Friday, March 20, 2009

You May Hear Them, But Are You Listening?

Are you listening?
Because we want to create a safe and fun learning environment for families, it's important to "keep up our appearances." Places where children are allowed to be active investigators in playful learning can be places where neatness and cleanliness are sometimes next to impossible. Let's face it, busy play spaces can get messy and dirty. Children's museums are no exception! In previous posts we looked at conscious design choices and making clean-up fun as important considerations to playful learning. If you design exhibits with conscious choice considerations, visitors will come. If you make the experience of clean-up fun, visitors will contribute towards cleaning up the play environment. However, if you're not listening to their concerns, will they visit again? Our final considerations are about how to use visitor comments to modify the play environment.

Most museums collect comments from their visitors. Tracking and responding to these comments, while important, can be time consuming. How do you collect visitor comments and suggestions? How do you respond effectively to their comments? How do visitors know that you are listening? Whether you're a parent, educator or museum colleague, please take a look at this post and our next post as we share the process for tracking and responding to your comments and suggestions.

Moving beyond the comment card!

"Our comment cards are collected daily by visitor services staff, " noted Kim Stull, Director of Guest Services. "The comments are tracked through an Excel spreadsheet. Our Director of Marketing, Alison Segebarth, and I see every comment card before they are input into a spreadsheet. Even if there's only one comment about a particular issue, there are probably lots of other visitors who feel the same way. We consider every comment, positive or negative, to be an important issue for our visitors." For instance, she noted that we get a lot of positive comments about the cleanliness of our building. "The fact that so many comments make mention of it demands that we continue to ensure cleanliness as a priority." Cleaning procedures and the setting and resetting of exhibits are an important part of our staff and volunteer training.

Listening to front line staff!
Many visitors will take the time to tell our play facilitators and coordinators how pleased they are with their experience at the Museum, rather than write their comments on a card. Staff is encouraged to share any verbal comments through an e-mail or post a comment as a "Mission Moment" on the bulletin board near the offices. Recently, one of our Play Coordinators, Lisa Shumaker, shared a story about a family who told her they were visiting from out of state and were told by friends to be sure and visit DCM during their visit. They also suggested stopping at a very popular Science Museum in Chicago. The family, on their second visit in two days to DCM, shared with Lisa that their first visit had been so engaging that they were foregoing their trip to the science museum for another visit to DCM. Sharing this story was not only a moral booster for staff, it was another story collected for validating the sustainability of our non-member visitors.

If you are a Museum colleague, what are some ways you respond to visitor comments? In our next post we will discuss examples of how our DCM staff responds to comments and how you can not act upon the visitor's suggestion, yet still validate their comment.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Truth about Clean-up

Whether at home, at school or in our Museum, the truth about clean-up is that it's a natural part of play. Still, if you are like most parents, caregivers or museum facilitators, getting children to clean up after an engaging play experience can be challenging. To support parents and caregivers DCM offers a Just for Grown-up focus sheet, The Truth about Clean-up, which is available on our Web site and in the Museum, located in the resource rack across from the fish tank. This useful focus sheet shares some of the many benefits children derive from participating in clean-up, as well as useful tips for supporting clean-up as a part of the play experience.

To continue the discussion from our last post, here are a few more conscious design choices offered by Peter Crabbe, Associate Director of Exhibits and Design, which support participatory clean-up in the Museum.

Make it fun to get it done!
"I'm putting all the squares away. Do you want to put the triangles or the diamonds back in the bin?"
This picture shows how a conscious design decision can encourage clean-up with little or no grown-up prompting. The table is designed for children to intuitively see where the geometric clings are stored prior to or after creating patterns on nearby acrylic panels. This design supports learning by suggesting sorting and classifying shapes. After the child creates a pattern on the acrylic panel, the grown-up can offer specific choices to facilitate putting the pieces back in the bin. Here are some questions to ask when designing spaces to make clean-up fun - What can you do to the play environment that supports intuitive thought about clean-up? What visuals can you provide to guide children's interactions? Can you make this a learning activity as well?

How much is too much mess?

Whether you are a parent, caregiver or museum professional, here are some questions to ask yourself when considering clean-up challenges:
How many play materials are needed to provide a rich learning experience? Are children able to have enough choice or is their play limited due to the mess? Are children able to choose from two or three similar experiences? How many play materials are unavailable due to broken or lost parts? Consideration of too many or too few choices can impact the activity of clean-up. "When you plan for the possibility of multiple outcomes in the experience, then engagement of the activity is sustained, often leading to longer interaction with play materials," suggests Peter Crabbe, Associate Director of Exhibits and Design. "However, in a museum setting, the decision for the amount of play materials provided is dependent on staff availability in order to maintain the experience in the play area. Consider what your space and staff can maintain when making decisions about the amount of play materials." Once the environment is planned to support clean-up, who is available to assist and expand the child's role?

Stay tuned! In our next post we will look at visitor and staff comments regarding design and clean-up.