What I have learned about the value of play from my career in children’s museums
Adults are just children who have grown older. This is the conclusion I have come to as a museum consultant who spent the first half of my nearly 20-year career in children’s museums. Even though my clients these days are mostly from museums that prioritise adult learning, I continue to draw on my foundational experience in the children’s museum field. Though adults are not often given the opportunity to play in traditional museums, I find they do enjoy it. In children’s museums we use the Playwork definition of play, described as freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated. Playful museum experiences spark curiosity, start conversations and allow visitors to follow their interests.
People of all ages learn in multiple ways and have unique learning preferences and strengths. Many experience designers now approach multimodal learning from disability justice and decolonial frameworks that question the narrow cultural standards of what learning ‘should’ look like. In museums those expected learning behaviours look like standing quietly and reading, but more and more exhibit makers are challenging this expectation. Instead, designers are incorporating playful strategies such as immersion, sensory experiences and social interaction. Embracing playful learning means understanding that there is no ‘right’ way to learn and the resulting exhibits are more successful for learners of a wide variety of ages, abilities, and cultural backgrounds.
Have you noticed more museums incorporating playful moments in new exhibitions? Here are a few examples I have seen recently that speak to my children’s museum heart.
Recreations of environments are long-time museum staples. In children’s museums these are often themed environments for dramatic play and in traditional museums may take the forms of historic domestic interiors or replica villages. The best of these kinds of environments are transportive and evocative, embedding strong memories that help visitors retain what they learn. Playful immersive spaces are equally transportive, but they may also be surprising and funny and invite visitors to take on new roles or perspectives.
Example: Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser, V&A South Kensington, London
In this exhibit about the literature and legacy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, each gallery was considered from floor to ceiling. Even in interstitial spaces like this niche between galleries, exhibition designers took topsy-turvy inspiration to create immersive environments that evoke the wonder and disorientation of the source material. Textural layers, moving projections and hidden surprises came together to delightful effect.
Figure 1. Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser, V&A South Kensington / Photo courtesy Margaret Middleton
Offering Multisensory Experiences
When my museum clients are seeking to accommodate children in an exhibit, they often understand that children use their bodies to learn and may even think of a child’s mind and body as innately linked. It may sound obvious to say that adults have bodies too, but adult bodies are not often taken into consideration in a museum setting in the same way. The conceptual separation between mind and body is directly linked to White, non-disabled culture. Engaging the mind and body in the museum defies this artificial separation and strengthens learning by activating multiple parts of the brain simultaneously. Embodied learning engages the senses and offers tactile and kinaesthetic experiences.
Example: Bad Bridget, Ulster American Folk Park, Omagh
Bad Bridget tells the story of Irish women who emigrated to America at the turn of the 20th century. Smell stations throughout the gallery support the exhibit narrative with place-based scent memories for visitors to sample. Custom blends developed by Tasha Marks of AVM Curiosities evoke the smoky turf fires and damp earth of Ireland, the dank mustiness of the Atlantic crossing and the salty-sweetness of a day at a seaside fair in Boston.
Figure 2. Bad Bridget, Ulster American Folk Park / Photo courtesy AVM Curiosities
Facilitating Social Learning
Children don’t visit museums by themselves, so when we design for children we are also conscious of the social component of their visit. It is important to remember that most adult museum visitors don’t visit museums by themselves either. When we build opportunities for visitors to engage in family learning or social learning, we leverage the personal connections between visitors. Friends and family members share a past, present and future with one another and they can draw on their shared memories to connect with museum content and make meaning together. After their visit they may reminisce about their experience and that act of memory will support their retention. Exhibit developers can facilitate social learning through dialogue prompts, feedback stations, and games.
Example: Burrell Collection, Glasgow
This set of three provocative labels accompanying a display of oil paintings ask open-ended questions. The effect is delightfully disarming and I found myself reading them aloud to my partner. The questions directed us to details in the artworks we may otherwise have missed and had us lingering and speculating what was happening in each picture.
Figure 3. Burrell Collection / Photo courtesy Margaret Middleton
Figure 3. Burrell Collection / Photo courtesy Margaret Middleton
Play is an enjoyable way to learn and it doesn’t stop at some mysterious interval between childhood and adulthood. As psychologist Theresa A. Kestly writes, “Our brains are built to benefit from play no matter what our age.” As we continue to incorporate playful learning in our exhibits and upend expectations of what learning looks like, more and more visitors will feel welcome and included in our museums.
About the author – Margaret Middleton
Margaret Middleton is an American independent exhibit designer and museum consultant currently based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. With a degree in industrial design from the Rhode Island School of Design and nearly 20 years of experience in the museum field, they work at the intersection of design and social justice.
Middleton developed the popular Family Inclusive Language Chart and consults with museums on implementing inclusive practice with special focus on children, gender minorities, and queer people. Their writing has been published in books including Feminist Designer, Storytelling in Museums, Welcoming Young Children Into the Museum, and The Inclusive Museum Leader as well as journals including the Journal of Museum Education, Exhibition, Museums & Social Issues, and Dimensions.
Middleton sits on the editorial board of the journal Exhibition and serves as a Northern Ireland regional representative for Museums Association.