Sweet Spots for Engaging Parents in Family Spaces

Museum Educators know that providing experiences for family audiences are a valuable way to advance the museum’s mission, expand its audience, and strengthen its place within the community. A relatively new way many museums are providing for families is with interactive exhibits. In recent years, these family spaces have evolved from engaging only children to engaging the entire family.

This shift has opened up new areas of study in family learning, broadly defined by the Family Learning Forum as “a special form of free-choice learning” that results in “shared meanings among and between family members.” I like this definition because it presents children and adults as being equally active in family learning. While many family programs and family spaces in museums focus on outcomes for children, I wondered what I could learn if I studied the adult half of the family learning equation. In 2011, I took a look at how adults, in the context of their families, used the Building Zone, a family space located in the National Building Museum in Washington, DC. Through observations and surveys, I uncovered a few sweet spots for parental engagement.


photo by ijiwaru jimbo
photo by ijiwaru jimbo

I already knew that blocks provide endless learning opportunities for children, but now I’m starting to think they are the absolute perfect toy. The majority of parents’ active engagement took place in the Building Zone’s two block areas. One at the front of the room consists of bins of small blocks with various architectural shapes and designs and larger foam blocks. The other block area spans the back wall of the room and has two different types of large plastic interlocking blocks. The block areas were the most popular places for caregivers to actively play with their children. I even occasionally observed adults building structures by themselves.

There is just something about the act of building that excites people of all ages. In her recent blog post, Gretchen Jennings makes this observation about museum Maker Spaces:

I also think their emphasis on family and multi-generational participation is a welcome change; often discovery and play spaces have been perceived, either because of their design or because it was assumed, as places for kids only, and adults just stood and watched or wondered off to see the rest of the museum.

My theory is that blocks can be interacted with on many different developmental levels. It doesn’t matter whether the fun stems from exploring the cause-and-effect relationship of knocking down a tower or exercising complex problem solving and abstract reasoning skills – blocks can interest people all ages. The adults I observed were much more interested in helping their children build than pretending to drive a toy truck.


Photo by Svante Adermark
Photo by Svante Adermark

Another common area for parental engagement was the Book Nook, a corner of the room with pillows on the floor, bookshelves, and a few puppets. As with blocks, adults seemed comfortable interacting with their children around books. The children in the Building Zone were all pre-readers, so this is another area in which caregivers could use their knowledge and skills to help their children. The Book Nook was also the only area, aside from the block areas, that I observed adults engaged with the materials by themselves. A couple of times, I saw adults reading the children’s books silently to themselves.

Again, I believe the books appealed to the adults’ developmental level. Stories, like blocks, can be approached and interpreted in different ways. High-quality picture books have layers of meaning embedded in their text and illustrations that require abstract thought and background knowledge to understand.


The two adult-sized benches in the middle of the Building Zone were one of the most popular places for adults to be in the family space. While caregivers played the most in the block areas and the Book Nook, a different kind of engagement was taking place on the benches – caregivers were observing the children.

Part of the Family Learning Forum’s definition of family learning is learning about each other. While Susie Wilkening of the Reach Advisors is right to be concerned when parents don’t engage with the museum content at all, I think it’s important not to overlook observing one’s children as a form of parent engagement. This is especially true when you consider that the adults I surveyed hoped that they would be able to observe their children playing in the Building Zone and said that being able to observe their children having fun is one of the things that makes a family experience positive. I’m curious to know what readers think about active versus passive forms of parent engagement. To what extent should museum family spaces be designed to encourage parent’s active participation, and to what extent should they be designed for passive observation?

Museum family spaces are sites for complex social interactions and learning experiences. Focusing on the family as a whole in the areas of family learning and parent engagement allows museums to create meaningful experiences for all their visitors. Have you noticed any sweet spots for engaging parents with children in your museum?


5 thoughts on “Sweet Spots for Engaging Parents in Family Spaces”

  1. Your research has sparked an interest of mine because I run a toddler class at a historic site in Virginia and have used the Building Zone’s concepts as a foundation for play stations before and after my class. I try to mix up the stations with blocks, puzzles, books, etc. but am always looking for those intergenerational learning tools that will spark parents to learn with their kids. So far, having nature-themed classes that get the families outside, listening to birds, or searching for tree seeds has been a “sweet spot.” The children can run and explore nature in a safe environment, while the parents/ guardians can look along side their chidlren for the seeds or the birds we are hunting and learn new things to share with the kids!
    I struggle to balance the active vs. passive role of the parents/ guardians, mainly because in a classroom setting, too many teachers can be confusing for the kids, but with crafts and exploratory experiences outside, the more eyes and hands to keep track of everyone is a big help. I rely on parent participation and value their creativity especially with crafts- many parents will work on their own project after their kids have “lost interest” and they surprise me with what they create! Crafts are fun for all ages, I guess!

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