Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Looking Back
Far and away, the two most visited postings on Museum Notes over the past year have been Stakeholder Mapping and Re-visioning Vision Statements. Missions that Matter has followed fairly close behind.  This is useful information about what interests or is relevant to people planning, leading, and growing museums and to those interested in a museum’s direction and value.

The attention these three posts has received is also promising. Visions, missions, and stakeholders are key features of a museum’s big picture and its long-term work. Typically, vision and mission along with values comprise a complete set of driving principles that together give meaningful direction about where a museum is headed and how it will walk the talk.
Vision focuses on the positive change a museum hopes and believes is possible for the community it serves.
Mission, the reason a museum exists, focuses on what it believes it can contribute to a better future for the community.
Values are the beliefs that guide behavior and the work.

Although not typically included in a set of driving principles, I would add a stakeholder analysis.  Stakeholders are the people, groups, constituencies, and institutions who are likely to affect or be affected by a museum, its plans, or projects.
Stakeholder Analysis assesses the likely effect of stakeholders on the success of a proposed effort such as a museum or its project.

A clear, shared understanding of who a museum needs to engage and how is critical to a museum's becoming a recognized and valued resource to the community and to making substantial progress on achieving its mission and vision. When these four elements engage and work together powerfully, they become the navigational coordinates for a museum’s most important work–whether it is conducting a strategic plan, planning a major expansion, framing annual goals, launching a new initiative, committing to a community-wide effort, becoming more financially secure, or tracking its impact. 

Looking Ahead
Over the next few months, I intend to revisit and explore vision, mission, values, and stakeholders. I hope to do so with input from readers, their questions and experiences drawn from working with any or all of these four components of a strategic framework. I invite you to think about and share your thoughts as a comment here or via email ( The questions below are intended to prompt some thinking, but not limit your thoughts, reflections, and questions.

Strategic Framework
Which of these four components does your museum have: vision? mission? values? stakeholder analysis? Which plays the strongest role in guiding the museum? How well aligned do you feel your vision, mission, values and stakeholders are?

Does your museum’s vision focus on an image of the future that it seeks to create? on its purpose? or on the public good? 

What does your mission statement express especially well? How has it changed over the last 5-10 years? Is there a museum mission statement you feel is particularly compelling? Why?

Are your museum’s values expressed as beliefs or as commitments to action? How are the values translated into actual behavior?

What, if any, has your experience been with Stakeholder Mapping or another stakeholder tool? What questions does it raise? What you have learned by using it?

"And now let us welcome the new year full of things that have never been."
Rainer Maria Rilke

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hardware Stores and Museums

Three-Way Plug by Oldenburg (Flickr)

 "I never made the separation between, say, the museum and the hardware store."
Claes Oldenburg

Hardware stores have fascinated me since my 6th birthday. My mother and I stopped at a hardware store that day to get something. I went up and down the aisles, listening to the wooden floors creak, peering into bins, and sifting tiny washers through my fingers as she did her errand. For years, I believed that going to the hardware store had been my birthday present and I was pleased with it.

I still frequent neighborhood hardware stores (and the big box stores too) whether it is Fratallone’s on evening walks; Settergren’s for bird seed; or a visit to Fredrickson’s Hardware when I’m in San Francisco.

Considering my long fascination with hardware stores and my many years working in and with museums, imagining a convergence of these two forms is not surprising. Yet, the attraction is more than simply an interesting exercise combining favorite places. Yoking together these two settings might produce a stronger museum experience for learners and tinkerers.

Bursting with an enormous variety of objects, tools, gadgets, gizmos, and materials in significant quantities, hardware stores are rich with information about the world. Cables and clamps; fans and fasteners; springs and snippers; knobs and knockers; gaskets and gutters; and pumps and pulls fill bins, shelves, cases, and aisles. Each has a size, a weight, a feel, a purpose, a design, and a beauty that tells about what it is and how it can be used.

Hardware stores are places of intention and possibility. Every day, the home-owner, carpenter, jewelry maker, chef, gardener, browser, artist, putterer, teacher, and exhibit fabricator bring experience, problems, questions, and ideas through the doors. Someone has identified a problem and needs what the hardware store has to solve it: “The building inspector says,…”; “Wasps have built a nest in the brush pile;” or “ I need an adhesive that will…”.

