Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Climbers: Hanging Around and Listening in at Grainland

Grainland entrance at Minnesota Historical Society
Climbing structures are not just for playgrounds and parks anymore, if they ever were. They are not just for children’s museums. In fact, some of the interesting vertical sprawling climbing-crawling structures that I have come across recently have been at art and history museums and zoos.

As much interest as there seems to be in adding climbers to more settings, there also appears to be scant information about what actually takes place in and around climbing structures. In the last year I have been in master-planning sessions where a museum wants a go big or go home climber. Surprisingly, little more than an expectation for an exciting, 3-story climbing structure in a highly visible location backs up the request.

Considering how such a structure can dominate a space visually, kinetically, operationally, and financially, a list of questions, a set of criteria, or a collection of lessons learned form other museums seem invaluable, if not critical. But like children scooching through a small opening in a climber and disappearing, climbers themselves seem to be prone to gaps in standard experience planning. They schooch right past planning steps for framing goals and criteria.

One of the few–if not only–explorations of museum climbing structures and the experiences they offer is on  Museums Now. In When is a climber more than just a place to climb?, Justine Roberts considers location, look-feel, design, and navigating climbers. She notes some of the challenges and opportunities of considering the many dimensions of the climber and concludes,  Because the design of a ‘climber’ supports very specific behaviors, it also supports very specific outcomes. Backing up from the strong image of a vertical climber set in the entry adjacent to the main stair may be a difficult shift - but it may also be an opportunity.” Justine captures the magnetism climbing structures exert and how they manage to evade careful scrutiny. 

Over the years I’ve watched children and parents explore several generations of climbing structures, from Brookings to Boston; Pittsburg to Phoenix; Madison to Memphis, Saint Paul to St Louis; and Tampa to Tulsa. Yet, besides knowing that the areas are active and seemingly popular, and having overheard a handful of comments, I know very little about what is actually happening for children and adults in these structures. For example:

• Who’s in there? What ages of children are finding this an engaging experience?
• What, besides the obvious and assumed climbing, are children actually doing in the climber?
• What do children notice about the structure itself and what’s inside?
• When climbing structures embed content–the water cycle, pathway of grains through a grain elevator, the life cycle of ants–is any of it coming through for explorers and learners?
• How do children and adults interact up-around-under-and-through, inside-and-out of the climber?

I realize I might help fill gaps in what we understand is happening in climbers. It seems as simple as hanging around climbers and listening in as I visit museums. These are not likely to be formal investigation–no purposive sampling or control groups here. But I can pay attention to who’s using the climber and how; what’s happening; how adults are engaged. I can pull together, summarize and share some observations as I do below.

Grainland: What’s Going on inside
Recently I visited and observed Grainland, a climbing structure at the Minnesota History Center (MHS) in St Paul. A few days later, I returned for a second observation. Both were afternoon visits, one each on a weekday and a weekend day in July. One was 30 and the other was 60 minutes. The information I gathered is admittedly limited, but an interesting and richer than expected start.  

Some background: Grainland opened in 1992 when MHS significantly expanded its presence. In the past year, Grainland has been incorporated into a new exhibit, Then, Now, Wow, an exploration of Minnesota from past to present. Designed to look like a 1930’s style grain elevator, Grainland is on the third floor of MHS and in a large, approximately 1,500 square foot space accessed from both the hallway and Then, Now, Wow. I didn’t bring my tape to measure so can only estimate the structure’s dimensions: approximately 20 feet tall, or about 2 stories; about 12 feet deep; and about 35 feet across.

Grainland looks like a weathered grain elevator that's familiar across Minnesota. The tower’s profile and parts loosely map onto this climbing structure. As children climb, crawl, and slide through stairs and tubes (the elevator’s arms), they become the soybeans and corn moving up to the elevator’s head, down into bins, to the boxcar and the dump.  A graphic panel at the entrance shows the parts of a grain elevator with photo icons that correspond to chutes and bins along the way.

Who’s in there?
Children from about 2 years to about 10 years were exploring the climber with most about 5 to 7 years old. In choosing to enter the structure through one of 3 tubes or one of 2 sets of stairs, most chose to go up the stairs, including the youngest for whom a “Smaller Grains (toddlers) enter here” sign designated a starting place for them.

Over the course of the approximately 90 minutes I was observing, about 30 children were exploring the structure in 19 family groups. Some stayed for less than a minute and others for as long as 45 minutes. Although I did not time all of the children entering and exiting the structure, for those I did and in scanning my notes, children who explored with someone else–a parent, sibling, or friend–were staying longer, than those who explored alone.

What’s going on?
Grainland is about moving–up, down, around, and through. Its height, stairs, platforms, spiraling tubes, and spaces that are visible but not directly accessible–invite a range of large motor activity and physical play. Children and adults climb up and down stairs. They reach, stretch, and pull themselves up to the next platform or crouch down and squeeze into a chute. They stretch out and slide; they crawl and scoot on their behinds through tubes and across platforms. They twist and turn to fit into small spaces. 

