The smell of hot dogs charring in a shimmering haze over the charcoal grill in your neighbors’ backyard draws you to your open kitchen window, where you cannot help but smile as you watch your own kids frolic with theirs in the sprinklers, blades of freshly cut grass clinging to their wet feet, ankles and legs.
Ah, yes, you think. Summer has arrived.
Suddenly you are overcome with a sense of foreboding as a dark premonition casts a shadow over the glow of contentment in which you were bathed but moments prior. What is this dread?
Summer means backyard barbecues, you think. Fireworks on Fourth of July and beach days; fresh strawberries and watermelon and —
Then it hits you: No school … for 12 weeks… that’s 2,016 hours of — you glance back out at your darlings as they stomp merrily through a trough of muddy sprinkler water. You decide not to finish your thought.
The challenge to keep the kids occupied and stimulated all summer long is a dilemma that countless parents face every year. Unfortunately, one of the best diversions — a trip to the art museum — is an activity that parents often avoid because approaching art with young children can be such a daunting venture.
However, according to Maureen Zaremba, Curator of Education at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, if done correctly a family trip to the art museum is a fantastic, simultaneously fun and educational way to spend a summer day.
“Art galleries can seem like the most intimidating place in the world,” Zaremba said. “There’s often a lot of parental anxiety that stems from not knowing about the art, but that’s why we’re here. The first thing you have to do is let go of that intimidation factor.”
Zaremba sat down with This Week in Sarasota to share some tips for parents about bringing the kids on a successful outing to the Ringling grounds.
“The best place to start is on our website,” said Zaremba. “It’s such a great tool and it allows kids to have a voice, to have some ownership of the experience.” Zaremba recommends that parents explore the Ringling website with their children and give the kids a chance to discuss what they want to see. The grounds at Ringling are vast, chock-full of things to see and do, and what appeals to your child may surprise you.
In addition to the art galleries, the circus museum and Tibbals Learning Center are yours to explore, as well as Mable Ringling’s rose garden, the Ca’ d’Zan Mansion and the historic Asolo Theatre.
“Pre-planning makes a visit better for everyone. It’s important that you prepare for the trip so that you can really relax and enjoy it,” said Zaremba. “People don’t always realize that you can easily spend an entire day here.”
In fact, there are so many things to see and experience that multiple visits to the Ringling grounds may be in order, rather than trying to pack everything into one trip.
“Think in bite sizes, especially if you have younger children,” Zaremba said. “You don’t have to see it all in one day.”
Museum Education Fellow Amanda Lynn seconded Zaremba’s opinion that the breadth of the Ringling estate may best be absorbed in small doses over the course of multiple visits.
“It’s way too much to take in over the course of just one day,” said Lynn. “When I talk to parents, I recommend that they start off with the circus museum because it gets kids excited and serves as a great starting point.”
“If you start in the circus museum, you can connect things from it with the rest of the estate,” added Zaremba, suggesting, for instance, that parents take note of the costuming and animal themes shared by the circus museum as well as a number of paintings in the art gallery and discuss them with their children.
For kids interested in the circus aspect of Ringling, the museum hosts a Summer Circus Spectacular from June 19 through July 28 at the Historic Asolo Theatre. This year, in addition to seeing the live circus performance, kids can also go into the museum for just $5 more and participate in an educational scavenger hunt.
For families who plan to take multiple trips to the museum, Zaremba recommends an investment in a museum membership, which includes a number of perks such as priority entrance to the members-only admission line; discounts in the café, museum store and select educational and theatre programming; and free tours of the first and second floor of the Ca’ d’Zan.
In addition to an extensive overview of the attractions on the Ringling grounds, Zaremba noted that the website also contains a thorough selection of valuable educational resources geared toward teachers, but they’re also very beneficial for parents taking their children to the museum.
Zaremba cautions parents to have realistic, age-appropriate expectations for their children.
“With little ones, you have to be really flexible,” said Zaremba. “They’re not going to spend a lot of time looking at the art because they’re at that age where they’re on the move and you kind of just have to let them do what they want.”
Zaremba noted that in the case of infants and toddlers, music is generally more stimulating than the visual arts, but that around age three or four, parents can start playing “looking games” in the museum.
“Playing games like ‘Can you find all the baby angels?’ or ‘What kind of animals can you find?’ are a great way to engage younger kids with art and get them acclimated to the museum,” said Zaremba.
“It doubles as a good teaching experience on how to behave in a museum setting. While you’re there, you can talk to them about how to use ‘inside voices’ and why they shouldn’t touch the art.”
For older kids, Zaremba strongly recommends the educational resources on the Ringling website. Downloadable lesson plans are available to the public in the Teacher Posters section of the website. These guides include lesson content based on art in the galleries, with talking points on a variety of subjects ranging from mythology to concepts of leadership and even mathematics.
Zaremba and Lynn also suggested that parents let go of the anxiety that often surrounds addressing the nudity in the museum with their children.
“It’s on television and in the movies, but when people see the statue of David in the courtyard, a lot of them have a kneejerk reaction of ‘Cover your eyes, kids,’” said Zaremba. “But as a parent, you set the tone. If you make a big issue out of it, it will be a big issue for the kids. If you don’t, it won’t.”
While it is true that the dog days of summer can take their toll on the sanity of stir-crazy kids and parents alike, the Ringling grounds offer a bounty of attractions and activities to help everyone stay occupied through those sweltering lazy, hazy days.
Additionally, lessons on etiquette gleaned during a trip to the art gallery can translate to museum-appropriate behavior in other educational settings, such as G.WIZ, the South Florida Museum and Mote Marine Laboratory — all of which could make great summer day trips as well.
So get yourself and the kids out of the house — out of the backyard, even — and take advantage of the rich and entertaining educational opportunities summer has to offer. You may be surprised by what you discover.