A sense of potential hovers about the hardware store. Pieces and adhesives, hammers and hinges, paints and parts are poised to be activated by curiosity, necessity, eagerness, and imaginations. They are ready to be assembled in order to repair, improve, or make something new. Component parts will be combined in innumerable ways to build a structure, fix the leak, wire a lamp, repair a screen, or silence the creak in the floorboards. People’s curiosity, questions, interests, practical needs, imaginations, and the moment make this happen. 
Hardware Store Practices for the Museum
Hardware stores are informal learning environments, community-based settings with high levels of self-directed learning based on objects and direct experience in a social setting.  They do what many museums want to do and do it well: engage learners as doers constructing knowledge as they build, repair, improve, or invent. While sometimes quaint and harkening back to the 20th, and even 19th century, hardware stores also exhibit some decidedly 21st century qualities relevant to museums.
  • Connected to everyday life. Regardless of your educational level or income, something you need will, at some time, need fixing, or replacing. The toilet leaks, a key breaks off in the lock, the tire’s flat. The part, solution, or know-how will, undoubtedly, be found at the hardware store. While you yourself may not stop at the corner hardware store or head to the big box store, the solution will very likely come from there. 
  • Low barriers to engagement. If someone shows up at a hardware store in the middle of a project, with a question or a part to replace, he will not only get assistance from the clerk, but will also get helpful hints from experts who have stopped by for a ball valve, an electrical box, a threaded truss rod, or a chat. 
  • A social setting. Hardware stores are places of conversations, stories, and memories. Any time of the day, several conversations are underway–conversations that might start with a question about what to use to patch a concrete step or whether a stud-finder really works. These conversations lead to projects past. Networks of plumbers, contractors, remodelers, and woodworkers form and grow through these contacts and conversations. 
  • Shared learning. People bring their experience from other projects and techniques learned the hard way. They cheerfully suggest which kind of respirator to get and what paint has the best coverage. What is known by the most experienced is shared with the novice.
  • A curriculum of materials. Hardware stores cover the curriculum: STEM, reading, arts, and history. Count, weigh, measure, and compare fasteners, wire, pipe, and gallons of paint. Put simple machines–screws, saws, pulleys, and crowbars–to work. Test the pH of the soil; build an electric circuit; explore sound waves in metal pipes; or find inspiration in everyday objects as Oldenburg did in the three-way plug
• Simple to complex skills. Sorting color samples, making bells ring at intervals, building a zip-line for stuffed animals, or creating yet-to-be projects use process, problem solving, questioning, design and systems thinking skills.   

Assembly required. Typically we encounter the world preassembled. So we know little about how things fit together and why they come apart. To build it, fix it, or figure it out requires questioning, thinking, and doing. “How is this supposed to work? What does it need to work? What do I do first? Which tool do I need?”

A loyal following.  Hardware stores engender a loyal following. Needing a part, expertise, inspiration, or the company of others brings back customers.

Undoubtedly concerns about migrating materials and mess bubble up for many readers thinking about a version of the hardware store in the museum. Hardware stores, however, are not particularly messy. They have great internal organization and a purposefulness that manages the migration of materials. Perhaps some areas in museums simply need permission to be messy and enjoy the value of loose parts

Museum Hardware Hotspots
Hardware spots in some museums do embody the rich context and possibilities of hardware stores. More than a single workbench, these spots offer learners and doers direct experience with real stuff and abundant materials in an open-ended activity. They have an internal organization that inspires curiosity, sparks the imagination, and supports doers to try, observe, explore, invent–and try again. Here are some of the hardware hotspots in museum I know of and find full of possibility.

Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium that “promotes thinking with your hands while experimenting with art, science, technology, and delightful ideas”
¡Explora! “provides real experiences with real things that put people’s learning in their own hands.”
Tinkerer’s Workshop at the Austin Children’s Museum for children 5-11 years.

I know there are more. What hardware hotspots in museums inspire you?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Storyland: A Trip Through Childhood Favorites

Storyland: A Trip Through Childhood Favorites is very much like a really great picture book. It has a strong storyline, reads well, and has vibrant, engaging images. It also shows the critical piece readers bring to books and stories to make them powerful and memorable.

Developed by Minnesota Children’s MuseumStoryland builds on the Museum’s on-going commitment to early literacy development delivered through literacy-rich environments in exhibits  such as Go Figure!, Curious George, Adventures With Clifford,  public settings across Minnesota. The Museum’s research, planning, evaluation, and strong partnerships have helped in building a body of early literacy experiences and environments for young children, their parents, and caregivers that encourage active exploration, stimulate conversation, offer wide access to literacy tools and books, and invite lots of pretend play.

Children and adults explore Storyland in these ways and more including storytelling, singing, dancing, reciting dialogue, and laughing.

