Thursday, January 21, 2016

Messaging With Parents and Caregivers in Mind

Some years ago, I was writing text for a science exhibition for young children–well, actually for their parents and caregivers. I wrote, “Play is joyful exploration. Add a spirit of inquiry and building play becomes science play.” After reading it, a colleague asked whether this elegant turn of phrase was what parents were interested in reading as they watched their child hustle to the top of the climber or build ramps. His question hit home and I hit the delete button.

So often we write labels and text for what we want to say or how we like to write. While an obvious starting point, it’s one that excludes the very crucial audience for whom we are writing. Writing text is tricky. Presenting the right amount of digestible content with an appropriate and engaging tone and without jargon is a challenge compounded by considerations of length, font size, and design.

While true for every museum, for museums serving children, the challenges multiply. For instance, while adults are the ones reading text panels, they are reading for both themselves and their children. Only some of those children are readers themselves, but all are active, mobile learners and curious explorers. An adult reading a label is very likely also keeping an eye on a child–or several children of different ages–following each, alert to their safety, and making sure everyone is having a great time.

Clearly parents and caregivers play a crucial role in their children’s museum experience. Labels and messages are integral to this complex choreography. In spite of all our cherished hopes of how a label enhances an experience, it may also distract an adult’s attention, be ineffective delivering information, intimidate a parent or caregiver, or encourage an adult to launch a lecture.

Effective ways to message to parents and caregivers has been drawing the attention of exhibit developers and designers, educators, visitor service staff, and researchers working in and with children’s museums and science centers. An important element in advancing museum missions and meeting their goals for children, this focus also supports one of 8 areas in the Association of Children’s Museums’ research agenda: understanding and supporting adult–child learning.

A group of museums I have been following have been exploring how to communicate with and engage parents and caregivers in order to support and extend their child’s exploration. They listen to parents and caregivers about their expectations and needs and act on what they hear. Building on what others in the museum field are doing and learning, they engage in their own process that generates new questions and experiments. Often they are developing a larger toolkit of experiences and activities, images, staff training, and media to support parents and caregivers. Through this process, they find themselves refining their own pedagogy, approach, and thinking.

Inquiring Museums
                Partners in Play has been a collaborative research project conducted by 3 Washington children’s museums, Children’s Museum of Tacoma, Imagination Children’s Museum (Everette), and KidsQuest (Bellvue). The 2013-2014 study Lorrie Beaumont and I conducted for the 3 museums focused on learning from parents and caregivers how they view their child’s play at a children’s museum and their role supporting it.

Interviews with 96 parents and caregivers visiting the 3 museums with children 2-7 years provided interesting glimpses into play and the parent and the caregiver role. Across the 3 museums, parents and caregivers saw play primarily as learning, imagining, and creating. They characterized their roles in supporting their child’s play in a wide variety of ways (observer, supporter/facilitator, family role, friend/playmate, teacher and supervisor/guardian); at the same time, they saw that they had a role to play. In playing these roles, parents and caregivers saw themselves as extending learning, creating an intimate bond with the child, and providing safety and security. Each of the museums subsequently conducted an action research project probing parent and caregiver perceptions based on the research results.

                Chicago Children’s Museum (CCM) and Gyroscope, Inc. designed SKYLINE, (2007) an exhibit offering free-form construction experiences designed to engage families in social learning. One intention of the project was to explore approaches for increasing caregiver involvement in children’s informal science learning.
Skyline Chicago Children's Museum
One strategy in particular addressed this objective. A set of graphic panels on the exhibition walls provided examples of what a caregiver might say as part of an interaction. Using photographs of real visitors in the exhibit and actual quotes in both English and Spanish, the signs were huge. Text was kept to a single line, readable at a glance.

The approach was grounded in observations of how often families model from each other. Without lecturing or being didactic, the signs also allowed the museum to indirectly provide tips on how to use building materials. Finally, by mirroring conversations they might have with their children and modeling interactions, the panels suggested that caregivers have an important role in supporting their children's learning. Another focus of the project, creating a research platform that could contribute new understandings of family learning to the field, is still in process as the museum looks to research how the exhibit functions with and without the signs.

                In 2013, The Children’s Museum, Indianapolis (TCM) drew on CCM’s work to test approaches to signage in their new Playscape exhibit for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. In 2 focus groups, mothers were asked to consider 3 approaches to signs they might find in the exhibit, which approach would be most helpful to them, and how. One was a kind of parent tip, or suggestion for a parent or caregiver to think or talk about in the exhibit. Another offered basic information about child development. The third, using the CCM example, had a sample question or comment a parent or caregiver might use, noting that quotes would be paired with a photo of a parent and child playing together.

Playscape, The Children's Museum, Indianapolis
Both focus groups were unhappy with the first approach; the label copy inferred that parents didn’t know what to do with their children. The second approach received a mixed review because of text length and information available online about developmental milestones. The third approach received a positive response. Participants said they read this as a suggestion, rather than a direction, offering something concrete to use or say while playing with their children.

