How museums are learning from kids

The idea of making museums interactive for children has been around for decades. Now experts in the field say the idea of a more hands-on experience for museumgoers is spreading to institutions not just aimed at pint-size patrons.

David Karas
Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia

It’s a Friday afternoon and the halls of the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia are buzzing with energy and filled with the sounds of children talking and laughing. While some youngsters are in the “Imagination Playground” constructing castles from large foam blocks, others are moving through the expansive “Alice in Wonderland” exhibit, checking out the cars in the “Please Touch Garage,” or exploring a segment of a life-size public transit bus. 

In yet another section of the museum, others are enjoying a mock grocery store, where visitors can fill their carts with items and even go through the check-out process, while still others are exploring more model shops and businesses, which include a hospital exam suite.

A common thread connecting each of the exhibits as well as the art and garden programs at the Please Touch Museum is that of learning through touch and play.

“We work really hard to create museum experiences and exhibits where children can pace how they explore, discover, and learn,” says Patricia Wellenbach, president and chief executive officer of the Please Touch Museum. She notes that each exhibit is designed to facilitate learning at various age levels “so as children grow, they have different opportunities for learning.” 

The idea of making museums interactive for children – not steering them away from the artifacts in which they are interested or cautioning them to be seen and not heard while in the quiet halls – has been around for decades. Ms. Wellenbach and others in the field say the idea of a more hands-on experience for museumgoers is spreading to institutions not just aimed at pint-size patrons.

“I think museums in general are trying to figure out a way to be more expansive in understanding how to create experiences that engage wide audiences,” Wellenbach says, noting that science museums and even more traditional art institutions are working to incorporate such experiences for visitors.

Jon-Paul Dyson, vice president for exhibits at The Strong, a Rochester, N.Y., museum devoted to the history and exploration of play, has also observed a recent expansion of visitor engagement to other types of institutions. 

“An interactive approach has begun to gain more popularity in other types of more artifact-based museums such as natural history, history and art museums,” he says in an email interview. 

Laura Lott, president and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums, notes that some museums have produced 3-D replicas of otherwise-untouchable works for visitors to experience, while others actually allow visitors to don white curatorial gloves to handle artifacts – with supervision, of course. 

Work on the first is being done at the Manchester Museum at the University of Manchester in Britain. Technology there will let visitors engage with museum artifacts that have been digitally scanned. 

Meanwhile, visitors putting on those gloves to handle artifacts was an idea recently embraced at Ohio’s Hayes Presidential Library & Museums. 

“Children’s museums have led the way in the museum field regarding play and its positive effects on brain development – and now all types of museums are using play and touch to engage children and adults in interactive learning,” writes Ms. Lott in an email interview. 

She believes the ability to physically feel something is important to visitors. “In an increasingly virtual world, where so much is available on the web in ever-increasing high definition, there is still – perhaps increasing – unique value to real objects and authentic places,” she says.

Meanwhile, children’s museums – the places at the root of this approach – are still working to offer the best visit possible, especially as the importance of play for kids continues to be stressed in a world of screens. At The New Children’s Museum in San Diego, deputy museum director Tomoko Kuta and her team work with contemporary artists to build immersive artwork that is conducive to all forms of physical interaction. 

“Play is currently getting a lot of attention as an important way for children to learn,” says Ms. Kuta in an email. “It provides healthy opportunities for kids to develop lifelong skills such as creativity, resiliency, confidence, problem solving, interpersonal skills, critical thinking, collaboration and optimism. As an informal educational institution, our museum can provide plenty of play-based learning opportunities without the constraints of curriculum standards.”

Lott sees this approach as vital to the future of museums in general – not just those for children. “Being able to touch and interact, physically, with the exhibits, is introducing an entirely new generation to the learning power of museums,” she says. “And any museum that wants to remain relevant should be thinking of ways to create an experience that meets the needs of today’s learners.”

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