Abuela somersaults in mid air.
Seven picture books are featured in the exhibit: Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault, The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff, The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, Where's Spot? by Eric Hill, Tuesday by David Wiesner, and Abuela by Arthur Dorros. This selection reflects true classics and new classics; very well- and less well-known books; stories told in rhythm and rhyme, with a great storyline, and through illustrations; and with humor and drama. Multiple versions of each book provide small and large sizes and English and Spanish text. Author names are prominently displayed so a family can look for this book as well as for other books by the same author at the library.

Organized around seven book environments, the exhibit concentrates on six pre-literacy skills recommended by the Every Child Ready to Read initiative of the Public Library Association, a Division of the American Library Association. Early literacy is what young children know and learn about reading and writing before they can actually read and write: speaking, listening, reading, writing, and viewing. These parts of language are all interrelated and develop at the same time. Evolving from birth, these skills develop through the talk and play of young children interacting with others and the environment:
• Print Motivation: Being interested in and enjoying books
• Print Awareness: Noticing print and knowing that it has meaning
• Vocabulary: Knowing the names of things
• Narrative Skills: Being able to understand and tell stories
• Letter Knowledge: Knowing that letters have names, are different from each other, and that specific sounds go with specific letters
• Phonological Awareness: Being able to hear and manipulate the smaller sounds in words

Besides a broad message about the delight of sharing stories, the set of pre-literacy skills serve as the exhibit’s message. The six skills are introduced and reviewed at two kiosks in the exhibit and are reinforced in a variety of activity formats for children and adults in the book settings. They are also highlighted as parent practices and integrated into each story environment as both text and audio, in English and in Spanish. A pillow says, "Have fun reading." A small door at adult height carries a message, “Talk about what the child does and sees everyday.” Pressing a button plays a recording that models the technique with an adult reading and asking questions, followed by a child’s response.

Parents and other caregivers are clearly a priority audience for the exhibit along with children, newborn through eight years. The parent-child reading relationship may actually be the exhibit’s true audience. This is an important and well-informed approach that supports engaging both children and adults intentionally, fully, and actively. While some activities are intended for adults (parent tips) and some are pretty much just for children (making the snow angel), most are engaging and work better with an adult and child.

Enjoying books starts early.
The exhibit also has excellent pitch for children eight years and under, and in fact, appeals to an even wider age range. At one point, I saw at least six crawlers intently occupied: opening and closing doors, fitting letters into holes, turning pages in a book, and spinning cylinders. A few clusters of girls 9-ish to 12-ish were highly engaged at the drawing station, reading  pre-literacy tips to each other, playing the keyboard in Where’s Spot? and making rhyming words in If You Give A Mouse a Cookie. Nearby, a group of boys passed through If You Give A Mouse a Cookie, tossing potatoes from Peter Rabbit.

Playing It by the Book
Both parents and children bring a great natural inclination for pretend play with them into an exhibit. Children begin pretend play about 2 years. Research confirms that mothers teach their toddlers to play (Haight and Miller. 1993) and that toddlers engage in more make-believe play when their mothers are involved.

Storyland embraces this readiness to play and extends it. This is apparent in many play sequences observed in Peter Rabbit. One began with Susanna, a 2-3 year old, going to wake Peter up in bed and exclaiming, “Mommy, Peter’s tummy hurts. Call the doctor!” The doctor is called and the dialogue jumps to Susannah telling her mom to cook and serve potatoes for dinner. They both put Peter to bed singing “This Land Is Your Land”. While not all play sequences were as involved, adults and children worked together to find upper and lower case numbers, paired up to walk together through the snowy pathway, and peeked in the windows of apartment houses in Abuela.
 Crunch, crunch, crunch. Step into Peter's footstep
Drawn from the books themselves, activities in Storyland are geared to making pre-literacy skills apparent, engaging, and very attractive to children and adults. The exhibit does this extremely well. The Snowy Day gives the sensation of walking through snow; stepping on footprints activates a crunch, crunch crunch sound straight from the book. Children took to this immediately and repeatedly and varying the activity with a “follow the leader” twist. Dads with babes in arm followed the footprints to make the crunch happen.

Children peeked in the tiny dioramas and sat on and climbed over and under the giant colorful letters in Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. Noticing the giant lower case ‘h,” a four-year old girl announced, “This is like a tunnel,” and crawled through it repeatedly. Other children sat on the letters, conforming their bodies to chair-like ‘h’ and the leopard print ‘L.’

