Introducing your kids to art appreciation at the McNay Art Museum

It’s a Catch-22: How do you expect your kids to behave themselves in an art museum, if they’ve never been to one before? How do you get your kids to go to an art museum, if they don’t know how to act once they’re there?

My advice: Dive in. Expect to make some mistakes along the way, but it will pay off in the long run as your kids develop an appreciation for art.

Introducing your kids to art appreciation at the McNay Art Museum | Alamo City Moms Blog

The McNay Art Museum, located near Alamo Heights and Terrell Hills in central San Antonio, has a rich collection of early and modern art in a historic campus, and also offers family programs to ease the introduction.

My friend Veronica Rouse (her blog is called Seven Lovely Things) and I have made a habit of meeting up at the McNay with our kids, who are between the ages of two and six. Learn from our experiences and use the McNay as a way to help your kids understand art.

As a first step, play outside on the museum grounds. The gates are open until 6 p.m. (during Daylight Savings Time, 7 p.m.). Parking is free, and picnics are welcome. The grounds are luxuriously landscaped and dotted with ponds, fountains, and monumental sculptures. One of our favorites is “Horizontal Column of Five Squares, Excentric II,” an ever-changing kinetic sculpture by George Rickey.

"Horizontal Column of Five Squares, Excentric II" by George Rickey, at the McNay Art Museum
“Horizontal Column of Five Squares, Excentric II” by George Rickey

There is so much more to see inside the museum. The McNay offers free admission to the main collection on H-E-B Thursday Nights (4 p.m. to 9 p.m.) and on AT&T First Sundays of the Month. In my experience, free admission sounds great, but crowds can be stressful, so I would rather go on a quiet weekday.

Works by Monet, Hopper, Dufy and more, from the collection of the McNay Art Museum
Works by Monet, Hopper, Dufy and more, from the collection of the McNay Art Museum

Veronica and I each got a membership so we can make frequent, short trips instead of limiting ourselves to the occasional brain-numbing marathon. Veronica says:

If you only go for 30 minutes, or an hour, it makes a difference! Sometimes we walk straight to the impressionists (because Monet’s “Waterlilies” is Z’s fave) and then to the courtyard and then leave. Other times we make it longer. The fact that it is a place he feels like he and his friends enjoy is so important for him.

With each visit, Veronica and I have seen our kids get more comfortable being at the museum. The first few times, I had to keep reminding my son, F.T., to keep his “hands down,” etc., but he has gotten the hang of it.

Architectural details at the McNay Art Museum
Architectural details at the McNay Art Museum

Does the museum seem too big and overwhelming? Take it one room at a time. The heart of the McNay is a gracious old home, the former residence of Marion Koogler McNay. These are human-scaled rooms with approachable paintings. As you walk into each room, point to a picture, help your child walk up close (but not too close—12″ minimum), and ask a question about the painting. Veronica says, “When you ask the children what they see, they can help us see and assimilate the information in front of us. Its truly amazing how art speaks to everyone, young and old, rich and poor.”

Veronica and I have learned to spot when our kids are getting too wiggly or are no longer able to focus on a single painting. Then it’s time for a turn around the courtyard, with its beautiful gardens, fountain, sculptures, and architecture.

Courtyard at the McNay Art Museum
Courtyard at the McNay Art Museum

A tour of the collection is a good enough reason for us to go, but the McNay also offers special activities for families.

The McNay’s 60th Birthday Bash on February 16, 2014 will include a 5k run (10 a.m. to 11 a.m.) and a Free Family Day (11 a.m. to 5 p.m.), including running relays and practicing yoga, screenprinting T-shirts, decorating cupcakes and cards, and watching a ballet performance.

On Fridays, from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., the McNay offers ArtStrolls, a gallery tour and sensory playtime for babies (12 months and younger) and their caregivers. Strollers and baby carriers are welcome. ArtStrolls are free for members, $10 for non-members.

On the last Sunday of the month, the McNay typically offers a kid-friendly tour and workshop. The next Family Art Play, on Sunday, April 27, will have sessions at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.; the subject is “Looks Alive”, and will include a tour of still life paintings in the galleries, and then a workshop for kids to create their own still life paintings. If you have a membership, you can make a reservation—and I would recommend it. We were lucky to get in to December’s stop-motion animation workshop with artist Johnny Villarreal and his invention, The Edge of Imagination Station, but it was worth it, because my kids got to create their own movie:

Watch more kid-created videos from the workshop here, here, and here (F.T.’s starts at 2:28).

We have not yet tried the Family Gallery Kits (with puzzles, costumes, drawing supplies, etc.) that you can check out for free at the front desk on the first and third Sundays of the month between 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. We’ll let you know how that goes.

This is just a sampling of the McNay’s family activities; check the calendar for more upcoming events.

Scenes at the McNay Art Museum
Scenes at the McNay Art Museum

Other advice about the McNay:

  • The gift store has a wide selection of art books and educational toys for all ages, and members get a discount.
  • Entertaining out-of-town visitors? Or, want to stay busy for Spring Break? Consider getting a Broadway Reach pass. For $44, the pass is good for seven days, and is worth $63 in tickets to the San Antonio Children’s Museum, the San Antonio Museum of Art, the Witte Museum, the San Antonio Zoo, the San Antonio Botanical Garden, and the McNay. (A child card is $22 for kids 12 and under.)
  • The McNay is open until 9 p.m. on Thursdays—combine it with dinner or drinks for a fun date night.
  • If you have more than one child, consider taking turns spending one-on-one time at the museum. It’s easier to watch just one pair of little hands, and it can make the museum experience more special.
  • The McNay, like the San Antonio Museum of Art, is closed Mondays. Learned that the hard way. Doh.

So, you may feel anxious about bringing your young, energetic children around priceless works of art. (Picasso? Yes. Gauguin? Yes.) But it’s worth it: taking children to an art museum has been shown to improve critical thinking skills. “Art Makes You Smart”, Brian Kisida, Jay P. Greene, & Daniel H. Bowen, New York Times, November 23, 2013.

What are your thoughts about introducing kids to art appreciation?

Inga Cotton
Inga is passionate about parent-driven education: helping parents be the best advocates for their children, finding the right schools (or homeschooling resources), and enjoying San Antonio's variety of arts and cultural events for families. She was born in California but has called Texas home since high school. She works part time as a lawyer and also blogs at San Antonio Charter Moms. Her eight-year-old son, F.T., and five-year-old daughter, G.N., attend a public charter school in the heart of the city. She married a techie and is a bit of a geek herself.


  1. LOVE love love this!!!! Before having kids, my husband were marathon art museum-walkers. I had the exact anxiety you’re talking about – about bringing my energetic kids and braving an overwhelming “Free” day. Knowing they have an area to get their wiggles out, and lots of kid-friendly events has really inspired me to start sharing my love of art with my children. Thanks!!!

  2. What wonderful information, Inga! I think this calls for a mommy-daughter date with my favorite five-year-old–we’ll leave the toddler and daddy at home. 🙂

  3. Forgot to mention this in the post: Did you know that they have little lockers in the lobby? You can lock up your coats, diaper bag, etc.

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