Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Serving the Museum’s Full Age Range

When one museum tackles a big question about serving their audience, I am likely to hear audience in many other questions museums are considering. So it has seemed recently. Over the last few months, I have been in multiple master planning sessions, on conference calls, and pouring over marketing studies that focus on serving the upper end of a museum’s age range. That’s one reason why I re-posted Audience, An Area of Enduring Focus last week.

Like all museums, children’s museums struggle with how to serve the full range of their intended audience. Their more specific challenge is how to serve the upper end of their target age range and whether to serve children 7 or 8 to 10 years, tweens, and youth at all. This dance, shared by many museums, has a long history with many variations.

At one time children’s museums opened their doors to welcome children 3 - 12 years old, their parents and caregivers. Children 3 - 6 years arrived, returned, and began owning the museum. With time, many children’s museums rethought their audience and offerings and often landed on serving newborns - 8 year olds, occasionally targeting children up to 10 years. This change, it seems, brought younger children to the museums. More 2 year olds showed up as well as loyal 3 - 6 year olds. Wanting to expand their audience, serve the community well, and sometimes responding to internal pressure to “own” a wider niche, some children’s museums pushed on serving 7-10 year olds.

Evidence supports decisions to serve a younger audience and top out, for instance, at 6 years. Concern about the skills gap has meant more communities now offer universal pre-K. More 4 year olds are spending more of their day in school with less time for weekday visits to the children’s museum. Elementary schools are cutting budgets and classroom time for anything but teaching to standards and tests. School group attendance that draws children 5-6 years and older is dropping. Out-of-school hours are filled with afterschool out-of-home care , with sports, scouts. and music lessons. Growing competition among science, history, and art museums for 6-12 year olds in family and school groups is also impacting attendance. Finally, some children’s museums seem to feel resigned to losing the upper end of their target age, citing KAGOY–kids are getting older younger–and the “boo” factor–bigger children don’t want to be around younger children.  

On the other hand, the lower end of the age range, newborn to 2 years, is fairly secure for children’s museums. Parents with infants and toddlers have fewer options of places where their very young children are truly planned for and welcome. These parents are also strong, very strong, advocates for their needs and those of their babies: nursing spaces, clean and safe places, less busy times, times with fewer or no big kids. And while art, science, and history museums may be interested in serving 6-12 year olds, serving infants, toddlers and preschoolers is a significantly greater stretch to serve well. Many children’s museums are telling me that they track the average age of their audience and it is dropping. Last week I heard one museum say its average age is 4.5 years. A reasonable decision is to concentrate resources on serving a narrower age group well.

Not So Fast…
Physical challenge in play, part of a healthy childhood
That certainly isn’t the only choice. Before abandoning the upper end of the age range, I would encourage a children’s museum to look hard at the convergence of its strategic interests, the developmental interests of its young audience, and the needs of its families. Children are an audience for many museums. For children’s museums,however, children are more than an audience. They are the heart of the mission and central to the museum’s reason for being. Children’s museums have become places where children can be children. They are full of experiences and encounters that enrich millions of childhoods annually. As advocates for healthy and full childhoods, children’s museums have an opportunity, and perhaps a responsibility, to play a major role in stemming the erosion of childhood. The compression of childhood means children suited for play with toys want cell phones. Compression wears away a sense of freedom, safety, and promise children need for their well-being.

Many parents and grandparents don’t want their children aging up so fast. They want to enjoy their child at each age and stage rather than find themselves saying, “When the children were young,” regretting time passed unnecessarily quickly. Even children remain attached to their childhoods, at least occasionally. Regrettably lacking a study to back this up, I do have examples from experience: focus group summaries of tweens who are nostalgic about their childhoods and marketing studies citing 11 year olds wanting “lap time” with their parents. In children’s museums I see and listen to 10 and 11 year olds and remember overhearing an 11 year old announce, “I want to do this for a living when I grow-up,” as he pressed his 10th paper pulp medallion. Museums can make experiences better, much, much better for 7+ year olds by recognizing and responding to parents’ and children’s attachment to childhood.

Holding onto childhood favorites
Any of the 7 year olds we know hover at several points on the developmental spectrum at one time. This is typical. A child may be more like a 5 year old in social development and more like an 8 year old in language development. The broad developmental ranges typical of all children’s development are characteristically greater for children with special needs. A children's museum is a place where an 8 year old  with special needs fits in. These variations expand the picture of the 3, 5, or 7 year old a museum serves. Differences in children’s background and family experiences also account for variations. What is developmentally engaging and challenging to a 6 year old with varied and wide-ranging experiences may be more similar to an 8 year old with limited experiences. Clear-cut developmental breaks simply do not occur. Even the designations of early childhood (birth-8 years) and middle childhood (6-12 years) overlap. If a museum is planning for 6 year olds, how can it not plan for 10 year olds–who may also enjoy aspects of being 6?

A developmental perspective across the full range of early and middle childhood is invaluable. It shifts the primary focus from chronological ages and grades in school to what is happening for the child. Understanding the full developmental range involves understanding each age and stage. Recently I facilitated a half-day discussion with a leadership team to affirm their target age range–newborns through 15 year olds–and how to serve them. At the workshop’s conclusion, one participant noted that serving the age range well means knowing not only where a child is developmentally now, but also where that child is headed developmentally.

Families with children across the age range
Not only are children wonderfully varied, but their families are as well. Many families have children ranging in age from newborn to 10 or 11 years. They want to do things together as a family–in one place. With experiences that engage a 2, 5, and 8 year old and amenities that make it easy for families to explore together, a children’s museum can be family, child, and mission centered.

What other considerations do you find at the convergence of a museum’s strategic interests, the developmental interests of its young audience, and the needs of its families?