A told B and B told C, "I'll meet you at the top of the coconut tree."

Accenting the strong rhythms of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, a mother read the book while her three young children recited it, pointed to words, and bounced to the rhythms, loudly, exuberantly, and repeatedly, and, in the process, demonstrated several of the pre-literacy skills in action.

The Nooks and Niches of Stories
The book-based environments spotlight the stories with meaningful contexts that support a wide range of literacy play. They also have the kind of nooks and niches that research indicates encourage greater language as well as physical exploration. And the variety among Storyland's book-based settings, in size, indoor and outdoor, explicit and somewhat abstract, broadens and extends children's language and physical exploration.

From the tall coconut tree in Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, to the flying grandmother in Abuelita, the images and elements from the books are the strongest part of the design. The walls are a beautiful deep blue that works as a backdrop for all of the book settings; other colors pop. The surround, however, feels stark and bold, the light overly strong and unvarying.  Lighting could soften the edges of the gallery space, provide a bit of atmosphere, and distinguish the story settings even more.

The greatest limitation of the exhibit design seems to be the limited variety of materials. Many of the large structures are carved from foam and covered in urethane; others are painted wood. While faithful to the images in the books and durable, there is uniformity to the tactile qualities of smooth painted surfaces. This is a true absence in a story and literacy-based exhibit. Materials carry information about how the world is made and how it works. Varied materials, wood, fabric, leather, rocks, rugs, basketry, invite varied conversation, rich description, a blizzard of questions, and personal stories. Literacy–language, science, and other–is grounded here. 

Knowing and Loving Stories
Storyland builds on a love of stories and books that children and parents bring with them to the exhibit. The result is a lively and full exploration combining the power of language, the pleasure of play, and a delight in being together. Families recited portions of books in unison and sang songs. Grandparents showed youngsters how to play hopscotch. Shared memories were often called on and chocolate chip cookie recipes were compared. In some cases, parents seemed to experience the books through their own childhoods, talking about their favorites, being read to as children, and squealing with delight at familiar images.

Storyland will be at Minnesota Children’s Museum until February 5, 2012 when it will begin its national tour.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Layering & Unlayering Exhibit Experiences

California Academy of Sciences

What do you think when you hear something like the following?
•           “We do that by layering in our exhibits.”
•            “We create unique, artistic, content-rich, layered exhibit environments.”
•            “The core exhibition offers a layered experience through which visitors explore through evocative objects, telling moments, and state-of-the-art interactive media.”

I inevitably wonder what the speaker or writer means by layered. When I probe, I generally hear several explanations, even in a single museum. Layering helps serve different audiences (which ones?); engages adult interest (how?); supports multiple intelligences (why?); or uses diverse interpretive methods (because?). Layering also assumes many forms: messages, artifacts, activity formats, levels of difficulty in an activity, and information in text panels.

I am not the only one who wonders what layered means. Beverly Serrell explores this in her book, Exhibit Labels: An interpretive approach
“It’s a standard cliché these days: The exhibits are conceived as a series of layers, making information about the objects accessible to visitors of different backgrounds and interests.” (p. 65)

Serrell observes that the idea of levels or layers of information is attractive to museum practitioners; it seems to make exhibit concepts accessible to a broader range of audiences. Exhibit planners use the words to describe the organization of information in an exhibition; label writers are interested in levels of information. The terms are used without clear definition and are almost interchangeably which creates confusion.

Layering is a promising approach to planning exhibits and experiences. Creating exhibit experiences that are engaging to museum audiences is a complex process. It involves multiple players in various roles with different perspectives over an extended time frame and using significant museum resources. Exhibits are expressions of a museum’s potential benefit. 

To be productive (rather than adding to confusion), let me suggest that layering must be:  
Tethered to big ideas, ones grounded in high-level museum audience, learning, or experience goals.
Clarified, explicitly stating what needs to be accomplished.
Shared broadly across the museum among developers, designers, label writers, educators, and contractors, and supported with concrete examples.

Several examples of layering I know of follow different approaches. But all are intentional in accomplishing particular museum work that many museums share.

