Wednesday, August 14, 2019

What Do We Want of Parents and Caregivers?





When I first wrote about parent and caregiver engagement in museums in 2011, it felt like a new topic. Of course, it wasn't, at all. But at the time, I think there was only a fuzzy understanding of the critical role parents, caregivers, and other adults play during museum visits with children. Since then, parent engagement has become an explicit priority in schools,  education circles, out-of-school programs, and research on children's learning and development. Some of the fundamental questions about the role of parents and caregivers in museums, however, are still alive and important to revisit.


What Do We Want of Parents and Caregivers in Museums?

blog post by Marianna Adams during her summer residency at the Gardner Museum provided just the right spark to some thoughts and questions rumbling through my mind. In writing about what museums convey to adults when they engage families in programs, she wrote about how we sometimes keep doing the same thing over and over, neither questioning the underlying assumptions nor paying attention to what’s actually happening. Soon after that, a query on CHILDMUS asked if any museums had figured out how to discourage parents from using their cell phones excessively while at the museum. It went on to say, "We get a lot of complaints about parents not supervising their children and typically it's because parents are on their phones.” About the same time, the agenda for an IMLS project advisors’ meeting I attended included engaging adults. The nature of the comments shared about parents and caregivers was all that was needed for me to wonder: What do we want of parents and caregivers in museums?  

Comments and complaints about parents and caregivers are surprisingly consistent across museums: parents sit, talk on the phone, ignore their child, and take over their child’s project. Staff members are preoccupied with keeping parents off their cell phones and not wanting them to take over their child’s activity which Susan McKay at The Opal School at Portland Children’s Museum aptly characterizes  as a bipolar preoccupation with parents: too involved and not involved enough with their children in museums. There’s a whole lot of territory in between. What do we want parents to do?

In children's museums, adults often comprise 50% of a museum’s visitors. It follows that museums have every reason to think that, if  these adults have chosen this museum as a place that provides an experience they value for their child, then what can the museum do to ensure a great experience for them. 

When museums have expectations that contradict one another about an audience group, that are so vague they aren’t actionable, or that are not shared among front-line staff, security, educators, and designers, it's a problem. The fact is, museums need parents and caregivers to meet their audience goals, museum experience goals for families, and learning goals for children. And while every museum does not want the same thing for parents and caregivers who visit (nor should they), every museum should have a shared framework for understanding parents and caregivers and how to serve and engage them.

True: Not all parents appear ready to be engaged
Serving an audience group well starts with understanding who they are. In this case, they are parents, step-parents, foster parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts; teachers, daycare providers, baby sitters, and nannies; group leaders and day camp counselors. First time and frequent visitors, they may range in age from 20 to 50 or 60 to 90, when grandparents and great grandparents are included. They may accompany a child ranging in age from newborn to 12 or 15 years; operate solo with one or multiple children; or be in a clutch of three relatives hovering over a new grandchild.
Parents and caregivers serve as chauffeur, chaperone, pocket book, navigator, coat holder, stroller pusher, diaper bag holder, referee, and occasional tie-breaker. They are readers, navigators, coaches, role models, and timekeepers. Museum goers in their own right, they are likely to be a learner, a co-learner, or a player. They may be tired, charged with energy, craving coffee or distracted by a problem on the home or work front. Clearly one definition cannot possibly stretch to cover parents and caregivers nor will a single strategy for engaging them serve all.

While every museum intends to serve parents and caregivers well, being prepared to do so goes far beyond good intentions. To offer a positive, supportive, engaging experience for parents and caregivers, a museum needs a planned and organizational approach, developed over time, actively supported and valued, and renewed and refreshed. An ongoing process, a museum may begin by fielding a series of discussions among staff across the museum around four questions.  
  • How Do We View Parents?
  • Are We Building on Parents’ Strengths?
  • What Do Parents Want?
  • How Do We Support Parents? 


How Do We View Parents?
How a museum views the parents and caregivers it wants to serve influences how it shapes experiences and engagement strategies for them and their children. A museum may see them as friends and allies or as foes and obstacles in serving children. In some cases, parents are more or less invisible or incidental to the experiences museum offer. Parents and caregivers are both individuals with interests and preferences as well as adults engaged in a life-long relationship with their children. Is the museum prepared to both engage them as adults as well as in their parent role? Does it intend for them to be active participants in museum experiences or bystanders? 

To address the underlying assumptions about parents and caregivers that are inevitably diverse and complex, a museum needs to make explicit its view of parents and caregivers for its staff. Does the museum see them as learners, co-learners, facilitators, playmates, or tour guides? Perhaps an invented name for the role best captures the image and fits the museum’s experience style and brand: co-creator, play-and-learning partner, or explorer. Or museums may ask parents to name the roles they feel they are playing. A name for the role or cluster of roles brings into focus other attributes of parents and caregivers a museum wants to encourage and engage.

