Museums and kids go together in Ottawa

museums-kids-1These National Capital institutions, large and smaller, offer engaging, enlightening family outings that are ‘cool’ in every sense of the word

There are many museums in the National Capital Region that dispel any notion of these institutions being boring, stuffy places that are unsuitable for children.

Throughout the summer, such spots provide opportunities for family outings in engaging, enlightening and — perhaps most importantly — air-conditioned environments.

And with a new school year upon us, the many museums in the Ottawa area provide ample choices for teachers planning field trips.

The Canada Aviation and Space Museum is an example of a facility that appeals to young people while providing learning opportunities.

Throughout the summer, it featured exhibits such as analysis of Star Wars characters and a make-believe colony on Mars, in which children were invited to put on space suits to explore.

The Canada Aviation and Space Museum has an impact upon children the moment they approach it by vehicle, with its large hangar-like structures and real runway where you might see planes taking off or landing.


Kids often have knowledge about air travel that’s immediately engaged when they see something at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

“This is actually a pretty good plane,” this writer’s eight-year-old son remarks, as he checks out a Sopwith Camel fighter plane used in the First World War, recognizing it from a book at home.

The boy’s six-year-old sister seems to already know how to fly a plane as she sits in a demonstration cockpit. “I know how you bring the plane up; you just bring this thing towards you,” she says as she tugs on the steering control.

Stephen Quick, director general of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, says he does not see many bored kids where he works.

“I find that when they come here, they’re so overwhelmed by the mass of the artifacts, and also the stories, that I don’t find them running around much or on their cellphones and trying to do other things,” he says.

“Being faced by the actual size and mass of an aircraft — an artifact — in front of you, and then in some cases being an immersive environment where you’re in an aircraft, you really see or feel the history.”

Just across the river in Gatineau is the Canadian Museum of Civilization, which is also no slouch in the category of child-friendliness.

A big part of the space here is designated as the Children’s Museum. Officials expect this part will remain intact when the facility becomes the Canadian Museum of History in the near future.

“Easily, a third of our overall museum attendance is for the Children’s Museum,” says Lisa Leblanc, director of interpretation and programs at the Museum of Civilization.

The Children’s Museum features several interactive exhibits that allow children to learn and play at the same time, including a cargo ship where they can manage a crane that helps unload goods, as is a common part of commerce all around the world. 

Even beyond the designated children’s area, Leblanc says the Museum of Civilization places much value on exhibits that can be enjoyed by young and old, as families make up the “lion’s share” of attendance.

She says this involves “providing opportunities for inter-generational dialogue and exchange, so that families can learn together.”

Leblanc notes that the museum makes a point of providing programming that fits within educational curriculums in Ontario and Quebec, to make it suitable for class outings.

Quick says education for children and youth is one of the top priorities for the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, which also has programming geared specifically for school programs on both sides of the Ottawa River.

Laura Gibbs, executive director of the Ottawa Museum Network, which represents 11 smaller historical museums across the city, including the Bytown Museum and the Vanier Museopark, says her facilities allow young people to imagine what it was like to live in a certain place at a certain time, as opposed to just being presented with artifacts and information.

The museums in Gibbs’ network are involved in what’s called the “Inquiring Minds” program, in which classes come to a museum for a full week and immerse themselves in historical periods.

“They might go to Vanier and understand what it was like to be an early francophone settler in Ottawa,” Gibbs says. “They actually find out what they used to wear, what they used to eat, how they made maple syrup back then.”

Of the educational value of museums, Gibbs says: “It’s a hands-on, very experiential atmosphere where (children are) encouraged to learn, and we’ve found that’s always had positive results with students.”


by Derek Abma