Layering Across All Scales
A museum planning colleague, Jim Roe, developed an approach to layered experiences when he was working at The Bell Museum of Natural History (Minneapolis) while planning for a new building was underway. Jim’s approach brings together varied experiences functioning at successive scales, in diverse formats, across different timeframes, with differing potential impact. He views layers as foreground, middle-ground, and background experiences with several types within each plane. This is a comprehensive approach capable of highlighting how building on and aligning layers help distinguish a museum and its community benefits.
Spoon Bridge and Cherry at the Walker Art Center
      Foreground Experiences
       • Billboard-worthy special features such as        blockbuster, time-limited exhibits and features: Gauguin & Polynesia at the Seattle Art Museum
        • Trademark icons: Architectural or sculptural elements as memorable icons: Spoon Bridge and Cherry at Walker Art Center
        • Unique subjects: What you don’t see elsewhere, like sharks
Middle-ground experiences
        • Core exhibits: Regularly available exhibit-based activities: The Experiment Gallery at Science Museum of Minnesota
• Temporary exhibits: Topical exhibits that augment a museum’s offerings with engaging learning activities and solid content
• Programs and events: Museum classes for school groups, weekend family programs, special performances, featured artists, inventors, and more
Background experiences
• Learning strategies: Learning strategies made ubiquitous and explicit throughout programs and exhibits: direct experience with objects, multiple perspectives on a subject, spaces designed to facilitate adult-child interactions. Play as a ubiquitous strategy at Providence Children’s Museum
• Underlying values: Values-based choices, such as green and sustainable, used and made visible throughout Madison Children’s Museum
• Mission-driven content connections: Featured content such art-making activities embedded in galleries at the Denver Art Museum.

Layering Play and Content
At the recent ASTC conference in Baltimore Robin Meisner, Director of Exhibits at Providence Children’s Museum referenced its approach to layering exhibits. Since opening in 1977 the Museum has created experiences that layer play and learning. How it has done this has changed, especially over the past 10 years. Initially exhibit planning took its cue from children who came to the museum as good players; designing exhibits channeled playful energy towards learning content, sometimes fairly detailed content. For these exhibits, consideration of content goals came first; the form of playful experiences came in later. 

Over the last decade, staff noticed that children's time and even capacity to play were decreasing. These observations prompted staff to frame a question to guide exhibit planning. What if we started with play? Play at PCM is experience freely chosen, personally directed, intrinsically motivated and involves active engagement. 

Play Power Dome (Photo:  Providence Children's Museum)
Play Power was the first exhibit to use this question. It invites children and their caregivers to explore, invent, build, imagine, create, and experiment through open-ended play experiences. It also encourages adults to notice and appreciate the importance of children's self-directed play. The base layer in Play Power is avenues of play and experience. The content layer is also play, delivered through quotes, books, and tools designed to help adults notice what happens in children's play at the Museum. Another exhibit, Underland, also started with play, promoting gross motor exploration, dramatic play, and sensory experiences. Connecting children's play thematically to native wildlife and objects found underground is the content layer. As children play, they incidentally encounter content. Crawling through burrows and cooking in an underground kitchen, children meet native animals and insects, navigate roots and bulbs.

The museum has set its next exhibit layering challenge. It will frame a broad topic; start with play; and address topics like spatial thinking, water, and immigration. A new layer is also emerging: making children’s excitement about learning and the learning-to-learn skills that happen through play visible to both caregiver and children themselves.

Even as it evolves, PCM’s approach to layering is intentional, anchored in big ideas embedded in the mission, informed by observations of children, based on a shared definition of play, and related to specific audience groups and a knowledge of them. Layers push the Museum to accomplish more.

Experiences at an Exhibition
The approach to layering I have found that resonates with museums at various stages of development and working on assorted projects is actually unlayering–peeling away and separating layers that interact and combine to form an exhibition. Considering how complex an exhibition, or even a single interactive experience is, unlayering is a way to focus on the features, elements, and dimensions at play in exhibition and experience planning.

Suitable for a gallery or an exhibition, unlayering is less about content and more about the structure of experience. Through unlayering, a group explores variables that contribute to a full, vivid visitor and learning experience with impact. Until a big idea or theme is selected, unlayering is a somewhat generic exercise; but even as an introductory process, unlayering strengthens vocabulary for describing experiences across a team, a department, or a museum. In revisiting the layers with a theme or narrative for a specific project, a team can discuss and agree upon the qualities of each layer and expectations of what it might accomplish, what it could be for this exhibition. With practice and familiarity, a team becomes more nimble and inventive with these elements. 

The unlayering pyramid
I think of unlayering using a pyramid. Layers near the base are long-term like the mission and large scale like the architecture; other decisions need to take these layers into account. Moving up the pyramid, layers are smaller in scale. Think specific activities and ephemeral in the ways social interactions are. Base layers for different projects are typically more similar, while upper layers are less so. The substance of layers represents the possibilities for constructing and layering experiences starting with the walls, selecting essential experiences, shaping activities, writing labels, and encouraging social interactions.

