If there is one place in the world I would never take our four energetic and loud children, it would be an art museum. Large, cavernous hallways that echo “Dad I want a SNACK!!!” Signs everywhere that say “Do Not Touch” which cannot be heeded. Questions like “Why doesn’t that boy have any clothes on?” that I don’t want to answer.

So when I saw a session called “Let’s Go Again! Visiting Art Museums, Learning for Fun” at the 16th Annual At-Home Dads Convention a couple weeks ago, I had to attend. It sounded like the craziest thing I had ever heard of and, like rubber-necking at a car crash, I couldn’t resist the carnage.

I mean… fun… with kids… at an art museum?! That is not possible, I thought. Heck, I don’t even enjoy art museums myself. Telling our kids to be quiet and stop touching everything while shielding their eyes from naked sculptures does not sound even in the same universe as “fun.”

I was wrong.

Elizabeth Dale-Deines, an education specialist at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, changed my mind.

For me, her session was the first art class I had taken since the 6th grade and the only one I ever understood. She explained why art is important, how to interpret artwork and how to engage the kids.

Art is all around us, Dale-Deines explained, most often in the form of advertising. Art also communicates the past and the future. Today our children are bombarded by images on TV, billboards, even their homework folders. They need to understand what it means so they know what they are really being told.

Perhaps the biggest revelation to me was to look at art longer. Most people, including me, take in a piece of art for a few seconds. Dale-Deines said that is not enough and she proved it. She showed us three very different paintings: one of a cityscape, one of a rural setting and one of a small town. Then she made us look at them quietly for a couple minutes and discuss what we saw. Not only did I see and understand more about the paintings by looking at them longer, I heard a lot of different interpretations. The rural setting was the most interesting. Some thought the sun was rising. Some thought the sun was setting. One guy thought the sun was being blocked out by a dust storm. There were tire tracks in the sand going through a broken barbed wire fence and everybody seemed to think of a different reason for it. A couple guys saw a farm house in the background I didn’t see at all. The whole process was fascinating and I can’t wait to find out what our kids might see in a piece of artwork especially since kids see things so differently.

She also gave us a lot of great ideas on how to help the kids enjoy their time at the museum. Dale-Deines taught us how to explain museum etiquette to our kids by touching with your eyes, walking with marshmallow toes and using inside voices. She also gave us tips on how our kids can be kids at the museum by acting out (carefully!) the piece of artwork, bringing color pencils (markers and crayons are harder to clean) to draw what they see and not going to the museum beyond their patience limit.

Before her session ended, Dale-Deines tackled “the naked question.” Kids under 12, she explained, generally aren’t embarrassed or offended by naked artwork; this tends to be an adult problem. Her advice on dealing with naked art: don’t wig out about it. Deal with it matter-of-factly. Say, “Sometimes artwork is naked,” or ask “Is it a boy or girl?” Seeing naked art isn’t going to adversely affect the kids, she said. I’m not sure if this was a total relief but at least I now have some strategies on how to deal with it.

After attending this session, I am no longer afraid to take our children to the art museum. In fact, I am planning a trip soon and can’t wait to find out how it goes instead of dreading and avoiding art altogether. I don’t think I have ever learned more or been so enthusiastic to try something new I discovered at a Convention. Ever.