Focusing on the Audience
What is interesting to 7 year olds?
By engaging the marketing, developmental and design expertise that has been a hallmark of children’s museums’ growing audience (if perhaps younger audience), a museum could have success serving 7-8 year olds in ways that resemble their success serving 4.5 year olds. This is not the realm of magical thinking and crossing fingers, closing eyes and muttering, “I hope, I hope, I hope they come.” It is the realm of focusing and deepening a museum’s understanding of children 7-10 or 11 and 12 years; of experimenting, stretching, and revising assumptions about how to serve them. This exploration requires plain thinking and a few guidelines about audience.
  • Trying to serve a museum’s full age range is not the same as “aging up” or changing the target audience to  older children. When a museum works to better serve its full age range, it builds on a foundation of serving that audience: attendance data with school group numbers; member and visitor surveys often with age group information; and relationships with members and teachers. An approach to better serving the upper end of the current age range may also be helpful to a museum expanding its age range from, say, 6 years to 8 years or 8 to 10 years–but the starting points differ.
  • All parts of a museum’s audience are valued. All must be served well. Here’s the catch: all parts of the audience will not (and can not) have a high presence. An equally high level of services, offerings, programs, and exhibit real estate is not needed for all groups. Groups with a lower presence at the museum, typically the youngest and oldest, should have comparably fewer but high quality experiences. The 7-10 year old set is in this “older shoulder” group.
  • Serving any and all age groups well relies on understanding them well. Get to know 7-10 year olds. Bring varied perspectives and sources of information to this exploration. What do these children say is fascinating to them? What does the museum do consistently well that other venues do not? What’s happening for them developmentally? What do their parents say interests them? What do their parents think is wonderful about them? Check assumptions about who they are and their interests. Ask them and observe them. Don't guess.
What other considerations of the audience prepare a museum for serving the upper end of its age range?

Getting Started
If serving the upper end of the museum’s targeted age range better is central to mission, attendance, and visitor experience, a deliberate and thoughtful approach is necessary.  By no means comprehensive, the steps below can get a museum started. Lessons from these steps should point to new ones.
Clarify the starting and end points. Decide on the age group to focus on and be specific. Gather information on the number of children in this age range currently served and how: in exhibits? in programs? If no information is available, a survey may be in order. Be clear about what you hope to accomplish with this effort. Is it an increase in the number of children in the age group? If so, what’s a realistic stretch? Is it satisfaction among families with children across the age range? Keeping families as members for longer? Keep in mind that 7-10 year olds flooding exhibits and programs and pushing their share of attendance from 5% to 25% is unlikely. An increased presence will occur gradually as 5 and 6 year olds grow up and stay hooked on museum offerings; as word gets out to more families; and as the museum improves its pitch for older children. 
Get to know the age group. Visit places where children 7-12 years spend time and are engaged in ways the museum hopes to engage them. It may be in your museum, another museum, at the library, park and rec, or Boys and Girls club. Observe them, listen to what they talk about, notice how they relate to one anther. Take notes and photos. Refer to books like Yardsticks by Chip Wood which has a good feel for children 4-14 years and to the Search Institute’s Developmental Assets.
Know your own museum. Take a very good look at where children in the upper end of the age range currently have the highest presence in your museum's exhibits and document it. Observe them; talk to them. Ask what attracts them to the area, what they like about the activity, why, and what else they'd like to do there. Photograph them and what they are doing; make notes. Record numbers of children, ages, and times on a floor plan in the area. Then, build on their interests, responses, and insights. Modify or develop activities and incorporate them into exhibits. Be sure to revisit these areas, observe, and compare before-and-after data. Has the presence, activity, or dwell time of this age group changed? Repeat this process; it may take several rounds to get a good feel for a good match. Apply the approach to programs as well.
Open-ended materials: water,mud and gravel
Rethink spaces with older children in mind. Many museums have spaces designated for infants and toddlers up to 3 or 4 years, both as specific galleries and as “tod pods” in other galleries and exhibits. Seldom used for older children, a designated gallery has both possibilities and challenges. Allocating significant square footage often isn’t justified for a small age cohort. Even when it is justified, identifying experiences that appeal to older children without being a magnet for much younger ones can be a challenge. Material intense maker spaces, multi-step processes like stop-action animation, physical challenges requiring coordination, cultural explorations, engineering feats, and creative applications of technology and media are possibilities. These engage the increasing capacity in middle childhood to think abstractly, apply complex problem solving strategies, persist, and use fine motor coordination. 
Tweens area (right) set lower 
than children's area (left)
Targeted age strategies are one approach. Strategies that transcend age are another. Open-ended experiences and materials engage children across the age and developmental spectrum differently. A child’s expanding repertoire of experiences that come with age and development play out differently with build platforms, material explorations, and sensory phenomena such as light and shadow. Design choices can also reinforce these strategies. Adjacencies might locate early child spaces out of first sight at the entry. Changing levels and sight lines can visually separate areas and age groups. Selecting a look-and-feel of spaces to appeal to a broader age range can expand rather than shrink age appeal. 

Taking a cue from children's thinking
Build on strengths. Children across the age range are delightfully curious. Even as babies they express preferences; as soon as they can talk they make observations and share wonderful ideas. Learning from children and how they think can (and should) happen at any age. With development, however, children enjoy increasing capacities to think, imagine, explain, solve problems, and express ideas. In serving the full age range of the museum, take full advantage of these exciting age-related developmental capacities of children 6 and 7 years old and up. These children can draw. They have a wider range of experiences to draw on. They can explain their ideas and use increasingly complex and creative thinking and communication strategies to do so. They can tell you a lot. Perhaps the answer to how to serve children 7 years and up is to ask them.

What strategies have you found that are effective in serving children 6 and 7 years old and older?  

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