Secrets To Visiting the Art Institute of Chicago With Kids

Kids can learn about iconic and important art. Photo by Maureen Wilkey for Mommy Poppins
Kids can learn about iconic and important art. Photo by Maureen Wilkey for Mommy Poppins
2/4/24 - By Maureen Wilkey

The Art Institute of Chicago is one of my family's favorite spots in the city; we can spend the whole day there, or dip in for an event or a few hours. This world-class museum houses dozens of recognizable pieces from across time and art movements, so there's something amazing to see with every corner you turn.

Fine art can seem a little intimidatating for young kids, but with a little prep, and armed with a few secret tips of when to go and where to go first, kids of all ages will have a blast. Read on to discover everything you need to know about visiting The Art Institute of Chicago with kids. 

If you want to check out other museums with the fam, check out our guide to the best Chicago museums for kids and families, and be sure to read all about the best things to do with kids at the Chicago History Museum.


Little boy enjoying the Ryan Learning Center. Photo by Maureen Wilkey

Best Spot at The Art Institute of Chicago Just for Kids 

Ryan Learning Center

Head here when your kids get tired (bored?) of looking and want to touch or play with things. There's a gallery where they can feel different art textures, like terra cotta sculptures and chain mail, and make rubbings of various textured plates with crayons. There's also a restored carousel with videos about how they refinished it and a chance for kids to color on the window in the shape of the horse. And different themed crafts accompany whatever the rotating exhibit is.

My kids tried to make reclaimed scraps into a shape that looked like an everyday object. This is a little ambitious for the younger one, so we just cut out building shapes from paper to make a skyline. The older one made paper flowers in a cardboard and burlap vase, which was quite cute and fun. This is a great area for kids of different ages who might not have the stamina for a whole day of looking at art, but we find that going here first would have derailed any actual museum time.

Exploring the Rest of the Art Institute of Chicago With Kids

Whenever we visit an attraction, we try to ensure everyone in the family can see at least one thing on their list. The Art Institute's website makes this easy with the Journey Maker app. Kids can pick a theme like "Time Traveler" or "Extreme and Extraordinary," and the app takes them through a series of suggestions of what to see. Then, you can print out a small booklet that tells you which gallery each work of art is located in. Kids can do a small activity on each page to win a prize. You can also print off books in the Ryan Learning Center at the start of your journey. We saw tons throughout our nearly five-hour trip through the museum, and each kid was excited about the selections they made.

If your kids aren't big enough to decide what to see, or if you think they might only last one hour, we suggest using the museum's suggestions for "What to See in an Hour" and/or "Your Family Visit." There's a lot of overlap between these two self-guided tours, and even if you see half of it, you'll feel like you had a worthwhile experience.

little girl looking at a painting at the Institute of Art Chicago

Little girl looking at a painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo by Maureen Wilkey

Best Galleries and Works of Art for Kids at the Art Institute of Chicago

Thorne Miniature Rooms (Gallery 11)

There are literally 101 tiny rooms on display in the basement of the Art Institute, depicting everything from an English Library of the Queen Anne Period to a living room in California in the 1940s. My kids loved pointing out the intricate details, theorizing about how each piece was made, and observing the painted backgrounds depicting the outside of each room. And, of course, seeing how bathrooms have changed over the last several centuries.

Paris Street; Rainy Day

You've probably seen this famous artwork, but I'm pretty sure we all picture it as the standard wall poster-size picture. In person, it's enormous—almost six feet tall and nine feet across—and you can see individual brush strokes once you get closer. Art teachers often use this painting to talk about perspective, and when you see it up close, you can see why—it must have been difficult to paint things in different sizes and make them look realistic on such a large canvas.

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (Gallery 240)

Another art class classic and another behemoth-sized painting, this pointalism masterpiece has lots of colors for kids to enjoy. It's cool to see the transitions of colors and where the tiny lines and dots come together to make actual shapes. 

Van Gogh (Gallery 241)

After seeing Immersive Van Gogh at the Lighthouse Art Space two years ago, my kids are enthralled with some of the artist's work. The Art Institute has some recognizable examples of his work, including the self-portrait and The Bedroom. My kids also liked checking out some of his lesser-known pieces, like The Drinkers, and Grapes, Lemon, Pears, and Apples, which reminded my son that he was hungry. More on food later.

little girl standing in front of a Monet painting at the Institute of Art Chicago

Little girl standing in front of Monet's Water Lillies. Photo by Maureen Wilkey

Claude Monet's Water Lilies (Gallery 243)

My daughter was thrilled to discover this gallery with three different paintings of water lilies. This was a nice moment as she read the signage and thought about why the artist had painted what he had. These were beautiful and thought-provoking for her.