Are We Building on Parents’ Strengths? 
Our contradictory and sometimes negative ideas about parents and caregivers can overshadow the assets and strengths they bring to the museum with their children. Their love and commitment to exposing their child to varied and engaging experiences walks through the doors with every one of them. They bring an invaluable understanding of their child’s interests, skills, and previous experiences that is integral to children benefiting from the rich exhibit and program experiences. 

An essential question is whether the museum is recognizing parents’ competence and valuing that they want to do their best on behalf of their children? Sometimes, a change from a negative to a positive image is necessary. Awhile ago General Mills produced a You Tube video, How To DadIn this video the awesome dad image replaces the stereotype of the dumb, inept dad familiar in commercials and TV shows. A museum doesn’t have to produce its own video, but it may want start looking about and noticing what parents already do well; and where, for instance, the museum unwittingly gets in the way of parents playing their best role. Museum staff may want to learn what, for instance, parents are doing with their cell phones. Perhaps they are photographing or making a video of their children’s or families' experiences to revisit later, something many museums would encourage.

What Do Parents Want? 
Increasingly museums work to engage their visitors in dialogue through focus groups and visitor panels to learn what they want. The studies and plans I am familiar with, however, ask parents about family visits, overlooking the opportunity for critical information about what parents and caregivers want for themselves in a visit. While parents do consider the needs and interests of their children, they are not unaware of their own needs and interests at the museum.
If parents and caregivers pay more attention to their cell phones than their children's explorations, museums might ask if what they are offering is more interesting than  cell phones. Listening to what they want will help attune the museum to parent concerns. Do we know what parents want to get out of a museum visit? What they want for themselves? What signals to them that their participation is encouraged? What does support and encouragement look like to them? Where might a parent want to be during a demonstration or a story? What works for parents as her child climbs through a tree house or ant tunnel? In developing a new exhibit, does the museum ask what interests them about the topic, materials, design, or objects?

How Do We Support Parents?
A shared view of parents and caregivers, built on strengths and shaped by their input requires support in many forms: the physical environment, staff interactions, materials and design. Every museum engages in practices in all of these areas, but they are not necessarily aligned. A shared view can guide museum staff in assessing and tweaking existing practices and cultivating new ones that reinforce a guiding image of the parent and caregiver. How, for instance, does this view and what parents and caregivers say they want translate into:

·       Staff prepared to greet, support, and respond to parents and caregivers as they arrive, get involved, make choices, and, eventually, prepare to leave. Besides a museum’s own customer service training, a program like Wakanheza can prepare staff to support parents handling a difficult moment with their child in public. How does staff scaffolding experiences for children draw parents in? What, as Mariana Adams ask, does having parents stand at the back of the room with their children seated in front tell them about participation in a family program?

·       Environments, exhibits, and programs that take into account what parents and caregivers are concerned about like safety and security, comfort, easy visual access into and across spaces. Where's the seating in relation to activities? How does the high climbing structure that invites children up and away from their adults assure adults of safety and offer them a way to interact?

·       Tools like the Adult Child Interaction Inventory are helpful in exhibit development and evaluation and are related to the adult's role in exhibits.

·       A consistent message delivered in a positive, respectful tone across multiple platforms: greetings, text panels, announcements, publications, wayfinding, and program activities. Parents, like the rest of us, can tell when they are being talked down to or are not included.

·       An approach to cell phone use and devices that is informed, realistic, and in the spirit of what the museum hopes happens for the parents and caregivers it serves, for their children, and for staff.  

Friday, August 2, 2019

Three Types of Fun




Dalston Mirror House, Leandro Erlich, artist

Museums find fun challenging. On the one hand, they want to be places where families, adults, children, friends have fun, and choose to go for a good time. At the same time, museums want to—and need to—matter. They want to be recognized for their value and for contributing long-term benefit to the people and communities they serve.

One way in which museums have thought about managing this tug between being fun and being valuable is viewing themselves as being both nice and necessary. Museums are very nice. They are pleasant places. Children, families, school, and community groups visit museums, have a really good time, and want to return. Being necessary is challenging and requires deep understanding of a community’s promises and challenges.

While thinking about museums as being nice and necessary is somewhat helpful, it presents a dubious dichotomy. Life is not so simple that an episode—a museum visit, tour, conversation, or experience—can be classified as either nice or necessary. Clarifying for whom, and in what time frame quickly becomes complex.

