Sunday, November 6, 2011

Can Museums Say That?

The US Census recently reported some good news about children and reading. Parents are reading more with their children than they did a decade ago. In fact, according to the report, low-income parents in particular are more involved in reading and talking with their young children. Summarized in the August 9, 2011 Education Week article, Census: Parents Reading More With Their Children this is encouraging news for children, parents, schools, employers, libraries, museums, and communities. Parents' time reading, playing, and talking with their children is considered “quality time” and can have a positive effect on children's developmental progress and success in school.

Some of the largest increases in reading together, playing, and having frequent conversations were for low-income parents of toddlers. This is important and promising for two reasons. First, by far (80%) the greatest variation in public school performance is from family effects, not from school effects. Second, a 1995 study by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley showed that children of parents on welfare heard significantly less talking by age 3, than children of professional parents. Professional parents engaged their children significantly more in frequent, positive, elaborate verbal interactions that resulted in larger vocabularies before entering school.    

The article points to a convergence of efforts to make parents aware of how important their involvement, in general, and to reading with their children, in particular, is for children’s solid foundation for school. During the past decade, an explosion of programs intended to help parents engage with their children has taken place, from federal literacy initiatives to private non-profit book and literacy programs, including....

…  and children’s museums in particular. The young children and their parents mentioned in the article are the primary audience of children’s museums. They are the toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergarteners and their families served on site in interactive exhibits and family programs; off-site at locations in the community; and through extensive partnerships with early childhood programs and agencies, including Head Start, other programs serving-low-income children, and libraries. Early literacy development is, and has been, a central piece of what children’s museums have been delivering in their role of being both nice and necessary.

A summer 2011 Early Literacy Survey conducted by the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) summarizing the literacy-based activity of museums that serve children reflects wide-spread activity in this area. Of the 75 museums that responded, 88% and 80% reported that they offer programs or exhibits, respectively, that encourage early literacy efforts and support children’s reading proficiency by the end of 3rd grade. Relevant and significant to the US Census report, over 69% of children’s museum respondents work with parents and caregivers to promote parental support for early literacy and reading. Nearly 80% of the programs are targeted to under-served audiences. Most of the programs, 92%, serve the same children and families multiple times. Evidence of measurable results is reported in the survey. Nearly 40% of responding museums report conducting evaluations using qualitative and quantitative measures. A small portion of the museums reported powerful educational outcomes.

Long, Deep and Wide
Literacy-based messages and activities have been integrated into virtually every aspect of children’s museum’s reaching back almost two decades. Literacy was the clear priority in establishing the Treehouse Museum (Ogden, UT), which opened in 1992, with a focus on family literacy and children’s literature. In the early 1990’s, Chicago Children’s Museum supported an extensive multi-year literacy initiative for children and their parents in the Robert Taylor Homes housing project on Chicago’s Southside. In 1994, Minnesota Children’s Museum began its long-term literacy initiative, Ready? Set. Read! that, like similar initiatives in other children’s museums, has served as an umbrella for exhibits, programs, and partnerships. In partnership with the American Library Association, the Museum developed Go Figure!, an interactive book-based math exhibit that began traveling in 2000 to more than 75 museums and libraries across the country.

Besides story times, children’s museums post parent messages about reading, train staff to facilitate interactions, develop and loan kits, distribute books, and incorporate parent tips in newsletters. Exhibits based on well-known children’s books such as Arthur, Curious George, En Mi Familia, Where The Wild Things Are, and The Magic School Bus have been in children’s museums and traveling cross country for 2 decades. Early language development was at the heart of Children’s Museum of Manhattan’s 2004 infant-toddler exhibit Wordplay. Libraries were incorporated into children’s museums beginning in 2000 when The Children's Museum (Indianapolis) created Infozone. Other museum libraries, like the Parent Resource Library at the Children’s Museum of Houston serve parents and other key adults in children’s lives. In the Houston museum, literacy efforts are supported by 2,000 FLIP kits in 35 libraries across Houston.

These and other literacy efforts have had support from the 1995 Museums and Library Services Act that merged museums and libraries at the federal level. A further boost to museums involvement with literacy-based experiences came from the 1995 Library of Congress Center for the Book conference in St. Paul (MN) where existing museum-library partnerships were shared and new possibilities for working together to bring story and literacy-based experiences to children and families were explored.

Here’s the Question
The increase in parent involvement nationally is encouraging and clearly part of an overall mix of partnerships and programs. While difficult to directly link broad increases in parents reading more to their children to specific interventions, I have been noodling about a question. To what extent can children’s museums associate their efforts to the broad increases highlighted in the Census Bureau data?

I am not able to answer to this question. There’s not enough information and I don’t want to invent data. But it's too good an opportunity to let get away. Children’s museums’ early literacy opportunities have been broad and far-reaching; they have been delivered through varied formats to toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergarteners and their parents at museums and in early childhood programs in towns and cities across the country. These efforts are part of a larger trend that could inform education researchers and policy makers. They have implications for children’s museums as recognized and valued assets in their communities as well. Here are 3 suggestions for how children’s museums could leverage the significant early literacy work they have already done.

•                  Build on the literacy work done over the last 2 decades, intentionally, explicitly, and with greater rigor. Carry on with early literacy as a priority or thoughtfully integrated into new initiatives, exhibits, programs, and partnerships. Allocate resources: time, expertise, and funds. Deepen familiarity with relevant studies like Hart & Risley’s; study effective interventions. Assess and improve existing strategies–programs, exhibits, kits, messages–using evidence-based practices. Develop a logic model; monitor indicators; track and share results.

•                  Use existing literacy work to build a better case to show museum supporters how they matter in a recognized area of need. A stronger case starts with looking closely at the data children's museums do have about the programs they have offered; drawing on ACM’s survey; and referencing the trends reported in the Census data. At a minimum, museums can say to their stakeholders–board, staff, volunteers, partners, funders, and policy makers, “There’s greater promise here. We’re actively engaged in a high priority area where evidence is mounting about positive change. We’re encouraged. Help us with this important work.” 
•                  Conduct a study survey so in 10 years when another Census report comes out, museums won’t be asking themselves whether they contributed to the change in parents reading more to their children or to more children reading at grade level. Thinking ahead is critical to showing impact. This would involve an extensive coordinated effort among many museums with a representative sample of families in communities served by children's museums across the country, looking at museum program participation, and exploring parent involvement in reading to their children and in their child’s education. 

I want to read this study.

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