What happens when parents join their kids in play, exploration and museum conversation?

This week’s post is by Amanda Nobis, a junior at Bradley University, and the first Research Intern at the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum.


This summer I had the opportunity to help form a collaborative relationship between the Bradley University Psychology Department and the Peoria Playhouse Children’s Museum. I was invited to join the staff of the Peoria Playhouse as a Research Intern, to conduct an evaluation of the exhibits and to track patron behavior. As a junior psychology major, this was the first project I was able to have near complete autonomy over from beginning to end. This experience was invaluable in a myriad of different ways, from the professional to the personal and from the practical to the experiential. Here, I will share my work and our findings.

How We Did It

The design of the study was simple. First I created research tools: data collection sheets which captured how long children spent engaging different exhibit components. (While I observed individual children, no names were recorded during these observations.) These surveys also classified exhibit interactions as collaborative with an adult, collaborative with a peer, or solo. I also classified the behavior of the adult with the child as collaborative, observant, distracted, or absent.

In order to collect data using this tool, I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. Usually, random selection is a vital aspect of an experimental study, but the nature of this project made it impractical. Therefore, I convenience-sampled children based on who the next child was that came into the exhibit when I wasn’t already observing someone. I sat in my chair with a stopwatch and my data collection sheets and recorded the length of time spent playing. My fellow interns dubbed me the “professional creeper.”

What We Found

The ultimate goal of this project was to determine how patrons were using the different exhibits. After a month of data collection, I compiled the information and found the average amount of time spent at each exhibit. In addition to these general numbers, I also found which parts of each exhibit were the most popular. I presented this information to the PlayHouse leadership for them to use as guidance for updates and improvements.

I was especially excited to find a significant interaction between two variables. In psychology, we use the term “significant” to describe whether or not there is a less than 5% likelihood that an effect occurred due to chance. Based on the data that I collected in the PlayHouse Sand Porch exhibit, it appears that when a parent or adult interacts collaboratively, the child will spend more time in the exhibit, as compared with children whose adults do not engage collaboratively. The data showed a similar trend in the other target exhibits, though due to small sample sizes the effects there did not reach statistical significance.

What does this mean? The scientific literature has demonstrated how important parent engagement and collaboration is for child development, and I believe that this effect was a demonstration of that need. Parents are children’s first teachers and they are the ones who begin to shape who a child will grow to be. One important way they fulfill this role is through participating in their child’s experiences. From a museum’s point of view, parent participation leads to more time spent in each exhibit, or longer holding time. Longer holding time, in turn, reflects deeper engagement for the child and is a good indicator of exhibit effectiveness.

Rebecca’s comments:

Only five months in to our existence as a museum, Amanda’s work, and that of her professor, Derek Montgomery, has been influential for the PlayHouse in three ways:

  • First, they identified curiosity as the area of research that aligns with the PlayHouse goals and mission, while offering the research team an area in which they can do important research and contribute to the fields of psychology and museum education. Their literature review has been extremely helpful in understanding what is known, and where we might fill gaps in knowledge, as well as in challenging PlayHouse staff to think carefully about the relationship between what we do and curiosity.
  • Second, potential PlayHouse supporters love hearing that we are doing this research, and we have high hopes that Bradley and the PlayHouse can collaboratively bring in funding that supports both research and programs.
  • Third, aside from the research findings, having someone observing visitors and how they use exhibits has led to new ideas about what we might add or change to improve the visitor experience.

Moving forward, our collaboration with the Bradley University Cognitive Psychology Department includes research interns each year and during the summer, as well as professional development for PlayHouse staff by cognitive psychology staff (for example, in January Professor Montgomery will share with staff research on guided facilitation in museums).

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