Friday, September 16, 2016

Forces At Play

Photo Credit: Richard Tsong-Taatarii

Museums use the word engaged in describing visitors wholeheartedly involved with activities. They are engaged when they try different features of a component, repeat actions and add variations, show others what to do, talk about what they are doing, or stick with an activity for a long time. Engaged is what museums hope for in creating exhibits and programs, in connecting people with one another and with the museum, and in having an impact.

In Forces at Play at Minnesota Children’s Museum, children and adults are ENGAGED. They are engaged with water, air, and bubbles; with hoses, cranks, and valves; pipes and pumps; sprayers and suds; blowers, brushes, and balls; with children and adults, with people they know well and with friends they just met.  

Opening on August 31, Forces at Play is the first new permanent gallery of the Museum’s $30 million expansion and renovation to be completed in April 2017. This IMLS-funded project makes what children (and adults) find fascinating–air and water–intriguing, accessible, and joyful.  

Designed for a primary audience of children 4 through 10 years and their caregivers, the gallery’s secondary audience is children 3 years and under and their caregivers. An overarching focus is on actively engaging visitors’ critical thinking through open-ended, self-directed play and materials exploration, and reinforced with an engineering layer. Along with creating a compelling water experience, the Museum wanted to add air as another medium for investigation. With this combination, the Museum also hoped to move the upper end of the age range closer to 10 years.

The exhibit’s design, activities, real materials, and abundant loose parts wholeheartedly invite everyone to try something, to fit pipes together, twist tubes apart, press levers, aim a hose, or pull on a gate valve. The promise that doing something will make something interesting happen is met. Ping pong balls hover in the air; feathers fly; suds climb through tubes; dots of light appear by pressing a wet finger. The words “wash me” appear seemingly from nowhere as warm water spills across a surface.

From Air Play to Water Play
Two main areas, air play and water play, both with designated tot spots for very young children are connected by a ramp. Giant hanging dryer tubes line the ramp; they are both functional–for drying off–and for investigation–making the overhead Mylar strips dance. In air play, visitors connect tubes, aim blowers, and adjust valves to launch ping pong balls at the Blower Build Stations. They start a chain reaction by pumping air into tubes at various air sources and trigger spinners and propellers. And they use prediction and timing in launching ping pong balls into traffic cone targets.      

In the water play area visitors crank the giant blue carwash brush to make it spin; draw images with water on a panel of LED lights; fill a series of basins with water to start a cascade; and transform trays of bubble solution with dichroic gels. Undoubtedly, the main attraction of the entire gallery is the Car Wash Bonanza. Parked in the car wash is a fantastic vehicle constructed from parts of 13 different vehicles. If pretending to drive a car is fun, then driving one with the hood of a VW bug, the door of a police car, the back of a city bus, and wheels of 4 different sizes (including a giant tractor wheel), is a dream beyond belief.  

The vehicle’s varied contours, surfaces, and colors beg to be washed, rinsed, and polished. When the car wash cycle begins, the wash, rinse, dry lights light up in succession dispensing suds, a clean rinse, and puffs of air. At the 4-cylinder bubble engine, children crank and pump bubbles delivered through 4 different tubes. Nearby, dozens of brushes that do work of every sort, hang ready for scrubbing and buffing. There’s a job, a brush, or a hose for everyone.

The SteamPunk Side of Seuss
Forces at Play is designed by Gyroscope, Inc. (Oakland CA) and built by Kidzibits (Minneapolis, MN) and the Museum’s in-house fabricators.

The design brief expressed the gallery’s look-and-feel as the SteamPunk Side of Seuss. More than a clever trope, this image inspired a deconstructed design aesthetic that is spare, inventive, functional, whacky, beautiful, and occasionally surprising. Conceptually, it served to strip away layers from how we often experience the forces of air and water in museum settings and everyday situations. Right at the entry, four powerful air blowers stripped of casings are visible through a glass window and help make obvious how air is delivered to the floor blowers that lift balls and float feathers.

