Friday, January 28, 2011

Parent Communication Strategies

Justine Roberts, Principal

I wrote recently about how some museums are using technology to extend their relationships with constituents beyond the space and time of a visit. This is a strategy in service of a bigger goal, which has to do with positioning the museum as an ongoing resource for its audience – not just a place to go but a trusted advisor, friend, and information base.  This is a big strategic idea, and one that holds a lot of appeal.  On the one hand, it differentiates museums from the leisure time activities we often think of as their natural competition – city parks and playgrounds, the movies, music lessons, computer games, play groups etc.  On the other, it differentiates museums from out of school time and social service organizations like the YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs

This is not a new idea – The Boston Children’s Museum has always spent a lot of time and care on community relationships.  Take for example programs like Countdown to Kindergarten which is as much about creating an activity for local families to celebrate a major life transition (kindgergarten), as it is about weaving the Museum into the fabric of the learning community (see their success in bringing the Mayor and Superintendent of Schools together, literally). 

BCM is actually a good segue for what I’m thinking about which is that adults are one of the key audiences for these on-going relationships with Children's Museums in particular.  As a field we increasingly understand that there are good reasons to move adults to more involved roles with their kids.  Research has shown that adult participation leads to deeper inquiry and more durable learning for children, while at the same time enhancing adults’ understanding of and ability to support children’s informal science learning.   

But let’s be honest - adults come to museums for many reasons, including taking a break and socializing with peers, and have their own learning styles.  So I am really intrigued by the idea that museums can develop umbrella relationships with adults in which the moment of the visit is one touch point among many opportunities to engage with the organization.  This might give us more room to allow that the visit may not always be the best moment to reach adults, but it also suggests that that’s okay because we have many more opportunities to connect with those adults.  We don’t have to pack it all into 2 hours on a Saturday.

How about these as goals for adults?
  • Help adult visitors understand their possible roles, and responsibilities, in the museum setting
  • Scaffold adults’ learning
  • Show caregivers what their children are doing, but also how and why they behave in particular ways
  • Help staff and visitors understand and share the ways children construct knowledge
The key to achieving these goals is to increase adults’ understanding of the museum as about learning

To do this, museums need to accomplish three main things (1) make children’s learning evident, (2) offer adults opportunities to participate in children’s learning, and (3) give adults tools they can use to enhance children’s learning.  Some of these may lend themselves more to implementation in the exhibits but all of them can happen off-site as well.

What should parent communications sound and look like?

Parent message need to be a mix of didactic, intimate and informal communications. Some parent communication will be explicit for adults who are interested in learning why the museum looks the way it does, and what their kids are getting out of the visit.  These “decoders” may take the form of maps, labels and graphics in the galleries, “parent guides” and questionnaires, or verbal communication through staff interaction. Other communication is more discursive and needs to be structured so that adults can make connections between the messages and their children’s behavior.

Here are 3 examples of how this might translate into graphics.
Staff at MCM carry these cards.
Pittsburgh Children's Museum projected graphics are in adults' immediate line of sight and provide a quick prompt.
An "exemplar" graphic from Skyline at CCM features photos of real visitors and first person quotes - the graphics stand in for staff by modeling adult roles in the gallery.
Strategies for use in the Museum 
These three examples of actual printed graphics get at some of the key strategies for adult communications during the museum visit.  They are designed to help adults see what their kids are doing and learning.  And they offer interpretation and explanation of the Museum's philosophy and intentions.

There are other strategies museums can use to facilitate adult outcomes including:

  • Engage adults in collaborative work with their children and offer multiple possible roles for adults throughout the museum so that sometimes they are leading and other times they are supporting the primary inquiry.
  • Train staff to articulate children’s learning to model interactions that support the expression of learning.
  • Train staff to recognize adult learning in the museum setting and in how to support adults in gaining confidence and skill as partners in their children’s learning.     
More specifically, museums can: 

·      Design for the diverse needs of the adult audience, including participatory activity, quiet observation, and socializing with other adults.
·     Offer expert perspectives on informal science learning through partnerships with researchers and teachers in training.  Such as they do at MOS and BCM.  
·      Offer opportunities for adults to create documentation projects that facilitate children’s reflection on their own activity. 
·      Provide ideas for how adults might continue the inquiry and projects started in the Museum at home, and support visitors’ efforts to implement these suggestions through web-based, newsletter, and other resources.

Extending communication with parents beyond the visit

This last point takes me to the off-site long-term relationship piece.  One tenet of museum education is that a visit will continue to resonate in people’s lives long after they leave. Being a place to go when museum users have follow-up questions or comments is a piece of the way museums can extend their work beyond the walls of the building.  This support also allows adults to articulate and reflect on the connections they make between their lives and their Museum visit. Following are some ideas that are tuned to adults - easy to access, relevant, and helpful, fun, playful and participatory. So bridging this need with the right set of materials is a win-win.

  1. Have an “Ask an Expert” email system that puts adults in touch with education and child development Graduate Students
  2. Set up an email newsletter with a monthly Hot Tip that goes to visitors’ email, is displayed on the museum's home page, and is also included in the “hold” soundtrack on the phone.
  3. Create a screen saver that people can download at home featuring images from around the Museum.
  4. Create an interactive timeline that encourages adults and children to talk about events in their lives and to compare where they were and how they felt at those moments.  The timeline might be seeded with some starter ideas that span the generations and include both large global events as well as local, personal experiences.  Imagine The Mint Museum interactive site framed this way.
What has your museum tried? 

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