Powerful, Yet Flabby
Fun is powerful as a judgment of an activity, a conversation, or an experience. “That’s a fun place to visit” or “This is fun” endorse a place and what it offers, whether it is food, family time, artwork, or dinosaurs. At the same time, fun is not very precise. In fact, it is flabby in its meaning. A good synonym for fun is elusive. None of the three most common synonyms, amusing, enjoyable, and pleasant, convey the social, exuberant, laugh-out-loud, exhilaration often associated with fun. Neither they, nor fun, hint at the long-term value of a rich moment. When something is not deemed fun, is it the opposite? Is it Dull? Boring? Unpleasant?

Making these distinctions is difficult because fun is situational, contextual, and often personal. Licking an ice cream cone that is melting down one’s arm might be fun for a toddler but not for a businessperson in a fine suit heading to an important meeting. Rock climbing is fun for an accomplished rock climber but not for a novice unprepared for the challenge. Even within a family, team, staff, or group of friends there are likely to be different definitions of fun.

The question of fun, however, is never far away. Regardless of a museum’s size or focus, the role of fun hovers in developing a strategic plan, shaping the visitor experience, presenting a program, and communicating with the audience. What will make people want to visit the museum? Return? Spread positive word of mouth? Feel the goodwill of a great visit?   

Recently at the kick-off meeting with a museum developing a learning framework, the director asked how fun fits into all the discussion about learning. My brief reply was not wholly adequate. Fun runs through the experiential mix of play, special family time, exploring interests, and being inspired.

Only a few days later, at a planning workshop for an emerging museum, the question of fun was also raised. Wasn’t the museum supposed to be fun for children and families? Wasn’t everything supposed to be fun? Silence. Though familiar with this question, I had no good answer. Two members of the group offered examples that, while not resolving the question, shed useful light on it. One person said she runs everyday and has for 20 years. It’s not fun but she looks forward to it and she wouldn’t skip it. Another person said he loves gardening, but it isn’t fun.

Already attuned to this question about fun, I took note when an educator at a charter school referred to Type Three Fun. She then clarified it as an intentional process of co-constructing meaning—a challenging, but satisfying experience. While I wasn’t able to hear what Type One and Two Fun are, the possibility of distinguishing among types of fun seemed promising.

Soon after, I learned that outdoor enthusiasts have a fun scale. Three types of fun capture the realities of active, outdoor adventures, like hiking, skiing, and climbing that are supposed to be fun. Rewarding and invigorating, these experiences can also be demanding and, sometimes, downright miserable.

·       Type One Fun is something that is enjoyable while it is happening and enjoyable reflecting on it. A plan comes together; the challenge is perfect; the weather cooperates.
·       Type Two Fun is miserable while it’s happening, but, in retrospect, it was fun. There might be horrifying moments but they get better in the rear-view mirror.
·       Type Three Fun is not fun at all, not at the time, and not in hindsight.

Roughly in this same territory, is an extreme sport, Tough Mudder, that is considered fun and not enjoyable.

Types of Fun in Museums
A museum of any size offers a variety of experiences, environments, and activities. This is a prime opportunity for a museum to serve an audience diverse in age, backgrounds, interests and expectations with its distinct mix of fun. Inspired by the fun typology of outdoor adventures, while focusing on museums in particular, three types of fun emerge.

Yuri Suzuki Sonic Playground
(Photo credit: Michael McKelvey)
Type One Fun is what we typically think of as fun. Often spontaneous and playful, it is entertaining, straightforward happiness. Beyond an openness to what’s happening and enjoying it, Type One Fun is easy; it demands relatively little effort on our part. Usually it involves sensorimotor engagement: delight in interacting with materials; pretending; seeing or hearing something astonishing; being tickled by something funny. The social aspect of Type One Fun is likely to involve sharing a joke with someone, being infected their laughter, having a shared moment of recognizing incongruity.

Type One Fun can be fleeting, an enjoyable distraction. Consequently, it may not be taken seriously. It should not, however, be dismissed too readily, especially as part of a museum’s rich and varied portfolio of experiences. Type One Fun—exploring air, mirrors, water play, dressing up in costumes—can also be an important addition to sometimes somber museum exhibits and programs.

Examples from all types of museums highlight the open-ended, playful, sometimes comical activities characteristic of Type One Fun that visitors enjoy.  
§  Face painting, with colors and creamy textures, transforms a familiar face and may bring out an inner animal or unknown species of butterfly
§  Making bubbles, creating a pocket of air in a thin iridescent film and watching them float, hover, and burst
§  Walking through the rooms of a house once occupied by a beloved author from childhood
§  Watching live animals at the zoo, noticing their movements, antics, and play, and feeling a connection to them
§  Striking an exact pose in front of a painting or sculpture mirroring the one on view

Type Two Fun is enjoyable engagement punctuated by fun. Both greater agency—choice, freedom, self-direction—and greater investment contribute to this kind of fun. Compared to the jocularity characteristic of Type One Fun, Type Two contains elements of amusement and gratifying moments of social, physical, emotional, or intellectual connection. The drama or beauty of phenomena such as a plasma globe; seeing ourselves in a new or unusual way; reconnecting with a favorite painting, place, or person in an interesting settings; or cleverly engineering a paper airplane design combine the engagement, accomplishment, and delight of Type Two Fun.