Decisions in lay out, materials, and surfaces contribute to the transparency. Open sight lines keep the large, 3,400 square foot space visually simple, mechanisms visible, and freedom of movement easy. Stripped to essentials, the car wash and vehicle are simple frameworks with intriguing elements and quirky twists: the rearview mirror of a Mack Truck, the hood ornament of a Minneapolis Moline tractor, old license plates, or suds oozing from a hose like soft-serve ice cream.

A consistent use of stainless steel panels throughout brings order to abundant brushes, raincoats, and visitor comments. Against neutral gray walls, the orange traffic cones and yellow fans pop. Beauty is in the details of the copper pipe Water Contraption, the shallow pools of the Ripple Effect, and the bubbles spilling through the Water Graffiti.  

Wet and Whacky
Although Forces at Play is still new, the Museum is dealing successfully with operational issues many museums face in less ambitious exhibits: water, loose parts, text, and adult engagement.

With multiple water hoses around the care wash, Forces at Play is definitely wet, especially under the vehicle. Floor contouring, drain, and water-proof non-porous surfacing result in surprisingly little standing water. Raincoats with hoods in all sizes and distributed in several areas are handy. Drying off is easy, engaging, and accessible: at a bank of hand dryers, at the dryer tubes on the ramp, or from a rub down at the big carwash brush. Children will get wet, a little or a lot, but so far no one seems to mind. That may change when an Alberta Clipper passes through Minnesota in January.

The Museum does not just tolerate water and loose parts–tubes, ping pong balls, brushes–but embraces them. Essential to materials exploration, brushes, dichroic gel, suds, feathers, tubing, ping pong balls, water, and air are plentiful. Brushes are intended to travel from the tool bin to the Car Wash to Water Graffiti. Loose materials, says the exhibit’s developer, Mary Weiland, are meant to live on the ground where they are visible, accessible, and suggest possibilities.

Signs are scarce and, when present, are short. One says, “Directions. (There aren’t any.) And that’s on Purpose.”  The absence of signs telling what to do or why it is important makes a point. If play is a strategy for learning then big play provides big learning opportunities. In Forces At Play, concepts like flow and pressure can be experienced directly. Understanding them well may be in the future, but the joy of investigating them, working with others, and making things happen with water or air–are decidedly in the present where it matters.

On my two visits to the gallery, I saw everyone get into the act, from wobbly walkers to 10 and 11 year olds, to parents, grandparents, and staff. In contrast to so many exhibits where adults hang back, look on, or tap their phones, here they were as active as the children. The exhibit makes it easy to connect over a ping pong ball flying by or a water hose misfiring. One parent slipped away from the family at the Feather Blaster to tweak the chain reaction one more time.     

Conversation flows. A father explains what windshield wipers do; a mother suggests her son increase the water pressure; a grandmother asks, “what if we…?” Often, and with adults in the lead, silliness and group fun erupts. Families blow their hair into crazy styles, shoot ping pong balls at each other, strike silly poses with squeegees, and give each other rubdowns with the giant blue brush. Staff gets into the act too. Jordan put on a soapy mit and polished the vehicle’s red truck door, directed the air hose at the Mylar strips, and danced with the air dancers.

Off Kilter and On Target
Before Forces At Play was a wet and whacky car wash temporarily called Scrub Hub, it was a STEM gallery with more structured water, air, and light experiences. The design was strong and the exhibit was accomplishing its broad goals. Following an advisors’ meeting during Schematic Design, the Museum team seriously considered the advisors’ input and rethought the exhibit approach. The result was a much deconstructed exhibit, with a car wash that hit harder on critical thinking, play, and materials exploration. In my role as a project advisor, I was initially hesitant about changing direction at that point in the process and where a car wash exhibit might lead. The team’s instincts were on the mark.

I applaud the Museum’s courage to look critically at its work and create a wet, windy, and whacky experience. At many points in the planning process, the museum could have backed up and, conceptually, mopped up the experience. Very likely, the exhibit would have been engaging. Instead, MCM chose to venture where museums often talk of going, but seldom do: creating open-ended exploration around what is fascinating to children (and adults) and involves abundant loose parts and a play-rich mess as a way to explore STE(A)M.

This is play as we seldom see it in museums. Unlike the structured play that exhibits tend to provide, here is a glimpse of play among children of different ages directing their play, following their ideas, and transforming objects. This is play that flows, folds an interruption into a planned scenario, expands to include more children, even children who don’t know each other.

