Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Engaging Parents and Caregivers

A short history of viewing and serving parents and caregivers in museums might go something like this. For decades, many museums, art and history museums in particular, were for adults as off-duty parents and caregivers. In children’s museums, parents were viewed as drivers and pocket books that brought children to the museum. Caregivers of many different kinds accompanying children to museums were lumped together with teachers and parents. More recently, parents and caregivers, or parental adults, are recognized for their interest in family spaces in art museums, science centers, and children’s museums and their roles and value in extending and supporting children’s experiences. In some parts of the country serving multi-age, multi-generational families is a high priority.

While recognizing the value of the parental adult has grown, clarity about their role and how to support them in museums has not similarly increased. Comprehensive approaches with related strategies for engaging and supporting parents and caregivers in extending children’s explorations and having a satisfying museum experience themselves, are lacking.

I have some observations about the nature of this challenge from my involvement in several studies with parents and caregivers, master planning for expansion, developing learning frameworks, reading professionally, and making countless museum visits observing caregiver-child interactions.

Parents and caregivers in museums comprise a very diverse group. They are parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nannies, baby sitters, neighbors, day care providers, camp counselors, scout leaders, field trip chaperones, and teachers. They are also museum staff and volunteers. They are stepparents and foster parents; new parents and experienced parents; parents of one child and of many children. They are first time and frequent visitors.  

Some have a long-term relationship with the child while others have met the children in their field trip group minutes before boarding the bus. Yet, they also have a few things in common: an interest in the child and confidence in the museum as a safe, interesting place for children. Still, it’s quite a mix.

The parent and caregiver role in museums is complex and dynamic. We have only to think about the
homeschooling adult who is both teacher and parent to recognize how intermingled and constantly shifting adult roles are in a museum. Some recognizable roles have been identified by Dr. Lorrie Beaumont in her research in children’s museums. The Adult Child Interaction Inventory identifies 6 roles: the Player, Facilitator, Interpreter, Supervisor, Student of the Child and Co-learner. This is a helpful perspective, but parents and caregivers also chaperone, hold coats, monitor, observe, manage conflict, push strollers, and comfort children. They are often multi-tasking. In an interview conducted recently, a mother of 5 children in a science exhibit in a public library described what she was doing as observing, answering her child’s question, and changing a diaper.      

Parents and caregivers want to do well with and for their children. Parents and caregivers have every intention of doing their best on their children’s behalf. Multiple factors, however, can overwhelm their best intentions to engage actively and intentionally with their child during a museum visit as well as in the everyday moments of life. In any one setting, parent and caregiver engagement with children will assume many forms with individual and cultural variations in playing out. Parents and caregivers observe, sit back, listen, take photos, talk, grab a moment of respite, check email, or direct the activity. They praise, cajole, and challenge. Depending on the moment, a parent or caregiver’s interaction may be misconstrued as disinterested, controlling, or intuitive.

Whatever a museum’s caregiver goals and strategies for engagement are–and they vary from one museum to another–they need to build on an assumption of good intentions, strengthen the adults’ position, and support their relationships with their children.

Parents and caregivers help museums accomplish their goals. Often the ways they do this are barely visible to museums. Parents and caregivers have valuable information about their children that is relevant to exploring exhibits and activities. They know the child’s passionate interest, a favorite activity, how she responds to new situations, and the signs of mounting frustration. A visit to the museum is also an opportunity to act on goals they have for their children, to encourage their child to try something new, persist when something is difficult, deal with failure, or feel a sense of accomplishment.

When they observe, monitor risk, and step in to avoid mishaps, parents and caregivers contribute to a safer museum environment. Their conversations about what’s happening, modeling how to do something, and reading instructions advances the museum’s learning agenda. We know that in museums children engage more and in more complex ways in exhibits with adult involvement. By asking questions, making connections with previous experiences, and adding information, parents and caregivers enrich and deepen the experience. Just as they make connections with what happened yesterday, they extend the experience afterwards, at home, at the store, on a family trip, or reading a bedtime story.

The parent and caregiver relationship with the child is a third presence to serve. Besides the child and the adult, there is their relationship. While this may be true of every dyad in museums, it is especially significant for adults and children. At any moment 3 agendas are at play: the child’s, the adult’s, and the long-term, on-going, powerful relationship between them. From research and experience, we know the role of parents and caregivers is critical in children’s lives, prenatally, right on through life, at home, school, and in museums.

This relationship may be a close emotional bond between parent and child or a supportive connection between a child and key adult. In either case, such relationships are important for emotional development and fostering development of a healthy sense of belonging, self-esteem, and wellbeing. They are based on trust, nourished by time together, and they deepen familiarity. Built on shared experiences from other settings and times together, connections are strengthened by opportunities to explore and discover new ways of being together. Conversations that take place in the museum may have started weeks ago and may continue for months ahead. 

The following selected Museum Notes blog posts address some of the dimensions of engaging parents and caregivers, related challenges, and exemplars. Can we give parents and caregivers a reason to be interested in the museum content–whether it is their child or a topic of interest? What do parents and caregivers say they want? What do museums want of parents and caregivers? While there are many ways to address these questions, addressing them effectively relies on actively engaging, listening to parents and caregivers, and learning from parents and caregivers.

WhatDo We Want of Parents? Adults in children’s museums generally comprise about half of the visitors. That’s a very large number considering children’s museums serve more than 30 million visitors annually. In spite of this large number of parental adults on whom we count  to the museum attend with their children, we vacillate between wanting them to be more attentive to their children (get off their phones) and not wanting them to interfere with child-directed experiences.  

Parent Voices, New Insights: Regardless of their child’s age or gender, parents and caregivers are thinking about and providing for an amazing range of considerations about their children and their museum visit. Even when parents and caregivers sit back and seem to be sitting back and uninvolved, they are much more tuned into their children and the serious work of being good parents and grandparents than we are inclined to assume.

Strengthening Parent Engagement: While the imperative for effective parent and caregiver involvement in museums is clear, the strategies for doing so are less clear. Museums are often in search of ways to connect with parents and caregivers. They lack the structured and daily opportunities to interact with parents and caregivers that schools and childcare centers have. Nevertheless, they have some distinct and promising opportunities they can exercise more fully and effectively than they currently do. 

Messaging With Parents and Caregivers in MindBecause parents and caregivers play a crucial role in their child’s museum experiences (and on-going development), museums want to engage and communicate with them. How to do so effectively is always a question. When museums bring parents and caregivers together and listen to them, they gain some useful, sometimes surprising, insights that challenge assumptions.

Adult-Child Connection: First Person: It’s all well and good to think in the abstract and write about parents and caregivers at the museum with their children. Being there, with them, in the moment, however, brings a rich does of reality to what parents and caregivers experience minute by minute. I gave myself a “so-so with a few bloopers” mark on a visit to a children’s museum with my great niece and nephew.