Helping kids fall in love with non-interactive museum exhibitions

Without buttons to push, levers to pull, or paper airplanes to fly, some museum exhibitions just aren't very interactive. What's a parent to do? Goldman Sachs Fellow for Early Learning Sarah Erdman explains how to engage kids in observation activities that feel hands on.

Hands-on and interactive opportunities in museums are great for kids. But what if there aren't any?
Hands-on and interactive opportunities in museums are great for kids. But what if there aren't any?

As a mom who works at the museum, I'm often asked for recommendations on what other families should see when they visit the museum. In one of these conversations with a friend whose son is the same age as mine, I immediately recommended America on the Move. I told her it had all the trucks, trains, and cars that her toddler could desire.

"Great," she said. "Is it interactive?"

My immediate response was, "Oh yeah, it's super interactive..." and then I stopped. Mentally reviewing the exhibition, I realized that, for the pre-reading crowd, America on the Move actually is not interactive in the typical definition.

There is excellent audio of the objects chugging and whoo-whoo-ing, there is a video of movie clips and the model of the Chicago L that you can "ride" on was a favorite of my pre-school classes and is now where my son beelines when we visit. But beyond that, there's not much for my toddler to "interact" with in the exhibition.

So, why was my first response to say "yes" that it is an interactive exhibit? Honestly, it is because there is so much to look at and, when done right, observation can be the most powerful kind of interaction. The colors, the scale of the objects in there, the different kinds of materials all lead themselves to in-depth looking and exploration... with your eyes.

Some parents might be skeptical that a hands-off exhibition could be so enthralling, but I have proof. My Smithsonian Early Enrichment Class (SEEC) would visit America on the Move on rainy days instead of the playground and that never got old to the kids. My son trots through the show, stopping at something that catches his fancy, and, before I know it, 30 minutes has flown past. It is a reminder that sometimes looking really is enough.

 

Kids enjoy the power of observation at the museum's short-term puppetry display.
Kids enjoy the power of observation at the museum's short-term puppetry display

Another great place to see observation in action is at the dollhouse on display in the museum. There is absolutely nothing you can touch (except your nose to the glass, judging from the tiny nose smudges) but kids of all ages will spend ten or more minutes staring into the rooms and exclaiming over what they notice. I once heard a curator ask a family to see how many pets they could find in the rooms of the dollhouse—this visual scavenger hunt kept them busy for quite a while as there are 20 cats, dogs, birds, fish, and other creatures inhabiting the house.

 

Though there's nothing to touch, kids are drawn to the dollhouse.
Though there's nothing to touch, kids are drawn to the dollhouse

If your family usually veers towards exhibitions with lots to touch and manipulate, relying on observation alone may feel a little awkward at first, unless you're armed with a loose plan. Here's what I recommend.

For the youngest set, just walking through the exhibition with you while you point out and name different objects might be engaging enough. There is a lot of stimulation in any exhibition and anchoring it by just defining what you see will probably give them what they want. A colleague's favorite overheard conversation in one exhibition was a dad explaining a typewriter to his young kids, saying, "You couldn't type on the screen back then, you had to type on these keys. Well, there was no screen!"

As they get older, you could "theme" the visit by looking for a specific color or things that are big or small. As they start to get interested in letters, you can go on a letter hunt for either printed letters or objects that start with a letter. It would delight SEEC preschoolers to use (washable) markers to write a letter or a dot of color on their hand as their "guide" for finding that while exploring the exhibition. If you're in an exhibition with lots of portraits of people or images of animals, examining their eyes or hands can be a fun theme.

 

Themed looking helps keep kids engaged in exhibitions that aren't inherently interactive. In a military history exhibition, you might try to find as many different types of uniforms as you can.
Themed looking helps keep kids engaged in exhibitions that aren't inherently interactive. In a military history exhibition, you might try to find as many different types of uniforms as you can.

As you start to explore more with your kids, a set of questions to get them to really focus on what they are looking at can help you slow the forward push through the exhibition to take more in. I went to a workshop on "Visual Thinking Strategies" and the best take away was a set of questions you can use in front of an object.

  • What's going on in this picture? (or in our case maybe an object)
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can we find?

Using those questions can help you get a conversation going about what you are looking at, while letting the child take the lead on what you spend time discussing. Notice that these three questions are open-ended, allowing kids to open up and surprise you with what they share.

Engaging the child by asking them about the exhibition itself, and what they would keep or change, is another great way for them to look at it in depth. The SEEC kindergarten recently did an exhibition critique of the (now closed) Little Golden Books exhibition, and the teachers shared some of their materials here. You can do it formally (with a clipboard and chart) or even just as a conversation.

 

Asking, "What do you see here that you recognize?" in our exhibition on food history might spark a fruitful conversation about what has changed in American kitchens over the years.
Asking, "What do you see here that you recognize?" in our exhibition on food history might spark a fruitful conversation about what has changed in American kitchens over the years

Asking the kids to be your tour guide can also get them to enjoy looking and reading what is around them. Everyone loves to be the expert and kids are no different! Whether they have planned the visit from the ground up (which can be really fun for older kids) or just take charge once you arrive, it prods them to notice what is around them and explain it to you.

Let us know in the comments (or on Facebook or Twitter) how you get kids hooked on exhibitions that lack interactive elements.

Sarah Erdman is the Goldman Sachs Fellow for Early Learning at the museum and the founder of Cabinet of Curiosities. She has also blogged about bringing baby to the museum and incorporating a museum visit into back-to-school routines. Have a question for Sarah about the best ways to visit museums with the family? Ask away!

Posted at 6:45 am EDT in Teaching & Learning

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