Sky above Clouds IV (Gallery 249)

This giant Georgia O'Keeffe painting was inspired by looking down from an airplane window. It was deemed too big to go into other museums, so instead, it dominated the staircase here at the Art Institute. It's also a great transition from the old wing of the museum into the modern wing and the Rice Building, which contains more 20th-century pieces.

America Windows and replicas of Chicago public art sculptures (Gallery 144)

These stained glass windows were made for America's bicentennial and depict music, painting, literature, and dance throughout history. It's a fun departure from the paintings we had seen a lot of, and the kids also loved the scale models of famous Chicago public artworks, like the flamingo and Maquette for Miro's Chicago. 

Andy Warhol (Gallery 296)

After seeing the Warhol exhibit at the College of DuPage last summer, my kids were interested in revisiting the modern prints. My daughter liked Liz #3, Four Mona Lisas, and Flowers. The idea of repetitive images is fun and colorful and more tame than some other art in the Modern Wing.

The Southeast Asian Art Gallery and its view of the railyard (Gallery 140)

Seated Buddhas, ancient pottery, and maps of where it came from were highlights of the trip for my son, but he also loved looking out the window from Gallery 140 at the train tracks under Grant Park. I've seen the trains from Michigan Avenue many times but never thought of how much closer the view would be from the window in the Art Institute that crosses over the recessed railyard.

The Nighthawks

This is one that I like (maybe even more now as a mom) because it reminds me of living alone in the city. A more photorealistic style painting, this 1942 Edward Hopper work brings a more modern perspective to the museum.

American Gothic (Gallery 263)

Another art class favorite, referenced in The Lego Movie, was recognizable to my kids and is uniquely Midwestern. We like to imagine that this is what my great-grandparents would have looked like back in the day, and it's a simple and unique piece for kids to check out.

While these are our favorites and the most iconic things we saw here, there's still plenty more experience. Our Journey Maker apps brought us to random artwork that we never knew would appeal to kids, like an abstract of space and astronauts, a Tiffany lamp, a life-size woman and dog made from seashells, and a Greek urn the size of a first grader.

two kids standing outside the Art Institute of Chicago

Kids standing in front of the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo by Maureen Wilkey

A few insider tips for first-time visitors with kids:

  • If you're going in the winter, find and use the coat check. This is a lot of space to carry everyone's coats during your visit.
  • Get a map on the way in and plan your first three to five stops accordingly. Be aware that the Art Institute is four separate buildings, so the basement galleries and some of the upper floor galleries aren't connected—you may have to go upstairs and/or downstairs to get from one gallery to another.
  • If you start on Michigan Avenue, go to the Thorne Miniature rooms first. If you start in the Modern Wing, go to the Ryan Center first!
  • As good as the admission prices are, the food prices are a little steep, and there's no kids' menu. You're not allowed to bring in your own food. Our kids split a flatbread, but we were lucky they agreed on something. If you have picky eaters, consider eating an early lunch and visiting the museum afterward.
  • The Art Institute is open at 11am Thursdays through Mondays. On Thursdays, it stays open until 8. This is great for after-school trips or doing something else in the morning if you've got bigger kids.
  • Spoiler alert: not every human depicted in the art is fully clothed. If you're sensitive about nudity, or you have a kid who is going to laugh at the sight of a boob or a butt, maybe take a peek into each gallery or peruse the website before you go. And maybe stay out of the multimedia exhibit in the Modern Wing.
  • Remember that map you picked up? Every time you go to a different floor, note where the bathrooms are located. Again, this place is huge; we all have that one kid who waits until the last possible second to go potty

Planning Your Visit To the Art Institute of Chicago

Art Institute of Chicago Tickets

The best part about the Art Institute might be that everyone ages 14 and under gets in for free, as well as Chicago teens ages 18 and under. Otherwise, adults are $32, children (14-18) are $26, students are $26, and seniors (65+) are $26.

Art Institute of Chicago Free Days

The museum offers free winter days to residents of Illinois on Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays from January 8-March 22, 2024. There are also opportunities for free admission for first responders, military members, teachers, Chicago teens, college students, and adults with a valid Chicago Public Library card. So everyone should have a chance to get into the museum for little to no money for a great day of artsy fun. Looking for more freebies? Check out our guide to all the free museums and free museum days in Chicago for kids. 

Getting There

The Art Institute of Chicago is at 111 S. Michigan Avenue, right in the heart of downtown. No parking necessary if you take the bus, but if you drive, I recommend parking in the Grant Park South Garage. SpotHero has a lot of great suggestions, too.

There's something for everyone at the Art Institute, whether you can make it for 45 minutes or 4.5 hours. And with the impressive number of free admission opportunities, it's well worth the trip.


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