Rome was not built in a day, and children do not become “cultured” overnight. Opportunities abound for kids in Rome to acquire an appreciation for art. Just like the ancient city of Rome, people acquire culture in layers, especially through experiencing foreign countries, customs, and fine art. For young children in particular, there is no place like Rome to pick up that first, enlightening layer, because their experience will be filled with precious memories of images, sounds, and tastes that appeal to children, with the added bonus being the fact that children are adored by Italians and will likely be treated like royalty everywhere they go!
In Rome, kids develop and improve their young minds while scrambling through ruins, running in parks, and splashing in fountains.
Culture, human activity, and the ability to communicate symbolically through art, architecture, and music, is a defining feature of humanity. The word culture is derived from the Latin word for cultivate, as in cultivate the land, but came to assume the figurative meaning of “cultivate the mind” in the Renaissance—so take your kids straight to the source for a legendary cultural experience. The Eternal City is a world-class urban tableau with unique qualities that make family travel a breeze.
Touring the cradle of Western Civilization can sound overwhelming—museums, art, and architecture do not immediately appeal to kids in the same manner as Disneyworld, but that begins to change as soon as they discover the gladiators, skeleton hunts, and secret passageways that await them. Keep in mind that history and art are not boring; following behind adults on tour is, however, very boring. Introducing children to art, new cultures, and foreign foods is simply a matter of presenting these new experiences in fun and dynamic ways.
Kids like to be active and love dramatic stories, so introduce them to art and history in engaging and active ways. In my book, Rome with Kids: An Insider’s Guide, I take families on adult-oriented tours, but I always engage children, too. Lay some groundwork on the airplane by introducing your kids to a few key historical figures who shaped the city—perhaps by reading them the short, thumbnail biographies I provide.
Knowing a few colorful characters, along with their family symbols (coats-of-arms), will pay off when your kids can discover things before you do! Family symbols adorn palaces, monuments, and sculptures, turning the city into a stone zoo full of dragons, lions, birds, and bears. Imagine your child discovering one of Pope Urban VIII’s bees on a fantastic fountain: they will delight in being able to inform you of something for a change! Remember, kids like to be active not passive.
Keep children’s needs in mind when your scheduling your days, always pairing a museum with an outdoor activity, like visiting a nearby park or hanging around a colorful piazza, devouring gelato. And don’t expect to see a museum’s entire collection without a mutiny on your hands. Pick the highlights and keep visits short but memorable by knowing what, and where, the jewels of the collection are before you arrive, then heading straight to them. Eliminating aimless wandering saves energy, keeps boredom at bay, and lets parents see the most famous art works before kids have a chance to burn out.
For an introduction to art, start in the park—Borghese Park. Tiny Borghese Gallery makes a great choice for families because its small size allows for a manageable tour, yet it is packed with some of the most famous art in the world: a veritable warehouse for Bernini sculptures and Caravaggio masterpieces, among other greats such as Rubins, Titian, and Canova. Because it is nestled in a vast park, kids can exit from the gallery and immediately run around, enjoy a picnic, rent bikes, boats, and even peddle-carts, or they can be rewarded afterward with visit to the park’s pretty zoo! (Tip: if possible, buy advance tickets to the gallery.)
Inside the gallery, whet the appetites of budding art critics by telling them to be on the lookout for several crimes! Children love drama, which is the key to appreciating extravagant Baroque art. Many of the prized sculptures here involve some sort of nefarious activity. Canova’s “Venus,” for instance, reclines on a marble mattress, holding a golden apple, which she won in a beauty contest for being the prettiest goddess. But, come to find out, she rigged the contest! Kids will be intrigued by observing how Canova made the stone mattress look so realistic and soft.
When it comes to the Bernini masterpieces, look out! Many of his astounding achievements depict traditional scenes at the height of action: David is wound up to hurl a stone at Goliath, and troublemaker gods Pluto and Apollo are trying to kidnap their dream girls. The kids will catch Apollo red-handed, as he reaches for Daphne; the clever girl is turning into a tree to avoid him. The details of Daphne’s hair as it turns into laurel leaves and her fingers as they morph into roots and bark are a marvel. Let kids search for Pluto, king of the Underworld. He gets his girl: We discover him clutching her so tightly as he pulls her down into the underworld, that we can see his fingers pressing into her skin. Virtuoso Bernini carved stone as if it was putty! Kids instinctively appreciate art when they have a little background information, and you can prompt them to find many other captivating details. In my guide, I like to challenge kids to find hidden pictures, self-portraits, and other curiosities that make discovering art fun.
Art is not the only way to enrich kids while visiting Rome. Appreciating architecture in this ancient city is a no-brainer, for little is more exciting to a kid than a trip to the Colosseum, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Beyond fantastic stories of gladiators fighting lions and marveling at the sheer magnificence of the 2,000-year-old amphitheater, you can point out some very important elements of classical architecture: the Roman arch and all three orders of classical Greek columns (Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian). The arch, of course, put the Romans on the map for its ingenious design; stronger than a solid wall, yet requiring less building materials and allowing for passageways. Have older kids take photos or sketch each column style. They may earn extra credit in their art class back home.
Mix up your art appreciation outings with plenty of fun activities, like discovering the best gelateria, enjoying Rome’s lively piazzas at night, and counting the Spanish Steps. Along the way, you will instill a life-long appreciation for art and cultural experiences that continues to build upon the character of your child. Imagine returning from a vacation richer than when you left, with kids who gained a deeper sense of cultural and self-awareness—a long-term dividend that can only come from the experience of foreign travel.
Help kids articulate foreign experiences with simple prompts, like what surprises them most about Italy and Rome. Even the youngest child can draw a picture of something they liked at the end of each day, embedding their travel experience into their minds and making for a great keepsake. Here are some suggestions for cultural conversation starters for Rome:
* The variety of police uniforms: Swiss guards, traffic police with white gloves, motorcycle police, airport military guards
* Bathrooms—fascinating for kids!
* Crazy traffic and unique city sounds—like distinctive police sirens
* Graffiti: mostly politics and sports related—just like the graffiti of ancient Rome
* Teensy elevators with people who stand very close to one another
* The manner in which Roman locals drink out of fountains
Keep an eye out for cultural opportunities. For instance, spring in Rome brings local rituals that are fun (and free): before Easter, the Pope leads a huge, candle-lit procession from the Colosseum, on Good Friday. Around April 21, Rome’s official birthday, there is a variety of street festivities, especially around the forum, which hosts a historical parade. The summer is full of outdoor performances and festivals.