Type Two Fun: Seeing ourselves in
new ways (Photo credit: Vergeront)
Playing with context can shift the fun value in the museum fairly easily. Add a clown face to a rocket launcher target; set up hula hooping for 50 visitors; or climb through TapeScape the climbing structure made of lengths of clear tape. Sometimes fun is more apparent in hindsight, telling others about it, or revisiting the pleasure of a small triumph. Type Two Fun captures what many museums do well that visitors enjoy and remember.
§  Being mesmerized by the slow movement of a giant pendulum or wave action in a huge wave tank
§  Doing something we don’t usually get to do: seeing a giant fossil up close; climbing to the top of a lighthouse
§  Keeping a copter hovering in a wind column for an extended period of time because of a particularly clever design
§  Pulling off an impressive building project of cardboard construction or Keva Planks with others
§  The Grossology exhibit exploring the science in the human body and its many and sometimes messing, amusing, and impolite expressions  

Type Three Fun is situated in the rich and meaningful experiences of challenge and complexity and related feelings of deep satisfaction. Unlike the immediate burst of happiness of Type One Fun, engaging in Type Three Fun involves an awareness that something is both enjoyable in the present and meaningful beyond it. Playing with ideas, being inventive, watching a family member accomplish something difficult, and being in the presence of something extraordinary create powerful moments that delight, transfix, and lift the spirit. The social aspect of fun also has a presence in Type Three Fun, when we work with others towards a common goal, connect with someone around a powerful experience, or share personal stories.

National Museum of Mathematics
(Photo credit: Vergeront)
Of course, not everything is fun. Museums present stories with unhappy endings, feature events with tragic outcomes, and ask hard questions with no easy answers. Finding a delicate balance of content, compelling approach, opportunity for reflection, and making meaning can create a moment of lightness, beauty. And sometimes humor is the best way to make the unbearable bearable.  

Museum examples of Type Three Fun reflect the complexity and opportunity of challenging topics that many visitors find rewarding.
§  National Museum of Mathematics offers insights into puzzles, patterns, and the beauty of structures—surprises and fun for some—while anxiety producing for others
§  Climate change, a complex topic that is difficult to grapple with, can be explored through stunning representations of changes that are occurring, distressing future scenarios, and playful experimentation with airflow
§  Body Worlds navigates topics of healthcare and anatomy with the strange and sometimes disturbing beauty of dissected human bodies
§  Mining the Museum, Fred Wilson’s 1992 installation at the Maryland Historical Society, juxtaposed slave shackles and a whipping post with beautiful, elegant 19th century objects
§  Race: Are We So Different both looks at the complex topic of human variation and celebrates our differences

Playing with Fun
Museums are unlikely to make everything over-the-top fun. Yet, they can give fun an honored presence and create an intentional experiential mix that brings together all types of fun to serve and connect with their wide range of visitors. When they are attuned to dimensions of the three types of fun, museums can create more openings for fun.

Along with sharing elements of humor, playfulness, or enjoyment, the three types of fun also take place in a physical context, are social, and involve engagement.

Fun’s origins are varied, subtle, and sometimes surprising. They include intellectual wit and nonsense; hyperbole and drollery; incongruity and spontaneity; the whacky, the weird, and the wonderful. Fun can emerge from an off-kilter take on a subject, something amazing we can’t do anywhere else, and something utterly familiar and daily.   

The physical context in which fun is situated, matters: objects, materials, scale, environmental features, views, and adjacencies. A zoo might place a bench for watching animal antics. A museum might place a mirror over head for a surprising view. A ridiculous theme like a carnival may be the backdrop for outer space exploration. What about Morning yoga in the Asian galleries or sculpture park?

Fun requires a friendly setting where people feel welcome, come together, and are available to enjoy the moment. Museums are just those kinds of places. Feeling a sense of connection to others feels good. Laughter and smiles are contagious. Remembering a happy time with friends casts a warm glow. At the same time, fun and indifference do not mix. Each type of fun requires some effort, some investment. We must be paying attention, imagining, making connections, choosing, listening, remembering, taking photos, taking a risk...if we want to have fun.

What kinds of fun do visitors find and enjoy at your museum?