The promise that anyone can make something happen in this gallery is ever present. I watched a 3-year old girl carefully load 3 ping pong balls into a clear tube laying on its side near, but unconnected to, a blower. She focused intently, as if expecting the balls to move. When nothing happened, she placed 2 more balls in the tube and waited. When still nothing happened she looked into the end of the tube; she then shifted the tube one way and then the other. She continued making small adjustment after small adjustment. When she accidently passed her hand across the blower, the ball she held flew up and hovered in mid air. The delight on her face predicted a new round of investigation.

To the forces at play with water and air in this gallery, I would have to add the forces of curiosity, persistence, thinking, and delight that are at play and make this a success.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Question-Powered Learning Frameworks

Strandbeest: stille strand Apodiacula 2 by Theo Jansen
Every museum has a de facto learning framework. Ideas and assumptions about learning have some degree of presence across the museum. They are enlisted during exhibit and program planning and in setting project goals, sometimes incidentally. There is, however, little assurance that these ideas are well understood, shared across the museum, thoughtfully connected, build on one another, are applied intentionally, and reflected on.

The difference for a museum between a de facto learning framework and one that is deliberately developed is significant. An explicit learning framework shows staff where they can contribute their enthusiasm and expertise to create stronger learning experiences and serve visitors. It allows a museum to align messages about learning and its learning interests internally to staff and board and externally to stakeholders and partners.

But getting started on a learning framework can feel overwhelming, especially the first time. Figuring out where to start, imagining what the midst of the process will feel like, and wondering if it will be worth the effort are just some of the thoughts that surface. I sense this when colleagues who are thinking about developing a learning framework for their museum talk about it. Both interest and hesitation are present.

For first-timers, the challenge may be how to describe the learning framework to others or bringing along reluctant colleagues. From experience, I know of several ways to ease into projects including Planning to Plan and adapting one museum’s process to a different museum. Another approach, even better suited to developing a learning framework, is working with a set of questions that addresses key ideas and probes important understanding. Eight questions have been helpful to me and to several museums in this process.

1. How does this museum view learning? How a museum views learning is related to how it sees its role with its visitors and in its community. Learning frameworks explore and consolidate a museum’s learning interests: what’s important about learning to the museum, for its visitors, and how it delivers learning experiences and value. Introducing this question early in the process helps create a shared view of learning, one that very likely draws on research, considers the nature informal learning setting, and focuses on the learner. While composing this view of learning may require a couple of passes, it helps to anchor other framework discussions and decisions.

2. What principles about learning grounded in research and theory support the museum’s view of learning? Exploring and describing a museum’s view of learning surfaces beliefs and assumptions about learning, learners, and the role of context in learning. By taking time to track down 5 - 7 principles from theory and research that are consistent with its view of learning, a museum is both strengthening its understanding of learning and underlining what it feels is of importance. This step also facilitates making these underpinnings accessible to staff during training and demonstrates its seriousness about learning to supporters and funders. Addressing this question recognizes the connection between research and practice and creates an opening for the museum to engage in research itself.

3. How does the museum view its learners? How a museum views its visitors influences how it plans for them. If it sees them as learners–as active learners starting at birth and learners throughout life–it will serve them as learners. While there is tremendous variety among visitors, they also share some similarities as learners that are worthwhile to note. Significantly, they have found their way through the museum doors, logged onto its website, or participated in programs and events. In considering the qualities of learners that it wants to engage in particular, whether it is curiosity, persistence, or empathy, a museum is reinforcing its view of learning, setting a course for learning experiences, and pointing to likely learner impacts across the museum.

4. What experiential and learning platforms allow the museum to deliver learning value? A museum has multiple valued and complementary resources through which it delivers learning experiences and value. In addition to its exhibits and programs, it may have collections, a school, planetarium or digital theater, nature area, library, research center, or historic building. These  are learning assets or platforms. This question is an opportunity to identify them, describe the attributes that make each platform distinct and valuable, and identify the related activities and the learner groups they serve. Addressing this question assists a museum in assessing and building the capacity of each platform to make an impact on or for learners, the organization, or the community.

