and-seek, or pointing out the ‘rude bits’ and giggling.


2 | Nicol

March 2nd, 2009 at 4:28 pm


Great post! I gearing up to take Livy is our fine art’s museum. She is turning two and it’s time to go. I love art so it is important to me that she has the opportunity to experience this.

I don’t have anything to add to your great post. We are looking forward to our up-coming trip!

3 | Siobhan

March 2nd, 2009 at 9:22 pm


The best secret to Ottawa museums – you can get a free family pass from the public library! You may need to wait a few weeks for the pass (especially for the bigger museums), but it’s a great option if you’re patient and flexible about when you can go. (I don’t remember how to request the passes, but I’m sure any librarian will know the process.)

4 | Loukia

March 3rd, 2009 at 8:55 am


Great post, I have not taken my kids inside this gallery yet. We will have to go soon! My oldest son loves running under the giant spider, though! He thinks it’s pretty neat.

We have memberships to all the other museums in Ottawa, though – it’s sooo worth it! I especially love the Children’s Museum, as do my boys.

5 | Shannon

March 3rd, 2009 at 1:41 pm


We haven’t been in ages – I used to go all the time when the boys were babies and I’d push them around in their strollers for hours! Now that they are 5, 3 and their sister is 1, perhaps it is time for us to brave it again – I think you may have motivated me to do it :-)

6 | Sharon

March 3rd, 2009 at 6:12 pm


I’m taking Nathan this Friday for the first time. I am abit nervous because he is a touchy feely boy. BUT He has asked to go many times and I feel it is time to let him in the doors. I’m sure he will suprise me like he usually does.
I too have a reason to go I went back to school to d
o an art history degree and my first research paper has me checking out few of the paintings. And I will make sure to take a sketch pad and some pencils for him too.

I was there 2 weeks ago to check out the Bernini exhibit and it was wonderful.

Artissmo is open there during Quebec March break too so they will be there on Friday! YEAH!

7 | Annie @ PhD in Parenting

March 3rd, 2009 at 11:10 pm


Great post! Just curious what your thoughts are on taking younger kids to the Art Gallery. Mine are 4 and almost 2. We do just about every other museum in Ottawa regularly (Aviation, Science & Tech, Experimental Farm, Nature, Civilization/Children’s Museum) and they love those. The art gallery is the one that we haven’t tried yet.

Just as an FYI for babywearing moms, I have heard a few moms get told that they cannot wear their babies on their back because they are concerned about the mom inadvertently bumping something or the child reaching out and grabbing the artwork. They recommend strollers instead. We don’t do strollers, so we would probably just have both of ours walk if we go.

8 | andrea

March 4th, 2009 at 8:29 am


I almost found the Gallery the easiest of places to visit with kids. When Sarah was a baby and Emma was a toddler I’d go there sometimes. It is actually a fairly baby-friendly environment… accessible elevator, change tables in the washrooms etc. A couple times we’d go with another family, look at a bit of art and then hang out in the cafeteria for the rest of the time. (It is sunny and bright and easy to hang out in there.

I’ve always believed we have to start teaching our kids a few things about “gallery behaviour” early in life. i.e. not touching the art, walking quietly etc. It’s hard, I admit, but I think it’s a parent’s job to persevere the best we can. The trick is to keep the visits short and only take in a few things at a time. That’s where the membership comes in really handy.

Re: the “baby on the back” thing. It was in the Citizen not that long ago. A father wasn’t allowed to carry his daughter on his shoulders. But I think if you had a kid in a sling it would be considered okay.

9 | Mom on the Go

March 4th, 2009 at 10:22 am


I’d add that you should ask about the touchy-feely box where you guess what painting the clues in the box are meant to describe or the dolls that look like a character in the painting. They’re available where the Artissimo is set up but not obvioius. We spent time sitting/lying on the floor talking about one of the paintings, pausing at a few more and walking on by a number of others. Oh, and lots of time in the Artissimo area. When Reid is big enough (6 years old), the National Gallery camp will definitely find its place in her summer.

10 | andrea

March 4th, 2009 at 11:32 am


Some fitting lyrics on my iPod shuffle walking on the way home from the gym this morning … (by Spirit of the West)

“And if Venice is sinking, I’m going under,
‘Cause beauty’s religion, and it’s christened me with wonder.”

I was also thinking it’s worth pointing out to children that art takes many forms. It’s not just paint on a canvas or crayon on paper. Art is fabric, music, stone, shape and shadow, light, sound …

Did anyone catch the installation called Forty part motet by Janet Cardiff when it was at the Gallery a few years ago? It was sound as art. Incredibly moving.

11 | Annie @ PhD in Parenting

March 4th, 2009 at 1:33 pm


Thanks Andrea! I saw the thing in the Citizen, but also saw a thread on Mothering.com where the mom had been wearing her baby on her back in a Mei Tai and that wasn’t allowed.

12 | andrea

March 4th, 2009 at 1:38 pm


No kidding. In a Mei Tai? That’s pretty bad.

13 | Ysabel Jette

March 18th, 2009 at 8:44 am


I just wanted to tell you how much we appreciated the post about your recent visit to the National Gallery of Canada. Your tips couldn’t have been more insightful and accurate. One important piece of news for you: please let your artist Sarah know that she now has an artwork exhibited with the Masters of the National Gallery of Canada. Her masterpiece is located in the Artissimo Gallery (on the way to the cafeteria).
For Annie: you are indeed correct. The policy at the National Gallery of Canada is to encourage parents to carry babies on their fronts or to use the free strollers.
Hope to see you soon at Artissimo,
Ysabel Jetté
Studio Educator and Artissimo Coordinator
National Gallery of Canada

14 | Sarah, you’re eight >> a peek inside the fishbowl

April 11th, 2009 at 8:48 am


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October 30th, 2009 at 12:10 pm


[…] I believe it is to introduce young children to the arts. I’ve written about our visits to the National Gallery before, as well as other galleries here in town. I can’t say enough about it. Exposure to the […]

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[…] to the National Gallery here in Ottawa. I’ve written about our experiences at the Gallery here before. To summarize: it’s all […]

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April 25th, 2012 at 7:19 am


[…] Visit the National Gallery of Canada (My fave piece of contemporary art is a sound sculpture called Forty-Part Motet. Don’t miss it.) I wrote about visiting the gallery with kids here. […]

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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human offspring: Emma (23) and Sarah (21). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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