How to Use Museum Audioguides and Podcasts with Children

In the past three months we’ve been fortunate enough to visit scads of famous sights, museums and art galleries.

When we first started, we always rented the audioguides for ourselves and Scout. Sometimes this worked out well, but other times the guide was a total yawn and the kid glazed over. She’s pretty discerning about this kind of stuff, and as much as I’d like her to listen attentively to all of them, I have to admit that her opinion is usually spot on.

Some audioguides are fantastic

The Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam has a great guide, informative and interesting. We all learned a ton about the artist’s life and art. The Dachau memorial was another place with an outstanding guide, which not only took you through the museum exhibits but provided lots of supplemental information as well. At Hitler’s Berghof complex, the guide was necessary because the exhibits are in German only. Plus it was really interesting.

Other audioguides stink

But other times the audio guides are dull and uninspired, plodding through the facts but completely overlooking the story. We’ve encountered plenty of these too (cough, Reichstag, cough, cough), so now we think twice before renting any guides at all. The cost adds up after a while, and even worse, bad guides can make kids resent they very thing they’re supposed to be learning about. Lose-lose.

I swear I didn’t take this picture (see Tip #4 below).

After three months of hardcore sightseeing, here’s what we’ve learned:

Tips for using audioguides and podcasts with kids

1. Use Rick Steves free podcasts.

Go to iTunes and see if Rick Steves has a free podcast covering whatever you’re going to see. If it’s popular (and in Europe), chances are he does. Click here to get the free audio-tour app from Rick’s website.

We’ve come to rely on these. Whenever we go “sightseeing” (hate that word), we download Rick’s podcast onto an iPod, and then when we get to the museum or whatever, we turn Scout loose with it. The podcasts are free and they’re perfect for bright kids. The tone is friendly and fun but not condescending or silly. Rick includes a nice amount of historical context but doesn’t get bogged down either. Also, unlike audoguides, the podcasts take a greatest-hits approach, focusing on main pieces or exhibits. They usually last about an hour or hour and a half, which is plenty for any kid (and probably most adults).

Scout has used Rick Steves podcasts at the Uffizi and Accademia museums in Florence; at the Colloseum, the Forum, the Pantheon, the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome; and for walking tours of Siena, Florence, and Salzburg.

2. If possible, when listening to podcasts, don’t share an iPod with your kids.

Give everyone their own device; otherwise your kids will have to walk in lock step with you, which they might find a tad…oppressive. Also they will forget to walk next to you and constantly yank the ear buds out of your ears. Very annoying.

3. Download podcasts before you leave home.

Wi-fi access is sometimes tough to find or expensive, so save yourself a headache and do it before you travel.

4. If the museum doesn’t allow photos, don’t leave podcast pictures on the screen.

We were using a Rick Steves podcast when we went to see Michelangelo’s David and Prisoners sculptures at the Accademia in Florence. The gallery doesn’t allow photos—although about 75% of visitors blatantly take them anyway. Well our podcast showed photos, and when an overzealous guard spotted them on one of our screen, he started bellowing at us in Italian. We explained that it was a podcast and not a photo, but he didn’t believe us and carried on chewing us out at head-turning volume. It was pretty embarrassing.

5. Edit the audioguide for your kids.

They don’t have to listen to the entire thing. If it’s not grabbing them or they’re getting tired, listen ahead and steer them to what’s most important or interesting. (“Listen to #23 but then skip #24 and #25.”) I do this all the time with Scout, who really appreciates being spared non-essential or repetitive info.

6. If possible, keep the audioguide over lunch and listen to it while you’re resting.

It’s perfectly fine to listen to some of the guide without standing right in front of the thing you’re learning about. Sometimes, especially when galleries are really crowded, it’s easier for tired kids to focus this way. We did this with great success at Dachau.

7. If they don’t like it, don’t force it on them.

You know your kids. If a particular guide won’t work for them, don’t bother forcing it. (I’ve tried, believe me.) You’ll just turn them off.

“I hate this! Make it stop!”

Bonus tip

8. Don’t forget to return the guide!!!

I accidentally dropped my guide for the Munich city museum in my backpack along with my camera and didn’t hear it beeping until I got home hours later. It sounded like a car alarm was going off in the RV until I was able to return the bloody thing a couple days later.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Clélie July 31, 2011 at 4:25 am

Interested to know what term you have come up with instead of sightseeing.

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2 Renee July 31, 2011 at 4:37 am

It sounds so dippy, but I haven’t really come up with an alternative yet.

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3 The Ippels August 2, 2011 at 4:37 am

Wish we were as tech savvy as you are, no audioguides/podcasts for our child! Yes, we followed the rule too and did not pull out our camera for David. When Serena saw the statue, she pointed at the obvious male anatomy and asked in a typical loud 5-yr old voice, “What’s that?”. So I proceeded to explain it quietly while gently pushing her hand down. Then she retorted in the same volume, “No, mom, I know THAT! I mean the curly stuff on top!” Lovely.

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4 Renee August 2, 2011 at 2:43 pm

Lol. Great story!

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5 Lisa Wood October 27, 2011 at 12:00 am

Wished I had read your guide to audioguides/podcasts before we hired one in a tour of the bundaberg ginger factory!! It was so long, so boring, and our kids didnt even listen to it 🙂

I like the idea of having one ready before you go to the museum, and also having it set to the good parts! That Would save a lot of issues:)

CheersLisa

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6 Renee October 28, 2011 at 5:02 pm

Isn’t that frustrating? you’ve just spent 5 euro on a guide and they won’t listen to it? Or it makes them hate what they’re seeing? The worst.

Early in the trip we’d just rent whatever was available and have the kiddo give it a go, but she’s quite discerning, and we realized that the boring ones (lots of dates and political details) were putting her off. Pre-listening and skipping bits helps a lot.

Sometimes we skip it altogether and just look around. Especially if Scout’s done a lot of reading in advance. Or if the place has a lot of emotional impact…Anne Frank’s house, for example. No audioguide needed there.

Thanks for your comment, Lisa. They mean a lot to me.

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7 wanderingeducators October 24, 2013 at 7:43 pm

what fantastic ideas! I have to admit, i NEVER think of these – but i will now!
wanderingeducators recently posted..Taking Education on the RoadMy Profile

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8 Renee October 24, 2013 at 8:17 pm

Thanks, Jessie! We wanted our daughter to learn about what she was seeing, but we had bad experiences with so many museum audioguides (zzzzzzz…) that we were forced to refine our techniques. The Rick Steves podcasts are SO great for kids. He’s offbeat and funny. Our daughter found him much more tolerable.

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