|Photo: Getty Villa|
Children are becoming an increasingly important audience for museums. Several changes and trends have been at play. Children’s museums have rapidly grown in both number and attendance since the early 90’s. Understanding families as powerful, flexible, learning groups in museums has also helped open doors for more museums to serve families with children. Advances in neuroscience continue to reveal both young children’s significant capabilities as well as the life-long implications of early experience. For most science centers and museum, children and families have become a high priority audience. Increasingly, history, art, and natural history museums are also interested in attracting families with children to exhibits, programs, and events.
At the same time that museums work to reach and serve children visiting in school, childcare, family, and community groups, we often do so without a deep understanding about who those children are that we want to serve.
It’s true that the word “children” conjures up a wide range of candidates. “Children” spans the first decade of life when remarkable changes occur in every domain of human development that have life-long implications. A colossal developmental arc embraces the years from birth through 12 years—that’s infants to tweens. “Children” also encompasses living and growing up in wide ranging conditions and social and cultural contexts.
Sometimes to simplify things, we group anyone under 12 as “kids,” maybe “little kids” or “big kids.” When we do get specific, we refer to them by grades in school, even though museums are not schools, but informal learning settings. We sometimes think of children as numbers: 60 children arriving on 2 busses for a 9:30 field trip. Sometimes we say “children” when we are actually referring to someone who is a novice with a narrow range of experience in a relevant area. Yet, we also know many children who are not novices and have expertise in dinosaurs, heavy machinery, or players on a favorite sports team.
If museums intend to welcome and serve children, we need to do so from informed, appreciative, and varied perspectives just as we would for any valued audience group, especially non-traditional museum audiences. In conversations with colleagues, reading articles and blogs I often have the sense that museums view children, what they are doing, and why in critical ways that reflect a limited understanding of children. For instance:
Children are egocentric; they think only of themselves and what they want. This usually means that children are selfish with a rigid “me first” attitude. There’s a finality to these statements that ignores the many contrary examples we see of children’s kindness and caring, a mutuality and reciprocity in their interactions. When paying attention, we see toddlers’ eagerness to be helpful. Research supports this; it shows toddlers are helpful to others in accomplishing their goals suggesting they are naturally altruistic.
“Egocentric” also means understanding the world in terms of oneself. This is something we all do—everyone of us—regardless of age. Our experience of the world and what is familiar to us is core to how we understand the world. This is apparent when 4-year old Jake lays out his timeline of world history: “The dinosaurs, Baby Jesus, the knights, and me.” He’s linking what’s important to him and what he knows to where he fits into the world.
Children have short attention spans. It is true that with development, a child’s attention span develops. Ability to focus and manage distractions increases with the development of executive function. Yet, even young children, including toddlers, are able to be focused and persistent. They are often single minded when something is of interest to them. Who has not marveled at how a very young child intently pores over a book, perseveres in getting a lid off a container, or plays for hours with a cardboard box?
Unwittingly we often reinforce children’s short attention spans. We interrupt them while they are deeply engrossed in play or a project. In museums, at home, at the library, on the playground, a parent, caregiver, teacher, or museum volunteer interrupts a child’s focus with, “Let’s go. We’ll do something else.” If, on the other hand, we were attuned to children’s cues, we would notice their concentration, help manage distractions of sound or traffic, follow their lead, and reduce transitions that interrupt their concentration.
Children will make trouble if they are not closely managed. Children are open to the possibilities of an object or space and they use them in novel ways. They view objects, space, and the world itself for what it might do or how it can be used. This often appears to adults as if children are up to mischief. We have only to think of the times we have seen (and been rattled by) children filling their mother’s sun hat with sand to be reminded that children are not limited by an object’s fixed use. Their alertness to the affordances of an object or space is why a large open area is a command to run and a narrow ledge is a step for reaching a distant object.
In fact, children are experts in being open to possibilities. They see opportunities in upturned chairs as an obstacle course. In tipping chairs upside down, children are not being destructive and uncooperative. They are using the very skills we hope they cultivate: creative thinking, problem solving, and following hunches. Children (and adults) are always finding uses for things for which they were not intended. This is what creativity, ingenuity, resourcefulness, and innovation are about.
Interested, But Uncertain
We don’t notice the multiple ways that children explore, connect, and learn because this happens in more subtle, variable ways than we expect. For instance, children’s interest in exploring big ideas is not always obvious. When 5-year old Andy asks, “Not counting me, how many people would you say there are in the world?” he is thinking hard about big numbers, his expanding world, and his place in it.
Children’s knowledge may not meet adult expectations, agendas, or curricula. What they do know about how sand spills onto the floor, the best way to spin a helicopter, or what makes a good story, is, however, constructed, visible knowledge, and a promising starting point for extensive explorations. Long before they can talk, children have questions. They know more, much more, than they can express clearly with words. They can express ideas, follow hunches, and form new questions with their senses, their bodies, with materials, and with others.
Museums can, however, develop an image of the child that shines a bright light on their strengths and capacities and serve them accordingly. We have well-developed strategies and practices for learning about valued audience groups–observation, research, staff expertise, evaluation, and prototyping. We can be an ally in their exploration and learning by being alert to what fascinates them, holds their attention, and sparks their delight in responding to a material, object, or setting. When we see them use materials in unusual ways, we can ask ourselves, “how else can we see and understand this?” We can then imagine fresh invitations for children to experience a space, objects, an activity, or materials that engage and support them in building foundations for learning that inspire them and us.
We owe this not only to children now, but to our other visitors, to our museums, and to the life-long museum-goers we hope children will become.