In May, three of our staff attended the annual Association of Children’s Museum conference.  All together, Justine Roberts, Executive Director, Paula Rais, Director of Community Engagement and Jane Bard, Education Director, presented in 5 conference sessions on topics ranging from museum business models, to how to create inclusive programming, to facilitating STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Math) activities with visitors.  It was wonderful to be able to lead discussions about topics that matter to us, and to talk with our colleagues about how they do things.  In addition, there were talks by John Seely Brown and Leila Gandini to inspire our thinking.

Among the many exciting and often provocative ideas we heard, those below have continued to resonate and are influencing our thinking:

We are a Children’s Museum for FAMILIES

At the conference, we heard from colleagues around the country that families are looking for rich experiences to have together, and adults want to be engaged with their kids not just watching them. We need to provide opportunities for adults to interact in the Museum, and find ways to support the adult role in the Museum experience.

This was great to hear.  We believe that the Museum experience is at its best when the entire visitor group interacts joyfully and creates a shared memory.  Research has shown the importance of adults in children’s learning, and also in the development of their interests.  Consumer studies show that adults who are bored opt out of repeating experiences.

And trend analysis has shown that adults want to enjoy their children – they made the choice to have them, and they are determined to appreciate the time they have together.  We have also heard from our own visitors and members that they want more family programming.

It isn’t too late

Another big conversation was around engaging children in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) related studies.  Research shows that if a child isn’t interested in science by age 11, it is difficult for them to make a switch and become engaged.   What can we do to ignite interest in science for young children?

We run a program called Junior Science for 4-5 year olds.  As one participant’s mother said to us this past year:

Its like my daughter had all of these ideas about how the world works, but didn’t have the tools or vocabulary to describe it.  This class has given her those and it’s a huge ‘WOW’.”

Based on the success of that program, we are considering launching a second class for 5-7 year olds.

We also added lego robotics this year, and have been doing more to fuse science and art in the Thinkering Lab – where you can design and test cars and ball runs – and in the Studio where you can investigate structure, color, natural materials, light and more in artistic ways.

One area we believe the Museum can really participate in making science engaging is by showcasing its drama, and its surprisingly unexpected delightfulness.  We see science in the everyday world around us and one of our goals is to help capture that and make it visible to others.

Wide Walls and High Ceilings

Shifting demographics in this country will have an impact on our current and future audiences.  Studies have shown that 90% of museum-goers are Caucasian while ethnic populations in the United States continue to grow.  In addition, it turns out that museum-going is passed on within families; you are more likely to visit museums if you were taken to them as a child.

Since Children’s Museums are not as common in the rest of the world as they are in the United States, we need to work additionally hard to be visible to, and accessible to immigrant and first generation audiences who may not be familiar with what we do.  One way we do this is through the schools, but increasingly we are looking for opportunities to kids who come with their class to return with their families as ambassadors to the Museum.

Cultural diversity is not the only emerging demographic shift of significance for museums.  The adult/senior population is growing and 60% of seniors participate in childcare of their extended families.  This raises important questions about how we can target this group more and provide more amenities for them.

We don’t have the answers but we do have a lot of questions! One is what are their needs and interests?  Another is how can we engage seniors more in playing with their children in the exhibits? – put adult size costumes/props w/ the green screen?  Ask them to recall favorite ways to play when they were young? Promote photographing the kids playing/learning by putting more photos on our website and/or in house bulletin boards (People stop all the time to look at the staff/volunteer bulletin board in the hallway!)

Getting it Right: inclusive and accessible programming

In the areas of inclusion and accessibility we already operate on a foundation that places the child’s learning process and creativity as central.  This is important for all children- those with special needs certainly, but also for typically developing children.  All children have different skills, strengths and interests.  Our expertise is in designing environments which are layered for learning over time, and which are scalable in complexity as visitors gain mastery.

But really being inclusive and accessible goes further than this.  A theme among keynote speakers at Interactivity was how learning is about imagining and tinkering so you can figure things out – this is great to hear because this is what museums are good at!

“Arc of life learning honors child + adult”          - J. Seely Brown

Adults should be more attentive to a child’s cognitive process than the results they achieve.” – Loris Malaguzzi, founder of Reggio

CMNH does a great job with this, but how can we help parents and teachers engage more and notice the learning taking place for children in their care? can we ask questions (through signage, or experience guides) that encourage observation? Point out the kinds of milestones they might witness (esp. in Primary Place) that could go unnoticed? De-emphasize “craft projects/products” and highlight creative process and how to continue this at home?

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