what I learned from taking my toddler to a museum

It was Saturday morning, and we were moving about the house getting dressed, throwing diapers in the bag, packing snacks, filling up water bottles and trying to get out the door. We had planned to spend the day knocking off an item from our Florida bucket list. The destination was about an hour's drive, and we wanted to get there and finish up well before missed-nap-breakdowns. Timing is everything with an almost 2-year-old and a breastfeeding 3-month old. 

The attempt to get everything ready and loaded into the car was going less than smoothly. It wasn't terrible, it was just...frustrating. We usually spend Saturday mornings relaxing, listening to music and making a big breakfast. Amidst the flurry of packing up, I began to think: Why are we doing this to ourselves?  

We were embarking on a long drive to spend a lot of money on a cultural experience that would more likely than not be jeopardized by some unforeseen and unavoidable event--a toddler meltdown, perhaps, or maybe a diaper explosion. We were deliberately expending a tremendous amount of energy to do something the value of which wasn't exactly clear to me, and which would also throw the children out of their routine for the rest of the day. It would be so much easier to stay home and relax. But the wheel was already set in motion for us to load into the car. Besides, this was something we had been wanting to do for years. 

We pulled up to the Edison and Ford Winter Estates just before noon. After the long drive, Catherine and Frances were barely keeping it together. Noah unloaded with Catherine to check things out while I stayed in the car to nurse Frances and psych myself up for the task ahead. 

 The entryway to the Edison and Ford Winter Estates features a Banyan tree that Edison planted in his search for plants that could supply rubber. He was worried about America's dependency on foreign sources of rubber. Much of the land around his estate was dedicated to research.  This Banyan tree is one of the largest in the Continental U.S., with foliage that stretches across nearly an acre. Pretty amazing!

The entryway to the Edison and Ford Winter Estates features a Banyan tree that Edison planted in his search for plants that could supply rubber. He was worried about America's dependency on foreign sources of rubber. Much of the land around his estate was dedicated to research.  This Banyan tree is one of the largest in the Continental U.S., with foliage that stretches across nearly an acre. Pretty amazing!

We purchased our tickets, grabbed a map, and started out for the museum. In the center of the first room, loosely roped off, there stood two antique cars. One of them was a Model T that Ford had gifted Edison, with custom wheels that would fit the carriage ruts in the rough Florida backroads of the early 1900s. The other car featured the car battery which Edison had invented.

Immediately upon walking into the space, Catherine began running around and among the displays. Yikes! The ropes hung about two feet off the ground and there was nothing stopping a two-year-old from walking under them and touching the historic inventions that lined the room on all sides. Batteries, lightbulbs, stuff like that. Next, she ran to the stroller and insisted on pushing it, narrowly missing collision with said displays. She spotted her animal crackers in my purse and began clamoring loudly for a snack. I'm pretty sure there's an unspoken rule: no eating in museums. But I looked around and didn't see any signs.... Onwards!

When we got to the next room, I was prepared to geek out. It was a walk-through display where you follow the journey of friendship between Henry Ford and Thomas Edison and the amazing road trips they took together. There were lots of little tidbits about what it was like to visit and inhabit Southwest Florida in the late 1800s, early 1900s. Frances was asleep in the baby carrier and I was ready to eat it all up. But Noah was struggling with Catherine, who was running around and in and out of rooms, so I decided I couldn't linger long. I picked up a few details, glanced at a few photos, and moved on. 

We had a brief hiatus in a kid-friendly room with building blocks, bells, and marbles. Catherine had fun playing there, but eventually we ushered her on. We didn't pay good money for her to play with blocks. (Granted, older children would be able to learn something from the experimentation the block display was meant to encourage.)  

The next room was just loaded with historical material. I paused at the entryway to soak in the challenge that lay ahead. And that's when I remembered something my dad told me when I was in high school. "Sarah," he said. "When you go to a museum, you should pick one thing in each room and focus on it." Nearly every museum has the same problem: there is simply too much. If you attempt to take everything in, you wind up burnt out at the end--both physically and mentally. It's also not clear that you remember later much of what you spent several hours seeing. But, if you pause before entering a room, scan the walls for something that catches your eye, and then single that out as the object of your attention, chances are a lot higher you'll remember that thing in the future. Using this technique opens up the world of discovery, and the experience of walking through a museum takes on a new, exciting hue. 

I always found it hard to follow my dad's advice. I would look at one painting, and then be called to the one beside it, and then wander across the room, and think: what's the harm of looking at a few more? I didn't want the opportunity to go to waste, so I would determine to see as much as possible. 

But now, as I paused in the doorway, with my toddler nearing the end of her rope, my dad's words came echoing back to me, and the beauty of them became clear. Even if I had all the time in the world, and I examined every artifact, and meticulously read every label, would I remember any of it in a week? A month? A year? Probably not. But if I picked out one item and examined it closely, thoughtfully, there was a higher chance I would actually learn something from it. 

Having a toddler forced me to be selective about my consumption. Having a toddler actually increased the odds that I would remember something from this trip. I could wander through the museum rooms and fall into a hazy overload of information, or I could focus on a few things and come away with a real prize, a gem of information, solidified and stored in my memory for time to come. 

There weren't many more rooms for me to practice my newfound wisdom on (the museum portion of the Estates is rather small), but it gave me a refreshed view of taking on cultural outings with children. And besides what I learned from the trip, we were making memories as a family, and we were beginning to instill in our children a love of learning and an appreciation for the past.

When we got home, I shared with Noah my light-bulb moment, and his reply was: "If you thought this was bad, just think of what it will be like to drag along moody teenagers--and to have to pay for them too!" Oh dear. That's a struggle down the road. But I hope I'll remember the insights from this trip and have practiced my critical consumption techniques by then. And I hope that, over the years, by making the effort to take family trips such as these rather than hiding out in our home on Saturday mornings, my kids will receive and adopt as their own a love and thirst for knowledge.   

 Hands-down one of the greatest things about the Edison and Ford Winter Estates (besides the homes themselves, which are preserved with historic artifacts and really so incredible to see) is that the land is on a river and there is so much space to wander around and enjoy nature. The Edisons had a fountain, lily pond, pool, moonlight reflection pond, and more. There are hundreds of different types of plants on the property. Also, we were told that we could spread out a blanket anywhere and enjoy a picnic lunch...which we did! 

Hands-down one of the greatest things about the Edison and Ford Winter Estates (besides the homes themselves, which are preserved with historic artifacts and really so incredible to see) is that the land is on a river and there is so much space to wander around and enjoy nature. The Edisons had a fountain, lily pond, pool, moonlight reflection pond, and more. There are hundreds of different types of plants on the property. Also, we were told that we could spread out a blanket anywhere and enjoy a picnic lunch...which we did!