Results from a Study of Play in U.S. Children’s Museums

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Led by the Association of Children’s Museums and the University of Washington’s Museology Graduate Program, the Children’s Museum Research Network (CMRN) formed in 2015 with funding from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services. For the past year, CMRN has contributed an article to each issue of Hand to Hand to disseminate their findings with the field. The following article was shared in the Spring 2017 issue, “Children’s Museums Go Outside.” Stay tuned to the blog for more articles from CMRN! 

By Nicole R. Rivera, Ed.D. and Susan M. Letourneau, Ph.D.

Background:

For the past two years, the Children’s Museum Research Network (CMRN) has been examining how children’s museums define their learning value. CMRN consists of leadership from ACM and the University of Washington’s Museology Graduate Program, and a first cohort of ten children’s museums. In the network’s first study, the group analyzed learning frameworks from five network institutions and conducted interviews with senior staff. These conversations revealed three key issues that museums grappled with in their frameworks: the learning approaches they use, the learning outcomes they might measure, and the role of play in their missions and practices. Of these three issues, play stood out as a critical topic for further study. Although it is a defining characteristic of children’s museum experiences, even the small group of museums within CMRN took very different positions on play—it was central for some but peripheral for others. Based on this initial observation, CMRN wanted to survey a larger sample of museums to look for field-wide trends. The research question for this study was: How do children’s museums conceptualize play and its role in their missions?

Methods:

CMRN members interviewed senior staff at forty-nine children’s museums in the United States. Participating museums varied in geographical region, size, and location (urban, suburban, rural), and the overall sample was representative of ACM’s membership. Staff who took part in the study oversaw the design or implementation of learning experiences at their institutions (including senior education/exhibit staff and executive directors). In order to gain an institutional perspective, interview questions focused on the role of play in each museum’s mission, the ways that museums defined or talked about play in internal conversations and documents, and their institutional perspectives on the connection between play and learning (see inset). After completing the interviews, the network reviewed the transcripts to identify themes in participants’ responses.

Results:Figure 1: Role of play in mission

The majority of participants in the study said that play was vital to their mission. The word “play” appeared in the mission statements of 57 percent of the museums, and in 14 percent of other statements (e.g., value statements). Another 31 percent of participants stated that play was implied by other words like “discovery,” “fun,” or “imagination.” When asked to describe the role of play in their missions, interviewees offered a range of perspectives (Figure 1): Some described their museum’s philosophy about play as an avenue for learning and socioemotional development, others described institutional cultures that valued play or created space for children to play, and others described their efforts to raise awareness about play’s importance.

See Figure 1: Role of play in mission

Figure 2: Nature of definition of play, whether written or notDespite the importance of play to their missions, only 29 percent of participants said their museum had a definition of play they used internally; this definition was written down in just 10 percent of the sample. However, interviewees said their museums had strong beliefs about play that were not necessarily codified in a formal document. When giving more detail about how they talked about play in internal discussions (Figure 2), many said that staff at their institutions tended to describe play as a mechanism for learning (e.g., “children learn about the world through play”), while others said their conversations centered on characteristics or types of play that happen at the museum (e.g., pretend play, open-ended experiences), or the design and educational practices they use to encourage play (e.g., facilitation, hands-on exhibits).

Figure 3: Relationship between play and learningWhen describing the relationship between play and learning from their institution’s perspective (Figure 3), most said their institutions believed play was a process through which learning happens, while a smaller number said play was a learning process but also a valuable outcome in itself, or that playing and learning were equivalent or inseparable. Participants also described a variety of benefits of play, including cognitive, social, and emotional skills and outcomes.

See Figure 2: Nature of definition of play, whether written or not, and Figure 3: Relationship between play and learning

Implications:

This study showed that the children’s museums represented strongly value play as important to their missions, and consider play to be a mechanism for learning and a way of supporting multiple facets of children’s development. This view closely aligns with existing research on play and its value. Nevertheless, children’s museums seldom defined play or how it leads to learning in a formal way within their institutions.

The network conducted this field-wide study not only to document the breadth of views on play within children’s museums, but also to tap into ongoing discussion about this topic to move the field forward. The Association of Children’s Museums states that “children’s museums are places where children learn through play and exploration in environments designed just for them” (“About Children’s Museums”)—in other words, that play is central to the learning value of children’s museums. This study speaks to the need for museums to articulate how they believe play experiences contribute to different forms of learning and discuss the specific aspects of play they emphasize. Such conversations would help children’s museums argue for their unique learning value and advocate more effectively for the value of play in the communities they serve.

The questions posed in this set of interviews could provide a useful starting point for these types of discussions. For the individuals who participated in this study, reflecting on their institutions’ perspectives prompted concrete action in the following months. The network sent a follow-up survey to participants approximately six months after they had completed the interview to inquire about any activities or conversations that were prompted by the interview. In this follow-up, a majority of participants (57 percent) reported speaking with a coworker about play and their museum, and 58 percent reported taking additional action to seek information or reflect on institutional practices related to play.

CMRN’s goal is to foster the field’s capacity for research. An important part of research is the dialogue that emerges as result of the process. Just as the research process stimulated conversation and further action for many participants, all children’s museums can also benefit from starting similar conversations in their own institutions.

Sample interview questions from the CMRN study

• Is play in your museum’s mission statement? What is the role of play in your museum’s mission?
• How important is play to your museum’s mission (on a scale of 1 to 7)?
• When was the last time you were part of a conversation among staff at your museum that was even loosely related to play?
• Does your museum have a definition of play? Is this definition written down?
• How would you describe the relationship between play and learning?
• What are the benefits of play?

Nicole R. Rivera, Ed.D., assistant professor of psychology at North Central College, participates in the Children’s Museum Research Network as the DuPage Children’s Museum’s Academic Research and Evaluation Partner.

Susan M. Letourneau, Ph.D., research associate at the New York Hall of Science, studies family interactions and learning through play in museum settings, and previously held a collaborative research and evaluation position with Providence Children’s Museum and Brown University.

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