How do we engage parents in children’s museums?

My last two posts (here and here) have examined the history and impact of children’s museums, and have led to a dialogue with Gretchen Jennings, who responded to last week’s post on her blog, Museum Commons, by noting that in order to achieve the learning goals that were put forth in their initial incarnation, play-based exhibits require trained staff, developmentally appropriate exhibits, and parental support:

Both the original Playspace and the traveling version had the three-legged stool … as the philosophical foundation for the exhibit: trained staff (whether paid or volunteer); developmentally appropriate activities and exhibits; and all kinds of support for accompanying adults, from the comments and context provided by staff, to parenting resources…and simple, readable label copy explaining the value and significance of what their children were enjoying so much.

Most children’s museums do a fairly good job creating or selecting developmentally appropriate exhibits, although we have the problem that what is developmentally appropriate for one age group does not always work for another age group, and the difference between a 3 year old and a 6 year old is vast.That said, children are remarkably good at creating their own developmentally appropriate challenges when given the space and materials to do so.

The other two “legs” of the “three-legged stool” (in Gretchen’s metaphor) – trained staff and parenting resources – are challenging to provide, particularly for museums with limited staff and budgets.

Some children’s museums are financially unable to have any staff engaging with visitors in their exhibits. For many museums with floor staff, I suspect that all too often these are low-paid positions with fairly high turnover. Meanwhile, many volunteers come and go, with brief commitments to volunteering defined by community service requirements at local schools, or corporate support for a certain number of volunteer hours per employee. These constraints make it challenging to have sufficient trained staff in the exhibits. I would love to hear from museums – especially those in smaller communities without a great deal of university support – who have found solutions to this.


Three-legged wooden stool from Zimbabwe, from the collection of the British Museum.


The third leg of Gretchen’s stool is support for accompanying adults. A 2001 study at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia found that high levels of facilitation made a large difference in learning. Two types of facilitation seem to be particularly useful.

The first type of facilitation takes place in exhibits like the grocery store or the bus, where adults teach children information related to the world around them. So, for example, a child pretends to shop for milk in a model grocery store, and a teacher tells him that you need to keep the door of a refrigerator closed in order to keep the cold air in and the milk cold. Children’s museums provide these opportunities for teachable moments, but it is the adults with the children who are there to take advantage of the moment and do the teaching.

Grocery Store from the Pretend City Children’s Museum in Irvine, California. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

The second type of facilitation relates to procedural learning. When children are trying to build something like a marble roll, an adult might show them that when you do not line up the openings of the pipes or tubes, the ball gets stuck – the ball needs a sufficiently sized hole or gap to travel from one pipe to another. Children can then build on this information to improve their creation.

Child building a marble run at the Peoria PlayHouse.

When a parent arrives at the museum with children, our hope (the hope of children’s museum professionals) is that they will play with and teach their children. And often they do – there are some amazing and creative parents who visit children’s museums, and we should be learning from them. But other times there are barriers to adult/child interaction: Adults want a break, or are immersed in their own activities, talking with other parents or looking at their phones. Or they don’t believe they have the information to facilitate learning, especially in exhibits related to an area where they do not have expertise – construction, for example, or science.

With this in mind, I am using this post to brainstorm a few tools that children’s museums might create for parents. I have seen some parent guides from museums, often using the scavenger hunt model or the “look at this” model used in art and history museums. But how do we help parents help children when what children want to do, and the questions they ask, are so unpredictable?

Here are a few thoughts:

  • Parent guides that offer general tips for facilitation, as well as informational context for each exhibit, developmental context for different ages, and suggestions for extending the learning and experience once the visit is over. There might be a different guide for each exhibit, or each age group.
  • Wall text with stories and questions. At the PlayHouse our limited wall text mostly consists of sharing “what they are learning” and information about the interactives for children. But I wonder if there are ways to share stories as models, and ask parents to share their own stories with their children, or follow up with questions. For example, in the PlayHouse farm area we might add a few stories from family farmers, and a suggestion to parents to share their own farm stories if they have them. Ideally these would relate to the specific interaction – stories about milking cows near our cow – that would also help parents provide activity-specific information.
  • A board with visitor-created challenges in an area, to which families are invited to share their own. So, for example, in Motion Commotion, our exhibit with balls and wind tubes, I have watched children and adults create challenges such as how many balls you can get into the central hopper before it empties out, how many balls can balance on an air stream, or how many balls can go in a wind tube and still be able to rise up that tube. A wall panel with a few of these might also share information about WHY some things happen, in kid-friendly language that parents can use with their children.
  • Staff facilitators charged not primarily with playing with children (or cleaning up after them), but with engaging parents, identifying and pointing out the exciting things their children are trying or learning, and sharing context and learning.

I would love to know why these might work or not work, who has tried them, and what other ideas people have!


4 thoughts on “How do we engage parents in children’s museums?

  1. I find parent prompts, whether low or high tech, the easiest and least intrusive ways to get parents to make suggestions, ask questions, get involved or all three! At the Lawrence Hall of Science (Berkeley, CA) there are some text panels used as prompt ideas for wind tunnels and marble runs. I have never seen screens do this or text on the ceiling, but could be ways to get parents attention!

  2. Rebecca, you might want to connect with Robin Meisner and Suzy Letourneau at the Providence Children’s Museum; they have been working diligently for several years on articulating the connection between play and learning in a museum setting and researching effective ways to communicate with parents and caregivers. In fact, they have an article in the March 2017 Journal of Museum Education.

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

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