Monday, September 26, 2011

Strengthening Parent Engagement


Over the summer I’ve been working on several museum projects that are framed around reaching and engaging parents. By parents, I mean not only mothers and fathers, but also other significant adults in children’s lives­: step-parents, foster parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. For simplicity, though, I’ll refer to this large, loving, and important group as parents.

These projects and their museum’s interests emerge from what research and experience show about the critical role of parents in children’s lives including, pre-natally and right on through, well maybe,  forever.

•            Strong attachment between a child and parent, or caregiver, nourishes a child’s emotional development, fostering development of a healthy sense of belonging, self-esteem, and well-being.
•             Parents are children’s first teachers, supporting early language and literacy development, problem solving, and dispositions to learn, for starters.
•            Parent participation in their child’s play and learning extends to the prosocial and independent behaviors in the classroom. 
•             Increased parent involvement in children’s education is associated with a child’s improved achievement in school. 

Children and museums need parents in order accomplish their goals for richer engagement
Museums, like schools, libraries, early childhood programs, health and social service agencies, businesses, colleges, and universities need parents in order to reach their goals for children and for the community. Every one of these groups needs to reach parents, engage them, and communicate with them, share or reinforce messages about their critical role in children’s growth and development. While this may be especially true for children facing multiple challenges, all children need the solid foundation for a good start in life that parents offer. In museums, we also know that children engage more and in more complex ways in exhibits with parent involvement.

The Parent Imperative
The imperative for effective parent involvement in museums is clear. The strategies for doing so are less clear. After recently immersing myself in reading research, writing and mostly re-writing, thinking, and talking with colleagues about how to reach and engage parents, I am struck by how museum efforts are not stronger and more comprehensive than they seem to be. New efforts at engaging parents are hopefully percolating through museums right now. With few exceptions, however, we seem to be using limited strategies for accomplishing a challenging, complex, and sensitive goal.

From my scan, approaches seem to rely on text panels with parent tips though I am aware of several promising exceptions.
•            One is the exhibit Wonder Years: The Story of Early Childhood Development at the ScienceMuseum of Minnesota and reviewed on Museum Notes in July. It covers lots of information well.
•            The Adult Child Interaction Inventory is an assessment tool that can be used for evaluation or development of exhibits where the role of the adult in the child’s experience is significant to the exhibit project. Developed by Boston Children’s Museum with researcher Lorrie Beaumont, the tool assists in identifying what key design elements of the exhibit support adult-child interactions. The ACII is also useful as a training tool for museum staff.
•             Along with Lorrie Beaumont, other researchers have been looking at parent-child engagement as a part of their studies on children’s learning, literacy development, and family learning. A good, but by no means exhaustive, list includes: Maureen Callanan; Kevin Crowley; Jessica Luke; Suzanne Gaskins, Doris Ash, Steven Guberman, Kirsten Ellenbogen, Lynn Dierking, and Cheryl Kessler.
•            I have also been involved with projects and hear of more that are using visitor panels and focus groups to explore parent interests and questions about their children and using this information to inform exhibit design, develop parent information strategies, and plan programs.

Listening to parents and children at Louisiana Children's Museum
Text Traps
Relying on text to communicate important and sometimes subtle messages to parents in a setting planned to engage their young and active children is problematic. I struggle with the following challenges and find it hard to sidestep them. I encounter these traps labels I write and those currently in exhibits.

•            Getting a parent’s attention when she is attending to her children, with whom we want her to interact.
•            Coming across as telling a parent she should be doing more.
•            Being congratulatory about parental efforts, but not too much.
•            Seeming to suggest that the information is intended for another parent and his child.
•            Over-simplifying information about brain-development, play, talking to your child, etc.
•            Sounding too bossy, jargony, breezy, or clever; being too wordy or too elegant.

I recently wrote, “Play is joyful exploration. Add a spirit of inquiry and building play becomes science play.” A colleague noted that this elegant turn of phrase was not what parents are interested in while they watch their child hustle to the top of the climber. His comment woke me up and I hit the delete button. But knowing what to write instead was the next challenge.

