How To Enjoy the Norton Simon Museum with Kids

The consensus is in: most parents don’t relish the idea of taking their young children to art museums. Whereas a trip to Kidspace Museum could easily make for a pleasant full-day excursion with little ones, a visit to a gallery like the Norton Simon Museum is a gamble. It could go swimmingly well for the day, or it could end in a meltdown minutes after paying for admission. Recently we took a trip to the Norton Simon Museum and thankfully enjoyed the experience. The kids loved it so much, in fact, they were begging to go back again. Read on to discover how we managed to make it fun, educational, and memorable enough for repeat visits.

Take a break outside in the sculpture garden.

What is there to see at the Norton Simon Museum?

The Norton Simon Museum is located in the heart of Pasadena, occupying about eight acres of land close to Old Town. It houses an astounding collection of European art from the 14th to the 20th century. On the first level, you’ll see a renowned display of Old Masters, Impressionists, and modern art. Seeing original pieces by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Degas, Monet, Picasso, and more is an experience worth having at least once in life, if not multiple times. Downstairs is an impressive collection of Southeast Asian art offering samples of that region’s cultural traditions. Outside is a serene sculpture garden where you can view works by artists like Rodin and Renoir while walking along beautifully landscaped paths encircling a pond. The museum building is itself a work of art, and no wonder, as it was renovated by renowned architect Frank Gehry in 1999.  
You may be thinking, “That sounds wonderful as an excursion alone, or with other adults. But my kid doesn’t care two hoots about Picasso!”
I’ll be honest. I stayed away from museums for the first five years of parenting. It’s truly no fun if your kid’s screams are the only sounds echoing through otherwise hushed galleries. And, really, what’s the point of zooming through exhibits with no time but a cursory glance at each piece of art? And yet, we could all use the restful and uplifting space that a good art museum can provide for the harried family. There is also something to be said about the goodness of exposing children to the visual arts at an early age.

So, how to do it?

RELATED: 10 Best Children's Museums near LA

Storytime can be a great time to bring kids.

Navigating the Museum with Kids 

Here’s how our family managed to love our visit to the Norton Simon:

  • We waited until our kids could follow basic instructions and have a minimum of interest in the artwork. Elementary school is the perfect age for taking them because of their natural curiosity and awareness. Any earlier and it gets risky. We had a preschooler with us, however, who was engaged the whole time, asking questions and pointing out things she found interesting. However, you know your kids best. We all want to avoid those worst-case scenarios in which the kids are crossing taped-off areas, setting off alarms, and knocking over million dollar acquisitions!
  • We went over expectations beforehand. The Norton Simon provides this visual book for parents to read with their children. It gives kids an idea of what to expect at the Norton Simon, how to behave, and the basics of museum etiquette. A little prep goes a long way.
  • We had realistic expectations. The smaller the person, the shorter the attention span. An hour at the Norton Simon visiting just one themed wing—say, the Impressionists—is really a raving success. On our first visit, we only saw a third of the museum. We followed our interests, took our time, and didn’t try to see everything. We relaxed and enjoyed what we could. 
  • We made it fun by going with friends. Sharing our opinions about Van Gogh’s paintings and Degas’ Little Dancer made our little people feel like they were in a special club for art critics. I highly recommend it for reluctant visitors. 
  • We got the Children's Audio tour. If you’re going it alone, I definitely recommend the audio tour. My kids loved being able to dial in and listen to the funny and entertaining narration of the artwork. The tour was hands down the easiest way to enjoy the museum. The audio narration covers about 35 pieces total, chosen especially for their child-friendliness. The jokes, games, drama, and information make the visit effortlessly interactive for kids, giving parents a break to enjoy the museum for themselves. 

First Fridays of the month at the Norton Simon have free admission from 5pm-8pm, a good time for a risk-free attempt at museum adventures. You could even come back once a month and see one exhibit at a time.

Experienced families and those with older kids can easily turn the hour-long visit into a half-day experience. Take a break outside in the sculpture garden, stroll the beautiful grounds, and have a snack at the Garden Café. Then come back in for more art. Even better, come on one of the Family Days, when museum admission includes free educational programs for kids and families.

Family Days include great hands-on programs for kids from age 4.

Monday - Thursday 12 noon – 5pm (closed Tuesdays)
Friday & Saturday 11am – 8pm (first Friday of every month free from 5pm-8pm)
Sunday 11am – 5pm
Adults $15; Children (under 18) Free
Children’s audio tour rental $3
Free parking
Other resource guides provided by the museum:

Tips for Looking at Art with K-4th Grade Students

Norton Simon Museum Family Guide


All photos are courtesy of the Norton Simon Art Foundation.


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