Des Moines Art Center and Pappajohn Sculpture Park – Des Moines

Des Moines Art Center and Pappajohn Sculpture Park

In the company of friends, we spent an afternoon in downtown Des Moines for a “cultural day”. Our chronological history curriculum, The Story of the World by Susan Wise Bauer, isn’t going to send us to the art center for another year or two. I didn’t want to wait that long so we added in an extra fun day of learning and enjoyed the Des Moines Art Center and Pappajohn Sculpture Park with kids.

Place/Event: Des Moines Art Center
Location: 4700 Grand Ave, Des Moines, IA 50312 
Cost: Free admission. Student tours free.
Grade/age range: all ages are welcome – I would say 3rd grade and up
Group size: small or large up to 90 people.
Hands-on: No
Stroller friendly: Yes.
Bathrooms: Yes, (family bathroom right inside main entrance.

Food: Yes
Water: Yes

Place/Event: Pappajohn Sculpture Park
Location: 1000 Grand Ave, Des Moines, IA 50309 & 13th Street.
Cost: Free
Grade/age range: PreK-12th
Group size: large or small 

Hands-on: No
Stroller friendly: Yes

Bathrooms: Not at the park – in library
Food: restaurants near by
Water: Yes – drinking fountain along east side by Locust St.

*Bring money to park at meters along street. Grand only runs west and Locust runs east.

5 Ways to Enjoy Art with Kids

#1 Prepare ahead of time!

Before we left on our “cultural day” we talked about the expectations. I watched the video provided by the Art Center and explained to the kids how this wasn’t going to be a “children’s museum” were they get to play and touch. My kids remember the Waterloo Children’s Art Museum and love it!

  • To Do – Ask the students questions such as ‘what type of art do you think you’ll see’ and ‘what do you think will be your favorite’. When you return home from your trip, compare their expectations with what they experienced.

school board with art words for Des Moines Art Center

#2 Don’t touch but do more than just look!

Ever so strategically, we made our first stop of the day to the outdoor PappaJohn’s Sculpture Park. Here the kids could get out all their wiggles.

We parked along Grand Ave and somehow walked right past the sign where you can get a park map.  We found it at the end of our time. This would have been very helpful! Don’t forget a map!

  • To Do – Have the students read the plaques for some of the art work. Ask: What is the name of the piece? Who is the artist? Are they American? When did they live? When did they make the piece? We did a little math to figure out how old some of the artist were when they made their piece.


  • Have the students view the art from a new perspective.
  • Have the students use their bodies to act out the art! Pappajohn Sculpture Park


#3 Compare two pieces of art!

Pappajohn Sculpture Park

  • To Do – Ask the students: What are five ways that two pieces of art are different? What are three ways that they are similar?


#4 Take Pictures! (just no flash)

Des Moines Art Center

The kids had a fun time using our field trip camera. It’s interesting to look at art through their perspective. Adults see a painting head-on, children have to look up.

  • To Do – Give the students a camera and allow them to take pictures of their favorite art work. Ask: Why did you take a picture of that piece of art?


#5 Talk about the art!

  • To Do – Ask the students: How would they change the art? What colors would they use instead? What does the piece make them feel? How does the person in the painting look like they feel?

Des Moines Art Center


  • Look at a picture of one of the pieces the student viewed using one of the art center’s books. Ask, ‘Which did you like better; looking at the painting on the wall or looking at the picture in the book? Why? Does it feel different to see the art in person?

girl looking at art book in Des Moines Art Center



Here are a few more tips for visiting the Des Moines Art Center with kids!

As you guessed, there is no touching the art. Staff in each gallery will instruct you on how close your students can get to the pieces. The flyer recommends to stand back at least one foot. If you have a kiddo who likes to grab, touch, or run, the art center may not be the best place to visit at this stage.

Only one exhibit was something you could walk through. I am not sure the name of the piece. I call it “the chicken coop”.

The art center has amazing architecture, which can encourage kids to feel like running. We didn’t have much trouble with lots of gentle reminders and staying engaged.

The recommended time for children to spend inside the art center is 30-60 minutes. We spent 60 minutes and had an engaging time. Before you leave, check out the giant elevator!

The only thing we didn’t get to do on our “Cultural Day” was enjoy playing an outdoor piano. It was overcast with a few drops of rain and the piano was covered.

Greenwood Park is right next to the art center and would make a wonderful picnic spot!


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