Layers do not need to be static nor limited to those included here. In fact, depending on a particular exhibition, some layers might be irrelevant, re-ordered, or renamed. For an art or history exhibition, objects or artwork would be closer to the base since many other choices defer to the choice of those objects or artifacts. Layers always interact with one another; changing one will suggest new possibilities or reveal limitations. Unlayering is a working tool to be used and tinkered with. For instance, in exploring social interactions, a team can imagine conversations that might take place: who are the exchanges between? what are they about? what nonverbal cues accompany them? Through a kind of conceptual prototyping, probing those questions will spark thinking and point to possibilities for adjusting other layers and identifying ways to encourage social interactions. 

Layering Your Way
Approaches to layering need not be extensive or encompass the entire museum. Being clear is important; starting with a specific practice can be useful. I recently noticed a layering example on the Exhibit Files blog. In Reflections on art in children’s and science museums, Justine Roberts Executive Director at the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire’s explained, “We are intentionally layering together what our visitors do and what professionals in our community do.” This layering is showcasing the creative work of visitors in the museum and connecting it with the work done by community artists.    
At The Magic House in St Louis, exhibit planners have devised several very extensive programs to layer into exhibits. According to Beth Fitzgerald, CEO, the Museum has started out with a broad topic, like civics or forensic science. They develop an extensive program in which children and tweens use 21st century-learning skills to discover how forensic experts do their job and; in the case of Science Detectives, it's to solve a mystery. An interactive, stand-alone exhibition that also is able to support this program series is designed. School and community groups use the exhibits in the morning while family groups use them in the afternoons. A clear interest in serving the upper end of the Museum’s age range and aligning with local curriculum and standards are major factors in this approach to layering.

•       If you and your team refer to layered experiences or exhibits and you do not have strongly aligned ways of defining it, this is an area of productive conversation for you. Get together to talk about what layering can do that needs to be accomplished. Walk through exhibits in your museum (or in a few other museums). Point to what layering looks like; describe how it is working–or not. Listen and ask question of others in your group. Take notes and synthesize. Do this until you arrive at a shared sense of what layered means.

•       Are you working on a big project now? Think about your use of layering. Ask yourself, what are we trying to accomplish with this? What do we mean by layers? Is it clear? Shared? Related to the museum's big ideas? to project’s goals? to the audience’s interests? 

This is going to be a good conversation.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Executive Function in Museums

Stroop Test: The automatic behavior–word reading–has to be inhibited in favor of a less practiced task –naming the ink color.

“I’m the baby, so I have to cry.”

You might not think that this is music to a future employer’s ears, but it is. This statement, typical for a young child engaged in make-believe play, reflects early evidence of executive brain functions, a collection of cognitive skills that allow us to exert control over our thoughts, manage our attention, and restrain impulses in order to reach our goals. 

Executive functions are located in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, an area that keeps track of goals, engages in abstract problem-solving, and moderates appropriate behavior. Referred to variously as cognitive functions, self-regulation, and cognitive control, executive functions are characterized as orchestrating, weaving, mediating, and integrating other functions. Neuroscientists, scholars, psychologists, educators, and parents have helped increase awareness of executive brain functions, moving discussion from child development textbooks and Young Children to The New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

A deep internal mechanism facilitates children and adults engaging in thoughtful, goal-directed behavior. There are two aspects to these functions: stop and go. On the one hand, self-regulation is the capacity to exert control over thoughts and impulses and, when necessary, to interrupt doing something. On the other, self-regulation involves the capacity to engage in another behavior because it’s needed, even if it’s less attractive. In the pretend play example above, the child is subordinating behaviors she would like to engage in–perhaps pretending to eat a lollipop–and is substituting a behavior she would rather not engage in–crying because she sees herself as well passed the age of crying. For an adult executive brain functions means not relying on habits of perception while forcing the brain to use its power of observation; in the graphic above, it is reading the word red when it is written in green.

Focus, Switch, Resist, Think
The human need for complex, flexible regulatory systems that can cope with a wide array of environmental conditions means that the development of self-regulation begins early, takes place over an extended period of time, and requires substantial external support. (Berk, Mann, and Ogan. 2006)

Executive brain functions develop early–appearing around 7-12 months–and rapidly during the preschool years through dynamic interactions between brain activity and experience. Development of language plays a key role in the strengthening of these cognitive controls supported by hints and cues from adults, support from the environment, and play. Some executive functions improve during adolescence becoming more efficient and effective with increased mastery over thinking, emotions, and behavior. During the 20’s, executive function skills are at their peak. In later adulthood, these skills begin to decline, some having earlier, and others later, onset of impairment.

