Why visit childrens museums? Interview with Elizabeth Kaplan

Elizabeth Kaplan is a lawyer who lives in Louisville, Kentucky and a college friend of mine. When she visited Peoria recently I learned that she has taken her children to children’s museums all over the country. With this in mind, I interviewed Elizabeth for Museum Questions. We so often hear from colleagues; this post is dedicated to learning from a museum visitor.


What museums have you visited with your children?

Usually when we go on vacation somewhere we go to the children’s museum if they have one, or adult museums if they have interactive exhibits. We have visited the Chicago Children’s Museum, the Boston Children’s Museum, the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, and, most recently, the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum. We also visit science centers – we go to the Kentucky Science Center; the last time we were in New York we visited the New York Hall of Science in Queens. I see a lot of overlap between science centers and children’s museums. And our local art museum, The Speed Art Museum, has a children’s space – we went there a lot when the kids were younger.

What are some of the best things you have seen in children’s museums? What makes these so great?

Frankly, as a parent, I enjoy anytime my kids are interacting with something that is not a video screen.

Children’s museums are fun. It’s fun to play with balls, or sand. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly how that’s learning, but it seems to me that you are intuitively learning how the world works when you are interacting with your surroundings. It’s harder when museums are trying to teach them specific things.For example, we have been to art museums with interactives based on the art, but I’m not sure how much that clicks with the children.

Younger kids love exhibits like grocery stores, and museums offer far more sophisticated versions of these than are possible in the classrooms or in your own house.

What is the advantage of that sophistication?

It’s more fun, more elaborate, and so it helps pique their interest. They can really pretend to be in a store – a space like that is more special when it looks like a store. And they can interact in a way they could not possible have in a real store, without total chaos.

Preschool teachers talk about how children learn through play. I think that’s true. You can expose them to art and hope that later they remember, but I think that on a certain level they know when you are trying to teach them something, and they rebel – it’s too much like they are in school.

Are your children learning in children’s museums? If so, what?

What they learn in a children’s museum is more subtle than numbers or letters… I think they become exposed to things that reverberate later. Like the butterfly wall in the Peoria PlayHouse – they will see technology like that again in the future, and remember that experience. I know looking back on my childhood experiences, things will pop back into my head years later and I will think, Hey, I know that because of some place my parents took me to as a kid.

At a children’s museum they are using their brains more than they would at a playground. I think that the exhibits are often constructed to encourage a certain type of intellectual play. For example, the kinetic sand table – they are playing, but also thinking about how sand can hold together in a ball. And of course they are building, creating.

Children’s museums are also great starter museums. My kids are up for going to any museum, which I think is because they have spent so much time in children’s museums. They intuitively assume that a museum is a fun place to be.

How are they able to make a connection between a children’s museum and, for example, the Art Institute of Chicago? Is it because of the name? Is there something else?

I think it’s because they have been to a lot of places. Science museums are halfway in between. For example, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago is not a children’s museum, but it’s not a museum where everything is behind glass.

Sort of like the middle step in a staircase?


So your children have gained a love of museums, and also a broad range of memories and information which may someday come back to them when they encounter something new. Is there anything else they have learned from going to children’s museums and science centers?

They are spending time in a way that they have really enjoyed. It’s like an adult going to an art museum – you don’t need to be learning, it’s a sensual experience.


5 thoughts on “Why visit childrens museums? Interview with Elizabeth Kaplan

  1. Love how this interview brought out the key qualities of experience: open-ended, analog, social, sensorial, and someone (perhaps Steve Seidel or Steve Tennen, I’m forgetting) once called the “quality of the invitation” how the design choices of materials and environment entice learners, in this case, families to engage (e.g. as in the detailed realism of the grocery store or the sensory and novel nature of the sand with unusual clumping qualities). Fun post!

  2. Do you think the word, sensual should be replaced by the word, ‘sensory’? Had the interviewee intended to say ‘Sensory’?

    • Interesting – your comment led me to look up a few words! Sensory means “of the senses” and sensual means “pleasing the senses” so I think the intended word is sensual. But we are so used to phrases like “sensory-friendly” or “multi-sensory” in our work!

  3. Pingback: How do we engage parents in children’s museums? | Museum Questions

  4. Pingback: Do Children's Exhibits Privilege One Point of View? - Museum Commons

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