5. In what areas should the museum focus its expertise and resources to build learning value and to distinguish itself from other groups serving a similar audience? A museum’s mission, audience, community priorities, and collections help inform its primary areas of focus. Drawn from a museum’s strengths, a few selected focus areas such as creativity, STE(A)M, well-being, play, or global  awareness, set priorities for developing learning experiences. Focus areas help locate themes and topics for exhibitions and initiatives; they serve as multiple contact and access points to the collection, assist in being more intentional about developing and delivering experiences, and guide staff and volunteer training. Too many focus areas, however, disperse a museum’s efforts, while areas of disproportionate magnitudes create inequalities. Related learning approaches–conversation, making, design thinking, inquiry–that actively engage learners and are used consistently and well support and advance the focus areas.

6. In what areas does the museum intend to make learning impacts? Identifying learner impacts is where a museum’s aspirations for its learners intersect with its internal capacities and the nature of learning. This is often a challenge. Important clues about what it hopes will happen for the learner are implanted in the other framework parts, its view of learning, image of the learner, focus areas and approaches, and learning experience platforms. Does it hope learners will construct meaning from their experiences? Develop new attitudes? Change perspectives? Make a personal connection? Develop a new skill or skills? A technical skill? A thinking skill? How does each possible outcome relate to the focus areas and learning approaches? What might an outcome look like for a learner? How does the museum think it can encourage it?  

7. What criteria assist in selecting, shaping, assessing, and strengthening learning experiences across the museum? This question identifies the characteristics that all learning experiences share across all learning platforms to achieve quality, consistency, and greater or consistent learning value. Criteria aligned with the view of learning and learning principles guide development of new activities, programs, events, and exhibits. Clarity about what “socially engaging,” “active participation,” or “multiple points of view” mean cultivates fluency with them, greatly assisting in assessment and improvement. Familiarity with these criteria across learning platforms helps in eliminating less promising choices and facilitates finding successful examples of how criteria have been applied. The deeper the familiarity with the learning experience criteria, the more staff is able to engage in innovative thinking that creates and strengthens learning experiences. 

8. What experiential qualities unify the museum’s experiences across platforms? Every museum has an experiential brand embedded in its learning experiences. Regardless of its size, particular experiential learning assets, or its awareness of it, a style comes through that supports–or undermines–a museum’s learning intentions. Exhibit activities, programs for different audiences, graphics, an on-line presence, and thousands of interactions with visitors broadcast a museum’s experiential brand. It is echoed in its public spaces, color and material palette, and the care of wear-and-tear. Articulating the set of experiential qualities that connect and unify these experiences expresses the museum’s essence. Once captured, a museum can work those criteria deliberately, consistently, and confidently distinguish itself from other settings serving a similar audience.

True, even a stellar set of questions doesn’t eliminate the need for a collaborative group, good thinking, persistence, or the necessary time. Thinking over these questions, however, will suggest who needs to be part of this exercise and the information and documents needed for engaging in lively discussion. The questions help guide the process, inspire thinking, and shine a light on what parts of a framework contribute and how they connect with one another. More than a standard list of plan parts or a table of contents might, questions ensure that each museum’s learning framework will serve its mission, reflect its community, and build on its existing learning interests.

When colleagues engage with these questions and with one another, they are likely to transform a de facto learning framework into a shared understanding of the museum’s most important ideas about learning and learners and its role in serving them. They are also very likely to find more questions that will power more learning.  

Sunday, August 21, 2016

What Do We Mean?

Every profession has its own language. With shared understanding of specialized terms, important words, and key phrases, that language connects people with common interests who hope to communicate effectively with one another and accomplish larger goals. That shared language offers confidence that we are understood as we wish to be. Yes, at times this language can be jargony and annoying. For communicating across the field and with stakeholders, however, a common language is essential. Terms that are shared and sharpened allow us to make distinctions that are meaningful and relevant to a broader purpose, to define strategies, and to gauge impact.