Be Positive, Think Strategically, Act Collaboratively
Museums may not have the same kind of opportunities that schools and childcare centers have to connect with parents on a daily basis, at-pick-up-and-drop-off times, and at conferences. They do, however, have distinct opportunities they can exercise more fully and effectively than they currently do. Parents visit museums with their children rather than sending them off to school by themselves. The relationships museums want to focus on walk in the door everyday. With objects, interaction, a lively social context, and active exploration, museum settings accommodate a wide range of exploratory approaches. And because they are not grading children’s performance–or the parents–parents can relax in museums.

After 10 days of mucking about in search of parent engagement strategies and thinking about our ambitions for reaching and involving parents, I have a beginning list of promising strategies to assist museums in supporting and strengthening the connection between parents and their children.
•            Be positive and assume the best. Parents want to do their best on behalf of their children. Many factors overwhelm parents’ intentions to be actively and intentionally engaged with their child during a museum visit and in the everyday moments of their lives. Parent involvement strategies should build on good intentions, strengthen parents’ positions, and support their relationships with their children.
•            Frame a clear set of goals. Be clear about what you are trying to accomplish through parent engagement and why it’s important: does it relate to local issues? has it been identified as a priority for the audience? is there a gap in local resources in this area?
•            Focus on strategies and actions that evidence suggest makes a difference for a child. I have realized I need to follow the research more closely. In combing research, a useful focus might be on behaviors and situations that are relevant in an informal learning environment around asking questions, participating in play, everyday moments– rather than about homework, for instance.     
•            Get to know parents. Parents are a diverse group even when “parents” is not a placeholder for a much larger group of step-parents, foster parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Within any group are smaller, but distinct groups, who might benefit from being engaged in particular ways or who have preferences for how to be approached. There are members and first-time visitors; mommy bloggers and weekend dads; new parents and parents who are uncertain about their role in museums; out-of-town grandparents and custodial grandparents. A parent segmentation scheme might be in order.
•            Identify and employ multiple engagement strategies. By its nature, facilitating parent involvement with their children is a complex negotiation. Adding a museum's agenda to the mix means 3 agendas are at play: the parent's, the child’s, and the museum’s. Navigating this means considering all approaches–text panels, facilitation, parent programs, film and video, hand-held media; it also means borrow and invent more. 
•            Engage more often, more directly, and in more varied ways with parents. This calls for some imagination and research. For instance, is there a voice parents are more likely to want to hear in text and even from facilitators? I wonder if there’s an “Aunt Judy” voice? A trusted, helpful, warm, yet firm voice. Could a museum recruit a cadre of trained volunteers to serve as Aunt Judys and Uncle Peters who engage parents in conversation, focus observations, share insights, ask questions? What about parent play sessions with staff who scaffold with and for parents?
•             Build museum capacity around parent engagement. Increasing capacity comes in all forms at every organizational level. It could be a staff person who serves as a parent advocate. A team gathers input from parents, summarizes and introduces parent perspectives into exhibit planning and program development. Someone coordinates staff training like Wakanheza that enhances parent involvement at the museum.  Partner organizations also have expertise to leverage and build capacity.
What might an Aunt Judy or Uncle Peter do to encourage engagement?
•            Expand on research and tools with practical applications like the Adult Child Interaction Inventory. Projects like Making Playful Learning Visible (2006 by Thomas Siobhan and James Bradburne) is an example of a project that accomplishes many of the above ideas. (Unfortunately, the report used to be available at; it is now referenced but not available at: Museums will hopefully also consider collaborative research projects to explore their questions about parent engagement with other museums and among cross-setting partnerships with libraries, schools, early childhood programs, etc. 

Getting Better Together
I hope this list is only a start. There's lots to be done and undoubtedly more than I know of is happening.  
  • How is your museum engaging parents?                
  • What strategies are working well?                 
  • In what are areas are you most interested in making changes? Why?                  
  • What have you learned that might be helpful to other museums?               
  • Are there other researchers and projects in this area to share with others? 

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