Family Learning Forum

A Project of the USS Constitution Museum

Experts' Top 10 Family Programming Tips

The Engage Families! Workshop was held at the USS Constitution Museum on September 24, 2009. We asked the day’s presenters to come up with their own “Top 10” list of ways to develop a successful family program. Take a look at what they came up with!

Susie Wilkening

Senior Consultant and Curator of Museum Audiences at Reach Advisors

  1. Create “sticky” memories
  2. Combine them with hands-on activities
  3. Ditch the screens and buttons
  4. Signal authenticity
  5. Engage the parents
  6. Create, and staff, natural photo spots
  7. Don’t neglect the amenities
  8. Tangible takeaway
  9. Signal value
  10. Partner with complimentary museums

Ellen Thompson

Former Director of Visitor Education and Programs at Boston Children’s Museum

  1. Hire strong presenters (students of theater, education, music, etc. have been great for us), and people who like people, not just young children.
  2. Hire a diverse staff that represents not just Boston, but the globe. Language skills, even at a "polite" level are endearing to those who may ask for help in languages other than English.
  3. Have staff wearing a bright, recognizable color, vest, or uniform, with a first name BOLDLY printed on a nametag. Research shows people relate and listen to you more fully if they know your name.
  4. Have tables set up at different heights for people of all ages...we use Little Tyke picnic tables, regular height tables, and sometimes the floor or rug. Have seating for those who may need it. Think about multiple intelligences in program design and how different individuals will experience the activity.
  5. Have clear signage about what is happening and greet people when they enter, inviting them to work together, or individually with the materials. Explain the activity, welcoming questions and comments. Don't let it be all YOU speaking, try to dialogue. People love to be heard. People love attention. People generally love to talk about their families/lives.
  6. Be open to individual ideas, adaptations, to any activity. Be fine about people losing interest, and moving on...Read body language and judge how much to talk with each person. If a family is in a rush, and a child is in the middle of an activity, try to pack it up, so it can be finished at home, or make a suggestion about how to recreate the activity at home.
  7. Keep materials neat and orderly, asking new arrivals to wait a few minutes while you reset a table, and welcoming any help from participants. Families are generally not interested in joining in when something doesn't look inviting...you should step back, and see how the activity looks from a visitor's perspective. Keep a record of what went well, what you think didn't, and how to best change things next time.
  8. Evaluate what visitors thought with a brief exit survey, a comment book, or a follow up e -survey, or have kids "vote" with beans in clear jar about whether the museum should repeat the activity or not.
  9. Try to speak about the Learning going on, without being preachy... and, try to suggest extension activities to the family, other places to visit if they have an interest in a culture, scientific concept, the arts, etc.
  10. THANK the family for stopping by, and wave if you see them again in your museum, or the restaurant next door, etc. Personalizing the experience usually helps the family remember the positive experience at the museum.

Dan Freas

Vice President of Guest Experience, Conner Prairie Interactive History Park

  1. Make an appointment with your guests
    Take time to make time for your guests. Schedule a weekly appointment to spend time in galleries and/or on the grounds to talk with families about their experiences and observe their actions.
  2. Look outside the box for ideas
    Explore best practices at other attractions such as zoos, aquariums, theme parks and family entertainment centers for ideas on how you can engage families at your institution. Even family-oriented films can provide ideas for effective storytelling that appeal to all ages.
  3. Comfort leads to conversation
    Engaging families in learning conversations is easier when all members of the family are physically comfortable. This can be particularly difficult in an outdoor setting. Conduct a family-friendly audit of your program environments to see if adequate seating and water sources are provided or if sight barriers exist for young children.
  4. Seize the moment
    The first moments of interaction are critical in establishing rapport between the facilitator and guest families. A welcoming smile and an engagement hook (i.e. “Would you like to help me gather eggs?” will draw guests into a meaningful learning experience.
  5. Provide a smorgasbord of experiences
    Even the pickiest of eaters can find something appealing on a bountiful buffet. Create a “smorgasbord” of enticing experiences designed for all ages and learning styles in each area. Rethink furnishing plans to better facilitate family engagement while retaining authenticity.
  6. Show them that you care
    Little touches like providing a private space for nursing mothers, offering to take a family picture or proving complimentary sunscreen show families that you care about them. They will remember these touches and are more likely to return and tell others about their positive experiences.
  7. Send families on a quest
    Programs such as Conner Prairie’s H-CSI (Historic Crime Scene Investigators) provide families with an opportunity to work together to collect clues and help solve a mystery. The popularity of reality TV shows can serve as the basis for family team activities that incorporate you unique stories.
  8. Use youth to reach youth
    A youth volunteer program can be a huge asset in engaging families. Many children are more comfortable interacting with people their own age. Conner Prairie retrained youth interpreters to help draw families with children into learning opportunities.
  9. Go secret shopping
    Staff evaluation of the family experience is valuable. However, an investment of less than $1600 per year will provide you with unbiased evaluation of the family experience at your institution. Its money well spent!
  10. Share the feedback
    Share your family feedback, both good and bad, with those that facilitate your experiences. This information can be reviewed at team meetings where frontline staff members are empowered to make adjustments to the guest experience based upon this feedback.

Beverly Sheppard

Executive Director of the Institute for Learning Innovation

  1. Train your front desk and docent staff to welcome families and speak to the whole of the family, not just the adults.
  2. Talk to your family visitors and find out why they decided to come to your museum on a family visit. How might you help them achieve their goals?
  3. Inventory your galleries for experiences that invite family participation. Can they be found consistently throughout?
  4. Be a voyeur – watch and listen to families in your museum and use your observations to understand their needs and strengthen future visits.
  5. Be careful not to create “family ghettos” – such as activity rooms that are the only places that invite family interaction.
  6. Since children often determine the path and pace of the visit, be certain that they are led by visually stimulating and intriguing exhibits that they can easily see.
  7. Design exhibit experiences that stimulate conversation and provide opportunities for all members to contribute.
  8. Give parents “hooks” to engage their children in discovery, allowing everyone to feel comfortable and competent.
  9. Design pathways that allow family visitors to “chunk” their visits, dividing them into manageable pieces. Let them know that they don’t need to do the entire museum in a single visit. Remember that families often usurp your agenda with their own. Allow them space to do so.
  10. Remember that families often usurp your agenda with their own. Allow them space to do so.