Play facilitation at the Peoria PlayHouse Children's Museum

Playing Together: Engaging Part-Time Floor Staff in Co-Creating the Museum

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The following post appears in the latest issue of Hand to Hand, ACM’s quarterly journal.

By Rebecca Shulman Herz and Kristin Vannatta

This article appears in the most recent issue of Hand to Hand.

About a year ago, I spoke to Janice O’Donnell, former director of Providence Children’s Museum, about training floor staff. Janice shared an experience she had at the InterActivity conference years ago: during a rare moment of quiet on a bus to an evening event, Janice shouted, “Floor staff!” All of a sudden the bus was abuzz, everyone talking about the challenges of hiring, working with, and retaining the team of part-time, entry-level staff who may be the only museum staff members most visitors ever meet.

What can a children’s museum do in order to have floor staff who are knowledgeable, engaged, and invested in the museum? For years I thought of this as a retention challenge: When you find wonderful staff, and their jobs are part-time and underpaid, how do you retain them for more than a year? But now I think of this as a cultural question. How do you create a museum culture in which these valuable staff members are engaged and invested? When there is turnover, how can new staff members quickly become a part of this culture?

What Is Engagement?

Kevin Kruse, founder & CEO of LEADx, an online learning platform that provides free leadership development, has noted that employee engagement is not synonymous with happiness or satisfaction. Rather, it is “the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals. This emotional commitment means engaged employees actually care about their work and their company. They don’t work just for a paycheck, or just for the next promotion, but work on behalf of the organization’s goals.” According to Kruse, engagement is driven by strong communication, opportunities for job growth, recognition, and trust.

When we think about bringing on new staff, we often focus on training: what do they need to know to do their job? In part this is practical—staff need training in order to have the necessary tools and knowledge to admit visitors to the museum, clean toys and exhibits, or sell memberships. It is also efficient, and most museums have developed formal or informal training modules that can be easily repeated when new staff come on board.

While cleaning is critical, it does not lead to an emotional commitment to the museum. It is not why we do what we do. Megan Dickerson, senior manager of exhibitions at the New Children’s Museum, describes the dichotomy between training staff to clean and engaging staff in the museum’s mission as “efficiency vs value.” We often prioritize teaching staff practical skills, like cleaning and resetting, because we know how to do this efficiently. Engaging families in playful learning is of critical value, but we cannot necessarily train efficiently for this. Engagement is individual and emotional; it is not essential for staff to operate the museum at its most basic level, but it is essential in creating a museum that offers visitors and the community a wonderful experience and true value. How do we deeply engage part-time floor staff in our missions, in the importance of the work we—and they—do?

There are as many ways to engage staff as there are organizations. The Peoria Play-House Children’s Museum went through three phases in its experience pursuing staff engagement. The first phase was a grant-driven experiment limited to one of our exhibits; the second was an expansion to all staff. The third, which we are still in the middle of, is an exploration of how far can we push it: what can an engaged floor staff contribute to the museum’s programming and exhibits, and how collaborative can we truly be?

Real Tools: Developing Our Model

In 2017, the PlayHouse was awarded an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant to improve Real Tools, our makerspace. We worked with our evaluation partner, the University of Illinois, to think about what visitors were learning. Time and time again, we returned to the importance of staff in the space, both as facilitators and as experts in the visitor experience. With this in mind, Adrienne Huffman, the PlayHouse’s education coordinator, held monthly meetings during which staff visited children’s makerspaces around the region, read articles, discussed successes and challenges, and identified prototype solutions to these challenges, all rooted in staff experience and informed by readings. Rather than telling staff how to do their jobs, Adrienne developed a space in which staff told us and each other how to do their jobs and improve the exhibit.

On the one hand, this sounds obvious. On the other, most of us know firsthand this is not how many organizations work, or how entry-level part-time staff are often treated. It captures three of the four drivers of engagement Kruse identifies: strong communication (bolstered by monthly meetings), recognition (asking staff to share best practices, and acknowledging they are experts in their work), and trust (allowing staff to drive changes in the Real Tools exhibit).

