Monday, November 7, 2016

When Play’s the Thing ... 27+ Things You Can Be Doing at Your Museum

The Beach at The National Building Museum (Photo: Noah Kalina)

Museums are among the few public institutions where play is not only tolerated, but is encouraged. Play has a presence across museums and it is not strictly for children. At The Strong, National Museum of Play, it is the focus of the entire museum. Sometimes the topic of an exhibit, or a strategy for exploration in programs, play might also be the inspiration for reimagining exhibit experiences as the National Building Museum did at The Beach. Games are used to enhance learning in museums just as role-play is used to bring history to life. Science museum exhibits are designed to create playful learning experiences. Increasingly, museums are adding nature play experiences as the Museum of Life and Science has with Hideaway Woods. Play is sometimes a question explored as it was at a Toledo Museum of Art installation.

Concern with learning, well-being, and 21st century skills has given a boost across museums to better understanding how play intersects with creativity, language development, learning, health, and social-emotional development. Not surprisingly, this positions play as a driving idea in many museum learning frameworks.

But how do we understand play? As pervasive as it is, understanding play is no simple matter. Play is complex and multi-faceted with multiple theories of play, various play taxonomies, and different types of play. Because it is familiar and we already know about it, we often assume that play is self-explanatory. Play is at the intersection of multiple disciplines but not an established academic discipline itself; it is unlikely that staff with degrees in play studies will guide a museum’s exploration of play. Yet, like any cornerstone idea for any museum, having a shared understanding of play is invaluable.

Are you and your museum grounded in play? What aspects of play are important at your museum? What is its role in the museum? How does it relate to other priorities and how does it contribute value? Answering these questions is not quick and easy, nor is digging deeper to be more grounded in an understanding of play. There are, however, ways to go about answering them. 

Get started by jumping in anywhere in the activities below. Proceed in no particular order.
  1. Play. Play yourself. Play with blocks, bubbles, pieces of fabric, sticks, large pieces of fabric, cardboard boxes, tape, stones.  
  2. Read about play: articles, journals, blogs, reports, and books.  
  3. Invite and collect childhood play memories from staff and board.
  4. Compile collected play memories, combing through them for threads and themes. Incorporate
    What are staff play memories?
    some into the annual report, the museum’s website, grant proposals.
  5. Develop a definition of play for your museum with your colleagues.
  6. Compare your museum’s definition of play with those from 2-3 other museums.
  7. Gather 5 definitions of play from researchers and theorists.
  8. Add more loose parts to exhibits, programs, outdoor spaces, increasing the variety and quantity.
  9. Think about and explain how those loose parts will inspire and extend play; incorporate these ideas into staff training.
  10. Hire people who are OK with loose parts that are varied and that migrate among exhibits.
  11. Observe play in your museum: families at play, couples at play, children at play.
  12. Record observations about play in your museum. What kinds of play are you seeing? What does it look like? 
  13. How do families play together?
  14. From your observations, identify 3 examples of how visitors appear to be learning through play.
  15. Talk with other staff about play. How does it look in different exhibits; among children of different ages, for children with different needs and abilities; for teens and adults?
  16. Practice distinguishing among different types of play: dramatic play, constructive play, exploratory play.
  17. Carefully read graphic panels in your galleries. What do they convey about the museum's interest 
    in play? 
  18. Dig into the differences among pretend play, imaginative play, and dramatic play. Are there any? Is one better suited to your museum? Why?
  19. Observe play in different settings outside the museum: on playgrounds, in parks, in stores, on street corners, and in natural settings.
  20. Talk with parents about play: how do they see their child’s activity at the museum in relation to play? How do they see their role in facilitating it? How do they see play connecting with learning?
  21. Talk with teens and with adults about play and how they see themselves playing.
    Play with staff (Photo credit: Fantastic Norway)

  22. Develop a perspective on games and gaming for your museum.
  23. Look at other “big ideas” at your museum like early literacy, creativity, inquiry, making, learning, exploring, executive function, etc. How does play connect with them? Draw, map, or explain the connections.
  24. Develop 3 questions you want to know more about play. Figure out how to go about answering them.
  25. Develop a perspective on the role of adults in children’s play at your museum.
  26. Locate responsibility for play in position descriptions.
  27. Set up play training for museum staff–all museum staff.
  28. Sign up for play training for yourself.
  29. Search for play taxonomies: Bob Hughes, Corinne Hutt, Mildred Parten, Dr. StuartBrown.
  30. Develop a logic model for play and its outcomes at your museum. 
  31. Play. Play with staff. 


  1. Wow Jeanne! This is an amazing post, and full of wisdom about how to teach yourself to discern richness in play. I know I will be returning to it again and again and sharing it.

    At a recent planning meeting for next years interactivity, with a more than a dozen museums represented in the room, we started the meeting with an icebreaker suggested by Vito Gioia from Kohl - along with our name, everybody said how they like to play. There was amazing diversity in the room. And I was really surprised by my own reaction to what other people think is fun- some people said being in nature ( you have to bribe me with pastry to get me to go for a walk). A few said sports (the closest that I ever got to that kind of play was marching band). Several talked about playing with their kids. I said I like playing in my head - making things up either alone, or in conversation with others -

    I've been thinking about that when I'm doing exhibit design, about how fun is a relative concept-and one key to getting the general public to play is to pack in myriad pathways within one exhibit.

    Anyway, thanks for your blog! I always learn something.

  2. What a treat, Jen, to hear your experience of sharing childhood recollections about play with colleagues. Yes, there's richness and variety there and waking up to our own preferences in reflecting on such questions. I think there are questions we are dying to be asked, but don't really know it until we are asked. Questions about play is one of them. I have used this approach to uncover "childhood autobiographies" in exploring environments we remember playing in ( and what community felt like to us as children ( Your phrase, "teach yourself to discern richness in play" is terrific; training ourselves to see and notice more in play, exhibit pathways, how visitors interact, how we listen to each other is very powerful. Thank you!

  3. Fantastic post with a tons of things we can do when we are in a museum tour to enjoy and have fun, thanks for share