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A “Child-Centered” Approach

“Can we touch the snake?” “Is that a real mummy?” “How did you get the train into the museum?” “Can we crawl through the cave?” Youngsters visiting The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis are full of questions and high expectations. Building on that excitement and curiosity to design a successful museum visit is the responsibility of the adult facilitator. The facilitator must link the child with the museum exhibits in an exciting, fun, and personal way.

While it helps to have a plan, the visit should emanate from the youngsters and be organized around their interests and around mental and physical capabilities. Each visit will have its own shape that evolves as you move through the museum responding to the questions and interests of the young visitors. Keep in mind that the museum exhibits, and the opportunity to confront the real thing, coupled with touching and exploring, are the “stuff’ that make a successful visit for youngsters. Child-centered museum visits as a youngster are the key to lifelong warm, pleasurable adult memories.

Define your role. As the adult facilitator you are responsible for guiding youngsters in exhibit-based learning experiences. You are the bridge between the exhibit and the child. With your support youngsters can investigate, ask questions, and share information and ideas without fear of criticism or ridicule. Your role is to create opportunities for the youngsters to engage in independent exploration and discovery learning.

Watch for signs of high interest and involvement, boredom, and restlessness. Use these signals to decide whether to move on or remain and explore further. Tailor the visit around what you discover about the personalities, skill levels, and interests of the children as you move through the museum. A good facilitator is able to improvise and adapt on the spot!

It’s important to see this museum visit as part of a continuum of museum visits. Focus on making the visit the best possible experience at this particular time for the youngsters. Remember to limit the scope of the visit. Don’t fall into the trap of racing through the museum trying to see everything. Not only is it impossible to see every exhibit, but it is also much too overwhelming and tiring for youngsters and prevents them from concentrating. Let your young visitors set the pace and share in deciding what the group will see and do. Be sure to leave time for independent exploration.

As the facilitator, you must create opportunities for youngsters to become museum explorers. By prodding them to look more closely at an exhibit, plant, animal, or object, to find out how something works, to touch, and to ask questions you actively involve them in the search for information. Youngsters exploring a turn-of-the century street in the Mysteries in History gallery at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis can discover lots of information by comparing and contrasting the shops with contemporary malls, noticing how the butcher kept meats cold, comparing and contrasting the price of items in recreated stores with current prices, and looking for different types of transportation and communication.

Questioning is another way to connect youngsters to the exhibits and objects. Questions can be used to help youngsters look more closely at an object: What is it? From what material is it made? How does it work? How was it used? Questions can help youngsters examine a pioneer cabin diorama for information. How did the pioneers get their water? What time of the year is it? Why do you think the covered wagon is loaded with furniture? How many different kinds of animals can you identify? Questions also encourage youngsters to share their thoughts and feelings. Why is it important to know about the past? What are some ways we learn about the past? What kinds of information can you learn about the past from a photograph or a letter? During the visit questions can be used to direct the youngsters’ attention, spark their interest, and personally engage them.

Tap into youngsters’ imaginations to further enhance their exploration and enjoyment. Fantasy enables young people to experience the exhibits on a more personal and emotional level. Pretending lets a child climb into the driver’s seat of a race car or onto the saddle of a horse. Using their imagination, youngsters not only see and touch, they also experience the thrill of winning a race!

There are lots of different ways to organize the visit:

You can structure the visit around some of the youngsters’ favorite exhibits. Some museum exhibits never lose their appeal and often become identified with the museum. These museum icons are instant winners with visitors who seem never to tire of seeing and learning about them.

You and the youngsters can set out in search of animals. Together you can look for the various kinds of animals found in the museum. How many different turtles can you identify? How does it feel to come face to face with a nine-foot-tall polar bear? Which carousel animal is your favorite? A search-based exploration while moving throughout the museum. There are endless topics around which the search can be structured. Try looking for shapes, things with wheels, big and small objects, different types of homes, and so on.

Visits can be organized around classroom studies or special interests. The study of dinosaurs can be greatly enhanced by visiting a dinosaur exhibit and actually seeing dinosaur bones! In the soon-to-open “What If Gallery” at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis students will be able to emulate paleontologists by uncovering dinosaur fossils, assembling a dinosaur skeleton, and investigating the characteristics that make an animal a dinosaur. These types of experiential explorations let students expand on the information they’ve learned, test the validity of that information, and use it.

You and the youngsters can spend the entire time in one gallery and engage in an in-depth exploration. This type of visit lets young visitors immerse themselves in the gallery, move through the gallery at a slower pace, and concentrate on those things of greater interest to them.

Museums are marvelous places filled with the kind of “stuff that youngsters find intriguing and exciting. Child-centered visits capture the wonder of the museum and translate into certain success with youngsters. So, relax and take your cues from the youngsters as you set out to experience the museum together! students

Jeanette Hauck Booth is the Educational Resources Manager at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. She has presented numerous seminars on museum interpretation and co-authored the book Creative Museum Methods and Educational Techniques.

Hauck Booth, Jeanette. “A ‘Child-Centered’ Approach,” The Docent Educator 2.1 (Autumn 1992): 14-15.

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