When I told friends that I took my kids to the local art museum, I was met with shock, awe and exclamations of "I could never do that… and I only have one!" I suppose that being practically home-bound with twins plus one for nearly three years has made me feel like I've hit the jackpot of freedom now that the twins are 5 and their sister is 3. But I've learned a few secrets along the way to keeping my kids happy while getting us out of the house.

Have a plan

Kids can smell fear. They also pick up on lack of preparation. Your first order of business is to learn as much as you can about where you are going, especially if it’s a new place or somewhere you've only visited sans kids. Where will you park? Is there an admission fee? What are the business hours? Can you take food inside? That last one is probably the most important question for any place I visit.

Once the basics are covered, try to loosely plan your day. What will you tackle first? What do you most want to do or see? On my recent trip to the art museum, I knew I wanted to visit a kid-friendly art lab and also see a particular exhibit for myself. Everything else was just gravy.

Stick to a schedule

Little ones thrive on routine. Be mindful if your outing is likely to interfere with naps or meal times, especially if you’re juggling schedules of kids of various ages. There’s a time and a place for leeway, but if your toddler goes from zero to Hulk when she misses her nap, it won’t make for a fun time for anyone.

Bring all the food

All of it. Over pack those snacks, because you’re likely to go through them and wish you had more. Nine times out of 10 if my kids are cranky, they’re hungry and thirsty. I usually provide healthy snacks for the car ride to our destination, have the kids take a snack or lunch break during the outing, and then save a little fruit leather or something sweet for the ride home.

Let kids lead the way

When our family visited a local theme park, we tried to reserve the water park for later in the day, which only led to lots of complaining, since it was what the kids wanted to do most. Once we relented and spent some time swimming, they were more than happy to explore the rest of the park.

While it’s important to have a general plan of what you would like to accomplish, kids like to feel that they have a little autonomy. Dragging them from one place to the next will only make for impatient companions. Bottom line: As long as the outing allows, do what you can to keep the youngsters happy.

Engage them

Look for things that your kids will find interesting. Ask a docent, tour guide or volunteer what areas would be most appealing to young kids before they lose interest. On a visit to a local presidential library and museum, we came across a case of dolls fashioned after various first ladies. My girls weren't familiar with the first ladies, but they did ooh and aah over the dolls’ intricate features and replica clothing.

Learn to let go

In an outing with kids, you have to face the reality that you may not get to everything you want to see or do. In the case of our art museum visit, I made sure to carve out time for the one exhibit I wanted to see, knowing it was only on display temporarily. But as expected, my three girls were not as interested. We hurried through pretty quickly, but I was able to point out various pieces and speak to them on their terms about the art around us.

Keep your cool

The main thing that will keep your outing running smoothly is a positive attitude and a good dose of flexibility. If things aren't going the way you hoped, bend a little to accommodate a change in plans or a slight detour. If all else fails and you find yourself on a one-way train to crazy town? By all means, throw in the towel and get the heck out of there!

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