Across museums we use many common words: branding, learning, impact, strategic, equity, stakeholder, sustainable. We often use them in varying and inconsistent ways. This is not entirely surprising. We are dynamic institutions engaging with business, education, media and technology, design, pop culture, many cultures, and in local contexts. Why wouldn’t we borrow concepts from business, integrate architectural terms, absorb marketing language, or use words that resonate locally?  

Judging from terms I come across in museum articles, blogs, journals, grants, and conversations, the list of terms used inconsistently and interchangeably is long, and stretches across museums and geographies. Even within one type of museum and within a single museum. It is tempting to consider this jumble of words as a sign of richness. In reality, it seems to be an obstacle to understanding, sharing ideas, and increasing museum’s value. How do we talk, think, and work collectively if we don't know what we mean?

Fuzzy language slows our thinking, confuses others, and sometimes is downright exclusive. There are more than a few examples; so many, in fact, we overlook them. Recently I read an article that occasionally used “data” to refer to knowledge. At first I didn’t understand; I gradually realized “data” was facts as distinct from knowledge or understanding. Learning, the article reserved for making connections. One museum used scientific thinking; scientific literacy; science processes, science concepts and skills virtually interchangeably throughout its master plan. Not long ago, Suzy Letorneau and Robin Meisner at Providence Children’s Museum noted that some of the museums they talked with were looking at learning impacts but had no definition for learning. In Carol Bossert’s August 5, 2016 interview on The Museum Life, with John Jacobsen about his book, Measuring Museum Impact and Performance:Measuring Success, she notes that one of the biggest challenges the field faces is lack of definition of important terms.

I encounter confusion of terms everyday and imagine others do too. One cluster of casually switched words surrounds museums’ learning interests. These words include: educate, teach, learn, know, think, and understand. They are used both as verbs and nouns and are sometimes modified by equally fuzzy words, like experiential. There's also a second tier of terms that fall into the mix: explore, engage, interact, transactive, discover, experience, make meaning, creativity, and play. No doubt others would add more words.

When it comes to planning programs, developing exhibition goals, evaluating activities, identifying outcomes, measuring impacts, and describing the museum’s value to others, the words we use matters. How do we know what we each mean if I talk about learning, you talk about education, and our partner talks about understanding? We may want to assume that related terms are synonyms, but they aren't. Ideas  reflect a point of view and a set of assumptions they do not necessarily share with related words. We are unlikely to align ideas robustly if they aren’t clear and their meanings migrate.

Are we trying to educate visitors? Are we interested in their acquiring knowledge? Learning? Becoming thinkers? Have we thought about the difference? Philosophically we may consider ourselves constructivists, work in the education department, teach students in programs, and evaluate learning goals. What do these different words suggest, for instance, about how we view the visitor? Do we see the visitor as an active agent in constructing their own meaning or as a consumer of our knowledge and information? Imagine what a museum might accomplish if it used a shared definition focused on its visitors becoming thinkers rather than educating them.

How can we begin to remove roadblocks to shared understanding and increase alignment and impact that would accompany it? While I'm keen on shared understanding of terms within a museum and across the field, I am not enthusiastic about standardized terms being imposed. As a preferred alternative to an established museum field glossary, I’m inclined to follow a few basic practices.

Think About It
This may seem ridiculously obvious, but clarity, sound thinking, and effective communication all rely on the obvious. We might all start by asking ourselves, “what do I mean?” If we are interested in creating learning experiences, what do we mean by learning? Facts?  Personal insights? Learning about others? Do we want to encourage thinking or learning? How do thinking, learning, and educating relate to one another? Thinking about the context in which the word is being used, who the audience is, and other related ideas will sharpen our understanding of what we mean and why it’s important and convey it to others. It’s Not “Just Semantics.”

Look It Up
Finding the meaning of words on-line is just a click away; definitions by Merriam Webster, Lev Vygotsky, or museum thinkers are only a few clicks away. Checking out meanings of a word from various sources and in various contexts is helpful. We may not be able to find the precise definition we want, but we will be able to discover shades of meaning, find sources and resources, and strengthen our understanding of ideas, not just words. A helpful source is the Definitions Project of the National Association of Interpretation which defines terms from Accessibility to Wilderness Education

Borrow and Adapt
We can borrow terms and definitions. And why not? Making meanings explicit is challenging, so why not get a head start? When Julia Child was working on Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she ruled that if a recipe for the book were taken from somewhere else, it had to be improved. Excellent advice, Julia. Someone else’s definition for their museum, library, zoo, nature center, or youth development program will not automatically work for ours. The solid definition we're hoping to develop can, however, take into account how others understand words like impact or indicator and how terms are used locally.