The results of these monthly meetings exceeded expectations. Because staff were able to prototype different solutions quickly, this exhibit continues to change and improve. Visitors comment on how much they enjoy some of the new solutions, including, for example, information posted on the walls, changes to exhibit signage, and the transformation of individual work stations into a collaborative work table.

Staff began to take ownership of the space in new ways. One staff member, Haley, noted that children often looked at the finished projects on the walls, and wanted to copy what other children had done. She decided to experiment with what we hung on the walls, taking down the finished projects and replacing them with materials samples that could inspire kids. Haley described this as akin to looking at clouds and seeing forms—what can a piece of foam become? An egg carton? Collectively, staff also designed a new drop-in maker program offered monthly on a weekend morning, each dedicated to a specific tool or practice. The first three focused on bookmaking, embroidery, and wood burning.

These weekly meetings were successful in truly engaging Real Tools staff, and improving their work with visitors. It did not stop staff from leaving. We still had staff who graduated, or were hired for full time jobs elsewhere, or moved away. But when new staff join the Real Tools team, they are quickly engaged in the mission of the museum, the seriousness of the work, and the importance of their own voices in making this work better.

APPROACHES TO PLAY FACILITATION

Playwork: “At its most basic level, playwork is about removing barriers to play, and enriching the play environment… The role of the playworker is to create flexible environments which are substantially adaptable or controllable by the children…”
Theatrical Improvisation: “The improvisational mindset is rooted in an open and flexible attitude, based on a set of fundamental principles that are learned through engaging in improvisational games and activities.”
Kaboom / Imagination Playground: Kaboom believes that “The well-being of our communities starts with the well-being of our kids. Kids who live in low-income communities face many structural obstacles to play, such as a lack of safe play spaces or any place to play at all. We want to make it as easy as possible for all kids to learn, explore, grow and just be kids.” Play facilitators do work such as staging materials in fun ways, observing children, building relationships, promoting fair and caring behavior, and encouraging teamwork.
Play Therapy: “Play therapy differs from regular play in that the therapist uses play to help children address and resolve their own problems. Through play therapy, children learn to communicate with others, express feelings, modify behavior, develop problem solving skills, and learn a variety of ways of relating to others.” ()
Montessori Education: “The art of engaging children is at the heart of the Montessori class- room. Capturing interest is the key to motivating further exploration, practice, and mastery…. Adults are tasked with the responsibility of maintaining an enriched environment always prepared for the children’s work.”
Reggio Emilia Education: “The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education views young children as individuals who are curious about their world and have the powerful potential to learn from all that surrounds them…. Reggio teachers employ strategies such as exposing children to a wide variety of educational opportunities that encourage self-expression, communication, logical thinking, and problem-solving.”

Play Facilitation: Expanding the Model

Inspired by the impact of the Real Tools monthly meetings, and supported by PNC Grow Up Great funding, we began to use monthly all-staff meetings to explore play facilitation. Previously, PlayHouse job descriptions classified “playologists” (our term for floor staff) as staff who engage children and families in play, along with straightening, cleaning, and troubleshooting exhibit and visitor problems. However, discussions about play facilitation were not a regular part of our dialogue with floor staff. During training and supervision, the emphasis was on efficiency rather than value, cleaning and resetting rather than learning through play. In the fall of 2018, we launched a meeting series on play facilitation, led by the museum’s education manager, Courtney Baxter. Staff were trained in reflective practice, and encouraged to experiment. They were given free rein to try things that failed, and share these failures, along with their successes.

During 2018 and 2019, we dedicated seven two-hour meetings to different approaches to play, and the role of adults in children’s play. We learned about playwork from the New Children’s Museum, theatrical improvisation from The Engaged Educator, play therapy, Montessori education, Reggio Emilia education, and Kaboom’s approach to working with Imagination Playground. (See above sidebar.) At the beginning of each meeting, staff shared the successes and failures they experienced when experimenting with these new methods. After each presentation, the group brainstormed ways in which these new ideas might apply in our context. For example, staff found the improvisational approach of “yes and…” to be a good tool for building on a child’s creative imaginings. They also valued the play therapy idea of not correcting a child, but rather entering their world. Other approaches were more difficult to relate to daily interactions in the museum, but inspired staff to think about staffing patterns and possibilities in new ways. For example, the Imagination Playground presentation was inspiring, but our playologists were unsure about how to incorporate these methods in the current way we use this interactive block set at street festivals. Perhaps there are other ways we can staff or present Imagination Playground?

