Will this work?

Last week I wrote about exposure as a goal for field trips, and readers debated whether exposure was passive. As I stated in a reply to this post, I don’t think exposure is passive for the visitor, but I do think that it can be a way for the museum to be passive, by abdicating responsibility for the visitor experience. But how does a museum plan programs that make exposure as powerful an experience as possible?

I thought that this week I would share how we are trying to address this at the PlayHouse. One of the challenging things about blogging is that you share ideas that you then have to live up to. Which has made developing field trips feel like a high-stakes-endeavor. Although on the flip side, there is a sense of accountability to the field, as well as the teachers, which is perhaps useful in ensuring that we aim high.

Last week we piloted a new field trip offering, entitled “Explore/Challenge/Become” (perhaps a bit clunky – other suggestions for titles are welcomed!) The field trip was developed by our Education Manager, Rachel Carpenter, and myself in partnership with a team of 12 teachers. The pilot class of five and six year olds, from a local year-round child care center, belonged to one of these teachers. The teacher, Sarah, had a substitute for the day so that she could watch all the groups and stay to reflect and revise after the trip.

Here is the field trip format, incorporating the adjustments we made based on our pilot program:

When children arrive at the museum they enter a classroom, and there are old fashioned, unfamiliar toys on the tables. They are encouraged to try them out. While they play, educators (interns and volunteers) circulate, asking kids the key questions of the visit:

  • What could you try? What might happen if you tried that?
  • What do you wonder?
  • What did you discover?

After five or ten minutes, before they leave the room, the lead educator – a paid PlayHouse Instructor – works with the students to make up a gesture to go with each question, and students are reminded to think about these questions while they are in the museum.

Kids have an hour to play and explore the six exhibits, under the supervision of teachers and chaperones. The chaperones each receive a laminated card that has a museum map on one side, and the key questions, along with tips for engaging students, on the other.

Children on a field trip exploring the PlayHouse

Children on a field trip exploring the PlayHouse.

After their hour in the galleries, the kids return to the classroom. There are now 3 to 6 stations around the classroom. In our pilot we had one station with things kids could put in tubs of water, and sort them as something that sinks or floats; one station with hand puppets; and one station with a hair dryer (held by an intern) and things that kids could try to make fly in the air stream. After trying each station kids decide which interests them most.

Children at the Sink/Float activity station in a PlayHouse classroom.

Children at the Sink/Float activity station in a PlayHouse classroom.

In their newly formed affinity groups, students return to the galleries, to engage in a 30-minute project based on the station that interested them. For example, the children who were most interested in what sinks and what floats make boats at the water table, and see how much weight they can hold. The kids who enjoyed the puppets work together in the theater area to put on a play. And the students who were interested in what would fly conduct an experiment with the Bernoulli blower. Each of these groups is led by the PlayHouse Instructor, an intern, or a volunteer.


Students made boats and then tested how much weight they could hold.


Students performing a play using the train area as their set.


A child testing what would fly over the Bernoulli blower.

Each small group ends with a reflection, during which they discuss what they discovered, what else they could have tried, and what they still wonder. After that, the entire class  regroups in the classroom, and revisits the key questions. They spend a few minutes thinking about what else they would like to try, what they are still wondering, and what they still want to discover.

For each of the 3 to 6 gallery activities, the teacher receives a handout for parents describing what the kids did, and a resource sheet with the lesson plan from each activity as well as ideas for classroom follow up.

Our hope is that students will discover new interests, develop questions, experiment in the exhibits, and leave understanding that experimentation is a way to find out more about something. Sarah, the classroom teacher, interviewed students after the visit, and will be sharing their responses with us next week. And our summer Research Intern, Amanda, is helping to start thinking about evaluation tools, which will be more fully developed by the 2015-16 Research Intern. (The Research Interns are paid cognitive psychology majors from Bradley University, who work closely with their professors on their PlayHouse projects, and are nominated for the internship by their professors and paid for their time.)

The big picture idea for this model is that instead of positioning field trips as a lesson within a larger unit, or a way to test or add to classroom knowledge, museums function best as a place to help kids discover and pursue what interests them. The biggest challenge of this model will be developing strategies to really work with teachers, and support them in following up.

I welcome feedback on this model. Have you tried similar things, and if so, do you have advice or can you share your findings? Does this seem misguided in any way? Where might a model like this lead us?


8 thoughts on “Will this work?

  1. Rebecca, I like your model. It looks like you’re including practices supported by the research of Jeanette Griffin. She found that school visits designed more like family visits, where individuals could explore according to their own interests were the most impactful (Griffin, Janette. (2004). Research on students and museums: Looking more closely at the students in school groups. Science Education, 88(4), S59-S70).

    My only suggestion is to include on the parent information sheet, not only what the students did on their field trip, but also questions parents might use to initiate discussion with their child. Especially questions that allow the child to be the “expert”.

    • Thank you – we will do that! If you have examples of successful questions that allow the child to be the expert, I would love to hear them.

  2. Rebecca, this post has been extremely useful for me. I am currently interning with the Aston Martin Heritage Trust in Oxfordshire and am attempting to start a educational programme from scratch. Information for parents is something that has never crossed my mind and something I am definitely going to incorporate into the activities. Thankyou!

  3. Rebecca, I absolutely LOVE this idea! How fun for those children (and others involved) to really play and discover based on their interests (not our agenda). I’m sure you’ve created art lovers for life.

    Suggestion: If you have not already, art therapy or curriculum for children with cognitive disabilities may provide some unique options for interactive visual (non-verbal) communications, and could inform your the assessment aspect of your experiment. Good luck!

  4. Sounds like a great program; I love the incorporation of letting kids pick the things that interest them most. It would be fabulous to be able to run this as a multiple-visit program and give kids the chance to either build on what they did before, or to try something they didn’t get to the first time. (Perhaps that’s a suggestion for a return visit that you’ve already put on your info sheet for parents, in fact!) I’m also a bit envious of your research and evaluation team.

    It also makes me wonder if the self-selection element can be incorporated equally well for groups of older students, and if so, what structural changes might be necessary.

  5. Pingback: Schools and Museums: Interview with Sarah Schertz | Museum Questions

  6. The program sounds quite interesting. I think it finds a nice balance between facilitated and self-guided experiences. I also enjoy the free-choice learning concept at least within the 3 choices students can make. I do question whether the age group of 5-6 can discern the difference between: What do you wonder? and What did you discover? I would try to carefully assess how the students approached answering those two questions.

    Great work you are doing.


    • Mark – good point about the questions. We are finding that in general children struggle with answering the questions “what do you wonder?” or “what questions do you have?” They express their curiosity in other ways. We are still trying to find the right prompts to help them identify their curiosity, and to understand the relationship between posing questions and looking for answers.

Please add your thoughts to the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s