Define and Share Your Terms
In The Art of Relevance Nina Simon takes us through her understanding of relevance and its evolution. That step on page 22 grounds the book in solid thinking and makes her examples stronger.

The need to define our ideas and the words we use and share their meaning with others is not limited to writing a book. Confidence in the ideas we explore, the relationships among ideas, and the case for the museum’s value is seriously limited if underlying concepts are fuzzy and idiosyncratic. How can we inspire others with our vision if the ideas and purpose behind it are neither clear nor anchored in definitions that can be shared, explored together, tested, and strengthened?

It’s hard to believe, but people who work together and use the same words do not necessarily understand those words in the same way. Much depends on developing and using a shared language. For starters, it will help us know what we mean.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Habitot, So Long

Minnesota Children's Museum's HABITOT
Minnesota Children’s Museum recently announced it will replace 3 iconic galleries as part of its $30 million expansion and renovation. After 20 years, Earth World, World Works, and HABITOT will close and be replaced by new galleries.

Since 1989, HABITOT has been Minnesota Children’s Museum’s area for very young children, first at its Bandana Square location and then at its downtown St. Paul location. Designed as a learning landscape for infants and toddlers, 6 to 36 months and their caregivers, it followed Boston Children’s Museum’s PlaySpace as one of the early spaces designed specifically for the youngest museum visitors, their parents and caregivers.

When HABITOT was being planned I was head of exhibits and education at the Museum. My background in early childhood and children’s environments and the Toddler’s Nest I had created for Madison Children’s Museum were helpful in working with a team of Museum founders and board members. Karen Dummer, then Executive Director, had advocated for a dedicated early childhood space. Her question, “What does babies parked in strollers and perched on hips say about how a museum values children?” became the rationale for the project.

Doing is becoming 
At 900 square feet, HABITOT was not large. It was, however, a safe, engaging environment where infants, toddlers, and caregivers could feel comfortable actively exploring together. More like a landscape than a playpen, its research-based, developmental-design approach recognized that, especially for very young children, physical development is cognitive development and social-emotional development. A new walker careening down a ramp is walking, moving from here to there, dealing with gravity, and motivated by the sight of a parent nearby. What that toddler is doing is what that toddler is thinking is what the toddler is becoming. Even at this small size and squeezed into a narrow slice of space near the Museum’s entrance and the bathrooms, HABITOT was large enough to signal a firm intention to serve young visitors well, share information about children's developmental potential, and support a range of related activities.

Three abstract landscapes–canyons for peepers, creepers and crawlers, islands for toddlers, and caves for increasingly independent preschoolers–were designed and built in the Museum’s fabrication shop. Ramps, steps, a wavy walk, crawl-in caves, changing surfaces, a birdcage-climber along with loose parts, sensory tubes, and busy boxes supported a range of experiences for moving in different ways, testing new motor skills, playing games, and mastering new feats.

Before opening, a group of toddler sons and daughters of staff and board, affectionately known as the HABITOT babies, explored and tested the spaces with their parents. Their activity and enthusiasm was a clear endorsement soon to be played out repeatedly by families with very young children and small groups from childcare programs.    

The year HABITOT opened, attendance increased 40% over the previous year. In 1988 attendance statistics were rudimentary, recorded by cashiers with paper and pencil. While the precise percentage increase might be off, the magnitude reflects the impact on the Museum in recognizing and serving this young age group.

Over the next few years, HABITOT was a site for staff observations, University of Minnesota student internships, and an academic research project by the Kinesiology Department. Also a hub for programming, weekly programs for parents were presented by Museum partners. Parents shared anecdotes about their child first rolling over on the Canyon cushions, taking their first steps, and overcoming hesitation to crawl into the texture caves. Caregivers reported they found the brochures useful and liked chatting with other parents and caregivers. Some families visited weekly, a pattern that has since become familiar in many museums among members with very young children.