This series has helped staff to think about play and play facilitation. Perhaps even more importantly, it has sent a clear message that all staff are empowered to offer visitors the best experience possible at the PlayHouse. This has led to unexpected results. Floor staff have taken responsibility for creating grassroots programming, including staff and visitor dress-up days and storytimes. And staff have created solutions to real problems, such as setting up a scavenger hunt of objects hidden near the entrance in order to keep kids occupied while parents pay or fill out a membership form.

Further, the dialogues that happen during these staff meetings have helped managerial staff get to know part-time, front-of-house staff better. We are learning about their individual strengths and interests, which allows us to find ways to leverage individual talents and passions for the benefit of the museum. This is good for the PlayHouse, but also key to staff engagement: allowing staff to use their personal skills deepens their emotional and intellectual connection to the museum. We can rarely offer promotions in our small museum, but we can work with individuals to tweak roles in ways that are beneficial for everyone.

Co-Creation: Pushing the Model Further

The PlayHouse now has a new structure for all-staff meetings: they are monthly, collaborative dialogues. Of course, sometimes we share information about upcoming exhibits or programs, or conduct safety-related trainings. But we also use these meetings for discussions such as, are the props currently out on the floor working, or should we rethink some of them? If we are able to grow our volunteer program, how do we balance offering volunteers engaging tasks working directly with visitors, while still respecting the interests and abilities of the floor staff who want to engage visitors in educational activities? What are ideas related to programs for next year?

We are finding that by opening up discussion and asking for feedback we can expand the work we do. For example, while planning an event called Enchanted PlayHouse, one floor-staff member decided we needed an area that looked like a pirate ship. So she enlisted her husband to build a pirate ship with her. Visitors loved it.

Not surprisingly, we have unleashed a host of new challenges through this approach. One of the most critical is communication. When staff decide they want to do something—for example, a themed dress-up week—management staff need to know about the event, have the opportunity to voice any concerns, help promote it, and be able to answer questions about it. We used to worry that front-of-house staff were not getting all the information they needed; now we need to address this in the other direction as well.

Another challenge is capturing the results of staff experimentation. We know from discussions during staff meetings that staff are indeed experimenting and finding new ways to interact with visitors on the floor. How do we capture this information, and learn collectively from what has worked and what has failed?

Perhaps the biggest challenge is financial cost. With the new structure of our all-staff meetings, we have committed to gathering and paying part-time staff for two or more hours every month to engage in discussions that, in other museums, are the job of full-time or back-of-house staff. We are always looking for ways to cut expenses, and to many this might seem like an unnecessary one. However, the positive impact on our staff, and then on our visitors, is apparent. And we believe that, in the long run, the cost of an unengaged staff is much higher.

Despite the challenges of continued turnover, communication, or financial strains, a staff that is committed to the museum leads to improved experience for everyone involved. When management demonstrates that all staff are valued and essential to the success of an organization, and that each person has the autonomy to influence that success, we create a culture of fulfillment and engagement. We strongly believe that engaging all staff creates a vibrant and visible culture of valuing individuals that is palpable to visitors. Our mission is to help children become explorers and creators of the world. We engage our staff in this work by empowering them to be explorers and creators of the warm and captivating environment of the PlayHouse. 

Rebecca Shulman Herz has served as the director of the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum since 2015. Previously, she spent fifteen years in art museum education at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Noguchi Museum, both in New York City. Kristin Vannatta was the operations manager of the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum from 2015 until August 2019. Previously, she worked for six years as the volunteer coordinator and operations manager for the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust in Chicago, Illinois.

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