What can the Smithsonian teach us about designing kids programs in hotels?


When we think about art museums, many words come to mind, but “children” is not usually one of them.  Most museums are designed around content, not children. The Smithsonian, one of the most prestigious institutions of its kind is no exception. It has curated some of the most fascinating collections in the world. However, the institution has also found creative ways to engage children.

Over 20 years ago, the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center was established as a separate nonprofit housed within the Smithsonian with a two part mission: to provide a high-quality educational program for young children, and to advance educational opportunities for all children by sharing expertise on a national level. Over the years, the staff have figured out how to create experiences so that children can safely enjoy the museum while making sure that the content and science retain their authenticity. This remarkable approach has valuable lessons that can be applied to developing engaging kids programs in hospitality.

At the heart of the Smithsonian’s approach is a deep understanding of children. As Cynthia Raso, Director of the Office of Engagement at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center, wrote in a blog post “We believe that children are much more than cute. We believe they are curious learners who should be respected in the same way we do adults.”

Engaging children requires thoughtfulness, creativity and planning. There are practical approaches to help channel kids’ energy and make their experience enjoyable. For example, since kids cannot touch the exhibits, there are accompanying activities so that there is something “hands on.” The activities can’t be messy (no glitter, or wet items) and have to be safe (no scissors). For example, the Ancient Bells of China is a wonderful exhibit in the Freer and Sackler galleries. Bringing a real bell on the visit allows kids to have a hands-on experience that ties nicely into the display pieces. Since stories have a tremendous power to engage children, programs include books that are related to the exhibits. This allows children to use a different part of their mind to connect with the exhibits.

Art conveys complicated constructs that can be hard to grasp. A simple routine called “look, talk, think” inspired by Harvard’s Project Zero helps kids and their parents take in art. Kids should look carefully at the material from all sides; they should talk about colors, lines, shapes and concepts; and they should think about how the art makes them feel and what they like or don't like about it.

All of these are valuable lessons when designing kids programs in hotels. While there may not be exhibits per se, each property has unique features that can be highlighted in a way that kids can enjoy. With some creativity, many spaces and activities can be transformed into adventures for the youngest guests.