Andrew Ackerman's  picture
Andrew Ackerman
Executive Director
Children's Museum of Manhattan

The Science of Children’s Museums

Sand Table

How exhibits are created to combine learning with play

Children love to play. They flock to activities with water and sand; they love to draw, be musical and dance; to pretend to be firefighters or nurses; to play with new ideas about topics ranging from dinosaurs to Winnie the Pooh. Children also need to learn language and math and develop analytical skills so they are prepared to succeed in school and later in life.

When children’s museums create exhibitions, we see the science of learning and the joy of play as seamless. What children need and what they love coalesce into playful environments that offer free play and guided play. Through both modes of play, children are able to gravitate toward the free exploration that allows them to discover knowledge and skills on their own or to be guided toward learning in areas that interest them.

Learning Through Play

At the Children’s Museum of Manhattan (CMOM), we consciously combined the skills children need with the things they love in an exhibition for ages 2 through 6 called PlayWorks. We examined all of the cognitive and affective skills needed to enter kindergarten and then matched those skills with activities in which children learn intuitively and find to be endless fun. They learn important math concepts and comparisons of sizes and shapes at a sand table or by building with different-shaped blocks. A talking dragon named Alphie “reads” blocks (via embedded computer chips) to connect letters to words to pictures and sounds, encompassing many of the ways children learn language. And since Alphie is made of a virtually indestructible material, children can also climb, slide down and hug him. PlayWorks is designed to foster parent-child interaction. In one observational study by the research firm Michael Cohen Group, researchers noted that the physical doing fostered interaction not only between a parent and his own child, but it also stimulated conversation among parents about how their children were learning.

Family with AlphieA second example from PlayWorks involved a graphic that describes the stages a child goes through before they can begin to read. Developed with experts at Teachers College, Columbia University’s graduate school of education in New York, it carries an important message that early play and later play, including language and physical play, are essential stages that lay the foundation for learning to read. Missing one of those stages is not an option, and pushing a child too fast may even delay his development.

Behind the Exhibitions

Studies conducted before an exhibition opens can help shape it. Prior to the opening of Gods, Myths and Mortals: Discover Ancient Greece, CMOM hired Blip Research to find out how 7- to 10-year-olds wanted to learn about ancient Greek culture. The research revealed that children wanted to go deeper into the content, countering conventional wisdom that today’s child wants cursory or superficial information. The kids found the myths and stories as engaging as any other generation—they just hadn’t been exposed to them sufficiently. This led to the design of a set of activities where the children could answer questions about themselves and be compared to a Greek mythological figure. A second finding showed that the children wanted to become Odysseus and confront the challenges. And unlike adults, they were willing to make believe they were on the Odyssey and then revert to a contemporary child and use computers to ask questions of experts, showing their ability to vacillate between imaginary play and research.

While children’s museums conduct ongoing research and evaluation, one thing stands above all else as the most valuable of positive feedback: the very special laugh of a child who has discovered that he has learned something on his own through play and exploration. That laugh is the best building block of learning that anyone could ever hope for, and what children’s museums aim to accomplish.

At a Children’s Museum Near You

Gods, Myths & MortalsChildren’s museums throughout the country offer endless opportunities for learning and exploration. I love watching children play in the simulated archaeological excavation at the Chicago Children’s Museum. Each child finds her own way to get involved: Some focus intently on finding a hidden dinosaur bone. Others explore the different ways to dig, perhaps not uncovering a bone, but discovering important hand-eye coordination skills and new ways to explore. The early childhood exhibition at the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose—the Wonder Cabinet—is a journey of discovery of diverse objects and ideas that spur curiosity, spinning the brain neurons in wonderful and unpredictable ways.

Related Reading and Resources:

Find a children’s museum near you: Association of Children’s Museums