As children–and adults–move, they are navigating space, playing games, and having conversations. They navigate through the structure following arrows and photographic corn and soybean icons, announcing, “I’m going up to the corn” (Girl, 5 yrs.). Aware that there are multiple trails, some children express an interest in trying another one. Children get an occasional assist from parents such as, “Come through here, then go down there.” Some groups, a sister and brother, a father and son, and a son and his mother explore by following-the-leader.

In this and in other ways, Grainland supports the backyard games and play of many childhoods. There are games of chase with challenges of, “You’ll never catch me!”(Boy, 6 yrs.). Children count to 10 to give someone a head start. Families play monster that may involve being a monster “I’m a monster” as well as pleading for mercy, “Don’t scare us, Mom.” (B. 4 yrs.)

Exploring offers a sense of discovery, “We found another entrance. (B. 6 yrs.); a feeling of confidence, “It wasn’t scary at all.” (B. 6 yrs.); and a sense of accomplishment, “I know how to get to the top of the boxcar.” (B. 6 yrs).

Conversation and content
We often wonder if signs are read. In Grainland, the “Do not enter” signs invited more discussion than the rules, directional signs, or content panels, all of which attracted some attention. I heard children in 4 of the 19 groups talk about these signs including, “They have real do not enter signs.” (B. 5 yrs.) and, “On second thought, we shouldn’t go into the  Do not enter tube.” (B. 6 yrs.)                                                                   Several children stopped at the graphic entry panel showing the grain elevator, looked it over and followed the graphic with their fingers. Back-lit photographic icons of corn and soybeans and interesting facts punctuated the tunnels and chutes so children encountered them as they climbed, made choices, entered tunnels, slid, and exited. References to agriculture, soybeans and corn, and the functions of the grain elevator come through in comments and conversations of 5 of the 19 groups. An 8 year-old girl pointed to the wheel and told her father, “That controls where the grain goes.” Two boys, about 6 and 7 years, read and interpreted signs for each other: “More than half the corn grown in Minnesota is fed to animals.”  

What’s in it for adults?

Grainland is a climbing structure for children and for adults who are a bit adventurous. Its adult-friendly design offers high visibility around the base and through the net panels for a good portion of the structure. Steps and platforms are easy to navigate and give adults the choice of being in proximity to or following their child closely. In about one-third of the family groups I saw, the adult entered and explored the climber with their children. One mother climbed and slid through with her son for about 20 minutes. Parents seem to be the source of information, reading signs, and answering questions. Children also call out to parents from the railing, “Hi Mom!” (B. 4 yrs.) and reassure them of their whereabouts, “You’ll see me come out there…look.” (B. 6 yrs.). Checking in with one another goes both ways with a father calling, “How’ya doing?”

Roughly half of the accompanying adults seem to take an interest in and explore the structure to some extent, including two couples with no children. Of the adults who were not exploring, several spent time at the touch screen while their children were climbing and exploring; 2 talked on their cell phones. One of those was a mother who later climbed through the structure for 20 minutes with her son–a reminder that determining whether a parent is engaged can be a premature conclusion.

How Active?
Grainland is lively. I suspect it is relatively active for this museum and, at the same time, tame compared to other climbers. Not a criticism, this is an observation about a climber's context. The structure was never really crowded. At most about 8 children and 2 adults were distributed here-and-there. It was not thrumming as it might with 20 more children.

Many children left reluctantly, refusing a mother’s inquiry if they were hungry or needed to go to the bathroom. There were promises to parents they would leave after “…just going through one more time.” (B. 7 yrs.) One 7-year old boy announced on leaving that the ladder was his favorite part.

What Do You Know About Climbers?
This exploration of climbing structures is a start. Where to go in the future can depend on your suggestions and questions. For instance:
  • What other aspects of climbing structures, and the experiences and explorations do they support, do you think are important to consider that might I, or others, look at in the future?
  • Do you have observations about children and adults exploring and interacting around museum climbing structures? If so, please send your observations?
  •  What climbing structures would be particularly interesting for you to know more about?



  1. Hi Jeanne. Thanks for this very interesting post. You may remember that the Psychology exhibition had a climbing structure in the enclosed Playspace area for kids 4and under and adult companions. It was included to with labels that talked about the development of gross motor skills and also imaginative play. There was an area under the climber where children would hide and pretend.

  2. Continued. This posted before I was done. I will try to find a photo of climber.

    Also in Fall 2012 Exhibitionist there are 3 critiques of the Pritzket Family Zoo in Chicago. All 3 critics wrote about a climbing structure and were critical of it because they felt developers missed opportunity to link it to relevant content. This issue now print only but will go online end Nov 2013. Good luck w this investigation.

  3. Thank you, Gretchen, for sharing these connections and bringing them into the discussion. I think both the climber in the Psychology exhibit and reviewers of the climber at the Pritzker Family Zoo point to the importance of clarity in framing goals for a climbing structure and for the experiences to be encouraged. There are many possible outcomes related to large motor exploration, problem solving and risk taking; imaginative play; spatial navigation; social negotiation; and engaging with content. At the same time,every climbing structure and experience benefits from– and deserves–a thoughtful approach that takes into account the larger context, climbers' ages and abilities, audience groups, and learning opportunities.