Different models for executive functions break down and describe them with some variations. In her recent book, Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Skills Every Child Needs, Ellen Galinsky identifies and explores 5 executive functions that work together in various combinations of skills such a perspective taking, making connections, and problem solving.

Focus is being alert and paying attention. Focusing on something allows you to use what you already know and maximize getting information from it.
Cognitive flexibility is being able to flexibly switch perspectives, change the focus of attention, or adjust behavioral responses as conditions or context change.
Working memory is actively holding information in your mind while manipulating it: relating one idea to another; relating what you’re listening to now to what you just heard; and relating what you are learning now that you learned earlier.
Inhibitory control is controlling attention, emotions, and behavior to achieve a goal; being able to resist a distraction, an impulse, or an attractive stimulus.
Reflection is stepping back, considering alternatives and then acting, thinking about someone else’s thinking, or the goal you want to accomplish.

Everyday Executive Functions
Our world of abundant distractions and novel situations makes executive brain functions valuable, if not essential, as 21st century skills. They help us to be alert, orient to a task, and focus; keep relevant details in mind and concentrate for an extended period of time. With the help of executive functions, we exert self-control and override responses to attractive stimuli. We resist the urge to answer a cell phone or text message while reflecting on a painting. We pass up an extra chocolate because it conflicts with another goal–the diet. We don’t check email or Facebook every 5 minutes because we need to finish a report.

Self-regulation is also thought to be heavily involved in navigating novel, dangerous or technically difficult situations. Functions like planning or decision-making; error correction or troubleshooting are needed when responses are not well-rehearsed, novel sequences of action are required, or strong habitual response must be subordinated.

In imaginary play, children use objects to help manage impulses  and  their  behavior
But self-regulation is not just for high tech levels of distraction or high-test situations and it's not primarily for adults. Significantly, self-regulation is thought to have an especially important role in school performance and beyond. Young children translate plentiful everyday cues from people and the environment into information to regulate behaviors and emotional tension. Early on, they learn to calm themselves, inhibit the urge to grab, wait for their turns, remember rules, and persist in challenging tasks. Active, intentional self-regulation develops during early childhood through language, make-believe play, and older children and adults demonstrating appropriate behavior and offering hints and cues.

Children’s intentional self-regulation predicts school success and may actually account for a greater variation in early academic progress than intelligence. In a well-known 1972 study by Walter Mischel of how self-control interacts with knowledge, four-year olds were offered a marshmallow. If the child could resist eating the marshmallow, the child was promised two marshmallows instead of one. The ability of a four-year old to resist the temptation of a second marshmallow turned out to be a better predictor of future academic success than his or her IQ score.

Executive function skills are relatively malleable and can be improved. Just how malleable and by what means, however, are not well established. Still, research that is underway is gradually indicating how we might take advantage of these capacities to help children and adults develop skills for school, for social situations, and for life.

One well-known program is Tools of the Mind, a research-based early childhood program that promotes children’s intentional and self-regulated learning to build strong foundations for school success in preschool and kindergarten children. The program uses several strategies critical for supporting children’s development of self-regulation: scaffolding, reflective thinking, self-regulation activities, and mature dramatic play. Other evidence that self-regulation can be taught in the classroom emerges from Blair and Razza’s study of low-income pre-school children which indicates that curricula designed to encourage children’s self-regulation skills can promote early academic progress. Adele Diamond’s research has shown that diverse activities can benefit children’s executive functions. Among other things, her lab studies facilitative factors such as bilingualism and school programs, and, the role of dance, storytelling, and physical activity. Practice also helps. Repeatedly performing basic exercises in cognitive self-regulation boosts executive functions for children or adults, although these results have not been as impressive outside of the lab.

Executive Brain Functions In Museums
Before I dug into reading about self-regulation, I had a general impression that their significance was primarily to young children and during early childhood. There’s no doubt that the early years are critical for development of executive brain functions, but that’s a limited view. Likewise, the classroom is not the only setting for promoting executive functions.

