As parents, it can be easy to take for granted our children’s drive to play. It’s an activity they engage in without any help from us from the moment they are born – starting with discovering their fingers and toes (What ARE these things? What do they do?) to grabbing anything within reach and exploring texture, color, sounds, and sometimes how far that thing can be thrown.
At times, precisely because play is what our children want and need to do all of the time, you might find yourself thinking of play as interfering with other things your child should be doing, or more importantly, learning. But what we now know from research on child development is that play IS learning. In fact, it’s the best way for children to learn. Children’s museums are great resources for both nurturing children’s playful learning experiences and parents’ understanding of how to support their child’s learning through play.
While you may have visited a children’s museum before, you might not be aware that every experience offered is intentional and research-based. While children’s museums strive to be fun, more than anything they are child-centered and child-driven spaces that empower children to understand the world through developmentally-appropriate learning experiences. Below are some tips to make the most of your children’s museum visit – and perhaps change your thinking about the importance of play in your child’s life.
Call ahead or visit the children’s museum’s website
By checking in ahead, you can learn about seasonal programs, permanent and traveling exhibits, admission days and costs, as well as whether the museum has a café or allows visitors to bring their own snacks and beverages. The size, type of exhibits, and operations differ greatly among children's museums, which means each children’s museum offers a unique experience. The museum’s website is also an excellent window into the learning goals behind each experience as well as resources for at-home activities!
Let your child be the guide
While it may be tempting to nudge your child along so that the family can see every exhibit and participate in every activity in order to get the full “value” of the museum, the best indicator of time well spent for your child may be quality rather than quantity. So go ahead and let your children explore just one or two exhibits deeply. This can be a wonderful opportunity to discover new interests or support refinement of new cognitive, social-emotional, and/or physical skills.
Support your child’s learning and play styles
While it is important to let your child be the guide, that does not mean there’s no way for you to participate! Play is fun for everyone visiting the museum! Your visit is a chance to play and interact with your child, which emphasizes the value of their learning styles and interests. You are your child's teacher and playmate, so use your imagination as you explore the programs and exhibits.
Extend the experience beyond the museum
Play and learning doesn’t have to stop once you leave for the day. Encourage your child to talk about the visit by asking questions that don’t require a yes or no answer. What was his/her favorite exhibit? Did s/he try something for the first time at the museum? After you leave, you may find yourselves in a place that reminds you of an exhibit. Use these moments to reflect with your children about the museum experience and how it compares with the present environment. Be prepared for some surprising discoveries!
Find children's museums here: www.ChildrensMuseums.org/childrens-museums/find-a-childrens-museum
Laura Huerta Migus is the Executive Director of the Association of Children's Museums (ACM) in Arlington, Virginia, the world's largest professional society promoting and advocating on behalf of children's museums and children’s museum professionals. Throughout her career, Laura has been devoted to the growth and education of children, particularly those from underserved and under-resourced communities. Under her leadership, ACM pursues innovative and effective partnerships to leverage the power of children’s museums. Previously, Laura served as the Director of Professional Development and Equity Initiatives at the Association of Science-Technology Centers, Inc.