What are we communicating to parents through the secret language of seating?

This guest post is by Miriam Leviton, Director of Arts Education at JCC Manhattan. After working at a children’s museum in Berkeley, California, Miriam relocated to New York in 2008 for a year-long position at the Guggenheim’s Learning Through Art program. She later worked as a museum educator at the Guggenheim Museum and New York Historical Society. Miriam joined the JCC in 2012, after completing an MA in Non-Profit Arts Administration with a focus on arts education from NYU’s Steinhardt school.

Museum and arts educators are called upon to create meaningful experiences for families. After weeks or months of careful planning and thinking through of educational goals, the reality is often chaotic – for example, a program for 5-9 year olds attended by 3 and 4 year olds. In the real world, it becomes difficult to evaluate just how meaningful the experience was for families. I have begun to use these often hectic, unpredictable education programs as spaces for experimentation, in order to learn about parent and child behavior in these settings.

Family Art Day is a signature program that I developed at JCC Manhattan 5 years ago to encourage more families to interact with the Laurie M. Tisch Gallery in the lobby. Family Art Day happens for free once per exhibition, on a Sunday morning, and is advertised for ages 1-7. The event includes four different exhibition-related activities in designated areas throughout the lobby. Activities are open-ended, and families are encouraged to move through the activities in a child-directed way. There are 2-3 educators present to engage with families, but each station also has a laminated activity prompt, so families can learn about the activity independently without an educator.

When setting up the physical space for Family Art Day, I consider the visual cues sent to parents and caregivers about what their involvement should be. Over five years I have experimented with different layouts, and taken note of parent and child behavior, in order to better meet our educational goals.

The focus of my observations have most specifically been about chairs: the size, placement, and quantity. While this might sound mundane, the way that a family program is physically set up sends strong visual cues to adults regarding their role in the program, and educators can use this to their advantage to encourage participation and true family engagement.

Below are five different seating arrangements and the cues they send.

Layout 1:

Adult-sized chairs are placed along the side of the space and child-sized tables and chairs are in the center of the space.

Result: Parents sit in chairs and do not engage with children during activities. Children engage with the educators and do activities independently, treating chairs as “home base,” and return to their parents to check in, ask for a snack, or show them what they have made.

Layout 2:

Adult chairs behind small chairs.

Result: Parents are physically closer to children, and pay more attention to them, but they are still physically separated in a way that promotes watching the child work on something, rather than physically doing the activity for or with them. This layout is extremely helpful if the activity involves a safety risk, because the parents are physically close by.

Layout 3:

No chairs.

Result: Families stay for a much shorter amount of time at each activity, and while kids are often fine standing, it sends a message that they should just be passing through. A chair can promote a welcoming atmosphere, and when the chairs are absent, it is a clear message that families are not meant to get too comfortable.

Layout 4:

Floor mats and rugs.

Result: Parents engage with their children in a concentrated, quality way. Families often stay for a long time sitting and playing together, and both children and parents sit in reclined, comfortable positions that take up physical space. This is a useful layout for a reading area.

Layout 5:

Half as many child-sized chairs available as can fit at the table.

Result: When there is physical space at the table – an adult-sized space near their child’s chair – parents tend to stay close and engage with children while squatting next to them to be on the same eye level. Once that position becomes uncomfortable, often the adult will opt to sit in the child-sized chair, with the child on their lap–a position that would not be possible if children were sitting closer together. In these instances, parents are asking their children questions and watching them work, but usually don’t do the activity for their children, because while it’s physically comfortable enough to be present, it is too physically uncomfortable to try to do the activity in the place of the child while hovering.


Each of these layouts serve a particular purpose, but it is key to first understand both our goals as educators and the perceived goals of the participants in order to decide which layout is most appropriate for a particular program. In an art class I teach for 2-3 year olds I always use Layout 1, because I find that in that setting, parents and caregivers tend to try and make the artwork for the child. Encouraging adults to sit on the sidelines allows me to model language and an educational approach without having to redirect adult behavior.

This is by no means a science. Family programs are difficult to implement successfully, and every parent-child relationship is different. And, of course, seating and the cues it sends will not affect the behavior of every adult the same way. But the small choices we make in program implementation send important cues to parents about roles and expectations.

Seating is not the only way in which we send these messages to parents and families. What aspects of family programming have you experimented with, and what have you found?





4 thoughts on “What are we communicating to parents through the secret language of seating?

  1. Miriam, these are great clear, and basic examples of how setting up the environment affects what happens. Embedded here is your understanding of the the audience–in this case, young children and the adult relationship typical for this age group; that piece is critical to considering the alternatives and making the choices about chairs-size, number, arrangement, etc. Thank you!

    • Thank you so much for your comment! It is so true that an understanding of not only audience, but also organizational goals play a role. Different institutions have very different abilities in what they can do for their family audiences, so understanding who they are and what their goals are is very important.

  2. Another element to consider is the differently abled. Is there a space for a wheel chair to pull up to? A child size table is too short. There are those with knee issues that cannot get down (or up) from the floor easily. (Grandparents, for example.) Make your choices varied, and then no one will feel excluded.

    • Thank you so much for this. You’re so right. In addition to consideration of space for physical abilities, I’ve also found that it’s very important to consider other sensory needs because often family programs can be very loud and crowded, which makes it incredibly uncomfortable to navigate in wheelchairs, and for some children and adults who can’t focus in an environment like that. If the space for your program is large enough, it becomes much easier to build in different types of chair layouts and be multi-modal in activities in order to accommodate not only physical needs, but other sensory needs and different learning styles as well.

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