Robust executive brain functions play a critical role for all us across the life span and across life settings, including museums. Weaving together social, emotional, and intellectual capacities, executive functions are active in the highly social, strongly evocative, sensory and information rich environments of museums. Furthermore, strong executive brain functions for children and adults engage with the strategic, learning, financial, and community interests of museums. Skills used in social interactions (emotional self-regulation) as well as in thinking (cognitive self-regulation) are valuable and relevant to museums across a range of interests and activities. A few, just a few, are highlighted below noting some the related executive brain functions involved

Taking the perspective of life on board a canal boat at the National Canal Museum
•   Museums value the active, extended engagement of visitors in exhibits and programs. Spending more time  or getting more involved with an object, phenomena, or activity, and trying a variety of activities maximize the information learners draw from it. Persistence plays a role, whether following an activity to its natural conclusion or persisting in the face of challenges and is supported by paying attention (focus) and sticking with something after a failure (inhibitory control).

•  Museum experiences often involve learners in taking another perspective. Children and adults explore another culture, are immersed in an historic context or time period, or adopt a perspective of being the dog or a pirate in a play sequence. This involves inhibiting one’s own thoughts or feelings (inhibitory control) and considering those of others as well as seeing a situation in a different way (cognitive flexibility). Taking another perspective can also apply to museum staff viewing the interests of the intended audience in a different way.

•  Making connections is a goal established for many museum experiences. An exhibit or program highlights practical application to learners’ everyday lives, interprets features of objects in the collection, creates the conditions for building structures, invites exploration of how something works, and encourages creativity. Making connections is critical to making sense of a situation and relies on recognizing similarities and differences (cognitive fluency), using rules (working memory)–from simple to increasingly complex–and applying and recombining elements in various and inventive ways (cognitive fluency).

Even small gizmos build on multiple executive functions
•  In working on an experiment in a hands-on lab, building a wind tube at garage studio, or operating an electric crane in a building area, learners move through a sequence of steps in a process and keep on track to reach a goal through planning. Creating a marble-run, building a castle, or creating paper medallions relies on sustained attention (focus); keeping a number of things in mind at once (working memory); making corrections as the mind watches itself (reflection); and resisting the impulse to skip steps in the interest of a larger goal (inhibitory control)

Executive brain function can even support fundraising goals. Patty Belmonte, Executive Director at Hands On! Children’s Museum (Olympia, WA) has shared how she took the children’s museum’s case for play to the business community as part of the museum’s capital campaign. Initially, the response was less than Patty hoped. When she reframed it, however, to relate play’s role in developing executive brain functions, business leaders heard her. They immediately recognized the skills and functions they needed in their employees from her description of self-regulation: attentional focus, perspective taking, making connections, following rules, and persistence in the face of challenges.

How to incorporate executive brain functions into planning visitor and learning experiences may not be immediately obvious. Nevertheless, museums currently use many strategies to develop experiences that encourage self-regulation. Museums prepare the environment, engage visitors, prepare staff and volunteers to give cues and hints; encourage social interactions among visitors; and invite extensive physical and cognitive interactions with objects and phenomena. These approaches, and more, point towards the abundant and varied opportunities museums have to act on their missions, benefit their audience, and serve their communities by deliberately taking advantage of the capacities executive brain functions offer. 

What are you doing in your museum to strengthen executive functions and the skills they use?

References and Resources
•  Berk, L. E., Mann, T. D. and Ogan, A. T. (2006). Make-believe play: Wellspring for development of self-regulation. In Dorothy G. Singer, Michnick Golinkoff, and Hirsh-Pasek, K. (eds.) Play = Learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and social-emotional growth. Oxford University Press: New York.
• Galinsky, E. (2010). Mind in the making: The seven essential life skills every child needs. Harper Studio: New York.
• Zimmerman, B. J. (1994). “Dimensions of academic self-regulation: A conceptual framework for education.” In Self-Regulation of Learning and Performance: Issues and Educational Applications, eds. D.H. Schunk & B.J. Zimmerman, 3–24. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
• Mischel, W., Shoda, Y. and Rodriguez, M. L. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science. New series. Vol. 244 No. 4907 (may 26).  933-938.
• Blair, C. and Razza, R.P. (2007). Relating effortful control, executive function, and false belief understanding to emerging math and literacy ability in kindergarten. Child Development, Vol 78, Issue 2. (The Pennsylvania State University).
•  Diamond, A. and Lee, K.. (2011). Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4 to 12 Years Old. Science 19 August. Vol. 333 no. 6045 pp. 959-964.
• Diamond, A. and Barnette, W. S., Thomas, J. and Munro, S. (2007). Preschool program improves cognitive controls. Science 30 November. 

Tough, P. Can the right kind of pay teach self-control? New York Times. Sept. 27, 2009.