                In 2015, Kentucky Science Center (KSC) opened Science In Play, a 11,000 square foot early science learning space. Designed with Hands On!, the new permanent exhibit built on what KSC and Hands On! learned from two 5,000 square foot experimental versions. These versions allowed the collaborators to test and expand on concepts like the Shapes & Stuff Store and explore communication strategies.

Science In Play, Kentucky Science Center
The exhibit iterations allowed KSC to explore and try different approaches to communicating with parents and caregivers. More than just different drafts, this approach involved substantial rethinking and evolution. The first round focused on connecting science and play, as in, “Play is joyful exploration. Add a spirit of inquiry…”

KSC heard from parents that they “didn’t care” about the science. Rather they were interested in how to build on their child’s play behavior and support the learning embedded in it. In the next round, text focused on a child’s activity in terms of school readiness skills. This approach took a friendly tone as if an experienced friend were standing by, modeling and scaffolding interactions and conversations with a child. A conversation between the executive directors of these organizations describes the process of developing the communication strategy.     

                Providence Children’s Museum (PCM) has been engaged in a succession of investigations into the connection between play and learning for children and adults. Interested in developing new ways to support adults’ awareness and appreciation of children’s learning through play, PCM has looked at what caregivers understand about learning through play and translated this into exhibit text.

Play Power, Providence Children's Museum
A formative evaluation focused on signs in the Play Power exhibit that describe play’s value for various aspects of children’s development. Caregiver interviews revealed that signs were perceived as somewhat vague; they reinforced existing beliefs without conveying novel or interesting information about play’s value. And even as many adults believed that children did learn through play, they were uncertain about whether children really were learning at the museum and what was learned. Furthermore, while caregivers did notice behaviors in their children that they viewed as indicating thinking or engagement, they didn’t necessarily link play behaviors with learning without prompting from a staff person.

Guided by input that indicated caregivers were interested in why behaviors they had seen in their own children were important and what these behaviors could show about children’s learning, PCM edited its signs. Play Power signs shared a consistent structure that:
Began with, “Through play…” and identified one skill that children learn or practice by playing.
• Placed “kids” as the subject of every sentence and used active verbs.
Used thinking behaviors that were observable in children’s play and recognized by caregivers.
Linked a specific behavior with what children gain from it.

In a follow-up set of interviews, revised text elicited much richer responses from caregivers than the original signs had.

Worth Noting
These are the briefest of overviews of informal studies done for different reasons at museums of different sizes. All their implications can’t be discussed here. Furthermore, the focus of each study is somewhat different and none, as far as I know, have been adequately researched to really test these approaches.

Yet, a few observations are worth noting. First, consistent among these studies is a stance of being highly responsive to parent and caregiver perspectives. Also there is an interesting convergence among the findings. They cluster into 3 areas that work well together, if not actively support one another.

Parents and caregivers are interested in connections between children’s play and learning being made explicit. Both PCM and KSC heard from parents that they were interested in why behaviors they had seen in their own children were important and what these behaviors could show about children’s learning. One implication is that parents and caregivers appear to be less interested in content, such as science or child development, than is often assumed. This also came through at both KSC and TCM. By making connections between play and learning, thinking and learning, or a behavior and a readiness skill, museums are providing something both valued by parents and caregivers and hard for them to find elsewhere.

Parent and caregiver roles and interactions are supported by a clear, overarching message. Trying to communicate too many messages can interfere with communicating any one of them effectively. One basic, distilled message powerfully delivered can support multiple cues and hints. Chicago Children’s Museum’s overarching message may be: there is a role for parents and caregivers in children’s play and exploration. At the same time, CCM layered several ideas into its wall panels. Realistically, one idea, or message, will be presented and supported in many ways–written, verbal, images, and media–in briefer and more complete versions.

A corollary to this finding, supported by the interviews in the Washington study, is that parents and caregivers appear to want a role to play. Roles for parents and caregivers should be planned for and clear.

Parents and caregivers need highly readable signs. Signs are in the fiercest of competition with children for parents’ and caregivers’ attention. Adults may be reading while moving, comforting, at a distance, and (or) in a nanosecond. At their best, signs claim some of that attention, distracting them as briefly as possible. Highly readable signs need to be short and quickly read as both CCM and TCM noted. A consistent sign structure like PCM’s facilitates parents’ and caregivers quickly accessing information assisted by a predictable format. Positioned for readability places signs high on walls, as at CCM, or where children spend more time (because adults are also more likely to spend more time), as at PCM. CCM’s signs were huge which made a single line of text easy to take in. Dual language text, for instance, English and Spanish, makes messages accessible to more parents and caregivers–and also doubles the amount of text–to underscore the need for brevity. Finally, tone matters, as the two TCM focus groups indicated.

This important area of inquiry for museums serving children is undoubtedly engaging other museums. I invite other museums exploring similar questions to share their word and where they have landed. On similar findings or something different? What’s working and what isn’t?

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