The Learning Value of Children’s Museums

Building a Field-Wide Research Agenda

imls logoWith funding from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the Association of Children's Museums (ACM) and the University of Washington's Museology Graduate Program (UW) undertook the Learning Value of Children's Museums project beginning in the fall of 2012. The project's most important goal was to generate a field-wide research agenda for children's museums. Why? Because despite the unique focus and growing presence of children's museums, the learning value of these institutions has not been well defined.

The project had several stages:

  • First, a literature review and field-wide scan of existing articles and study reports about how children's museums foster learning was conducted. This stage included the administration of a field-wide online questionnaire. The findings and analysis were captured in The Learning Value of Children's Museums: Building a Field-Wide Research Agenda, A Landscape Review.
  • Next, ACM and UW convened the field for the Learning Value of Children's Museums: Research Agenda Symposium, held on September 10–11, 2013 to facilitate the generation of a field-wide research agenda. During the convening, participants worked collaboratively to generate and prioritize the most pressing research questions that need to be answered to demonstrate the learning value of children's museums.  
  • After the symposium, ACM and UW jointly conducted four webinars to engage the field with the questions generated at the symposium.
  • At InterActivity 2014, ACM offered a session on the in-progress research agenda gaining additional perspectives from the field.
  • The project team compiled and edited the questions generated at the symposium and the input received through the webinars and InterActivity session to produce The Learning Value of Children's Museum Research Agenda.

Publication of the Learning Value of Children's Museum Research Agenda, however, is not the end of the project. Instead, it marks the starting point for developing a collective, evidence-based body of knowledge. Children's museums, independent and academic researchers, and other professionals in the field will want to align their research and evaluation efforts with the research agenda, form new partnerships, and seek new funding sources to design and conduct new studies or incorporate questions into their ongoing exhibit and program evaluations.

Building A Practicing Research Network in the Children's Museum Field

The next phase of the Learning Value of Children's Museum project is called Building a Practicing Research Network in the Children's Museum Field. ACM received a three-year IMLS grant, 2014–2017, to foster the field's capacity for research and create a self-sustaining research network. The main activities of this second phase of the project include:

  • Selecting a cohort of ten children's museums through an open application process to form the foundation of the research network.
  • Developing connections between the cohort museums to identify potential research projects.
  • Conducting three to five research projects across multiple institutions in the cohort.
  • Providing professional development through ongoing coaching and feedback during the research/evaluation planning phase.
  • Analyzing data collected and reporting results to cohort museums and the broader children's museum field.
  • Adding additional children's museums to the cohort in 2016.
  • Cultivating the network to create a self-sustaining infrastructure for research in the children's museum field.

The phase two project co-directors are Jessica Luke, PhD, of the University of Washington's Museology Graduate Program—who also served as project co-director on Building a Field-Wide Research Agenda—and This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Director, Field Services at ACM.

Cohort Selected

ACM received numerous applications to participate in the foundation of the research network. Among the selection criteria: having an active research and/or evaluation program within their institution; having an interest in leveraging one or more of their ongoing research and/or evaluation project in order to aggregate data across institutions; and able to commit to at least three years of participation including travel to off-site meetings. ACM is pleased to announce the selection of the following museums as the Research Network cohort:

  • Boston Children's Museum
  • Children's Museum of Houston
  • Children's Museum of Pittsburgh
  • Children's Museum of Tacoma
  • DuPage Children's Museum
  • Minnesota Children's Museum
  • Providence Children's Museum
  • Thanksgiving Point Institute
  • The Children's Museum of Indianapolis
  • The Magic House, St. Louis Children's Museum

ACM thanks everyone who submitted an application to participate. Watch for update announcements.  

Sharing Your Research and Evaluation Results

Critical to developing a collective, field-wide body of evidence demonstrating the learning value of children’s museums, is sharing your institution’s research and evaluation results with the field. ACM is in the process of relaunching the online Research Exchange with the Research Agenda categories of questions:

  • The Value and Impacts of Children's Museums
  • Learning Environments and Strategies
  • Children's Museums as Learners
  • Children's Learning
  • Adult/Child Learning
  • Ecosystem of Learners
  • Children's Museums and Cultural/Social Issues
  • The Role of Children's Museums in the Community 

Additional Reading

Revving Up Research, Hand to Hand, Vol. 28, No. 3, Fall 2014. Association of Children's Museums.

The Power of Play: A Research Summary on Play and Learning. White, R.E. (2013). Children’s Museum of Minnesota.

Children's Museums & Research (Part 2), Hand to Hand, Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring 2005. Association of Children's Museums.

Children's Museums & Research (Part 1), Hand to Hand, Vol. 18, No. 4, Winter 2004. Association of Children's Museums.

Learning from Each Other: Children's Museums and the Museum Field. Khalsa, G., Steuert, P., Sykes, M. (1999). In Bridges to Understanding Children's Museums N. Freelander Gibans, B. Kres Beach (Eds.) 

Growing Young Minds cover

Growing Young Minds: How Museums and Libraries Create Lifelong Learners. Howard, M.L. (2013). Institute of Museum and Library Services.