Evidence of the need for more museum space was reinforced by the attendance growth that followed HABITOT’s opening and plans for moving to downtown St Paul began taking shape in 1991. The 10 focus groups conducted confirmed a high interest for an updated HABITOT. Valuable lessons from HABITOT’s first 4 years guided us in many ways. A focus group with HABITOT parents allowed us to explore family experiences in greater depth. Input from these groups informed the 1992 Programmatic Master Plan and launched gallery planning.    

Jane goes ice fishing in the Forest 
Parents, caregivers, and educators were emphatic about a larger HABITOT with amenities. We were able to double the size of HABITOT to a still modest 1,800 sf. that also included a resource alcove, nursing room, bathroom, and stroller park. When parents talked about experiences they wanted for their very young children, they mentioned positive experiences in nature. This fit with the place-based context suggested by the name HABITOT, originally constructed by Director of Development Kristin Midelfort. It also fit with conceptualizing the 4 new galleries as Worlds. Landscapes became less abstract and more local. Each of the 4 areas, Pond, Prairie, Woods, Bluff Caves, were specific Minnesota locations in a different season. 

Both parent input and the availability of a resource space for books, articles, and information sheets allowed us to rethink caregiver messaging. In this version of HABITOT, adults’ supporting and extending infants’ and toddlers’ exploration was a high priority. Graphics used a playful, conversational-style with questions and prompts to invite exploration. Paired with bold, picture-book style images and sandwiched between clear Plexi panels, they were easily visible from two sides as adults kept up with toddlers. A short video starring a new group of HABITOT babies and their parents focused on how children at different ages explore each landscape and its features supported by parent engagement.     

HABITOT inspired more programs and events geared to this very young group of children. Weekly HABITOT Tuesdays designated for children 4 years and under offered story, movement, and sensory programs. HABITOT Halloween grew and eventually evolved into HABITOT Holidays throughout the year. 

In A HABITOT Generation
These days, when I work with a museum to develop a vision statement, I typically frame a question asking, “What changes does the museum believe are possible in the next generation for children and families in our community?”

The generation since HABITOT opened has been a good one for very young children and their caregivers in museums. Museums have broadened their view of their audience, now serving the full life span from the early years to the elder years. With a boost from research on early brain development and national conversations on the critical role of early experiences in the first 5 years of life, museums have stepped into larger supportive roles around early childhood. Publication of the 2013 policy report, Growing Young Minds: How Museums and Libraries Create Lifelong Learners by the Institute for Museums and Library Services, both reflects and encourages this trend.

Spaces planned for very young children have taken root and grown in museums. They have spread from children’s museums to science centers, art museums, history museums, and natural history museums. Less likely to be squeezed into a small, unused space, they are increasingly among the core experiences a museum offers. Often as designated totspots distributed throughout the museum, early childhood spaces make it easier for families to explore galleries together. In some museums, the early childhood space is one part of a comprehensive resource for serving young children, parents, educators, and the community along with supporting programs, professional development, a research agenda, or preschool.

Iterations and updates of design for these spaces have generated other changes. Increasingly the distinctive needs of this young audience are being recognized. HABITOT and PlaySpace environments are not just smaller versions of other exhibits in a museum. Experience rather than content-driven, sensory exploration and play are at the heart of these developmentally- calibrated and responsive environments. Playing a crucial role in their child’s everyday and museum experiences, parents, grandparents, and caregivers are a high priority audience in these spaces. Making it easy for them to get into the act requires considering their comfort, interests, and expectations. Multiple strategies for involving caregivers need to be incorporated into the complex choreography of the experience.

The “HABITOT babies” of 1989 and 1995 are now parents themselves. Soon they will be bringing their sons and daughters to Sprouts, a new and larger space for very young children opening in 2017 as part of Minnesota Children’s Museum’s expansion. Designed by Gyroscope,Inc., Sprouts continues to explore the concept of young children’s physical development as social and cognitive development with a fresh, engaging design approach. At 3,000 s.f. and a wider range of experiences including water play and more amenities, the spirit of HABITOT continues to grow.