We have all seen an adult leading their child’s experience through children’s museums–directing them at each exhibit then moving on before the child has the chance to explore. But what if the exhibit is designed for the adult to engage on a different aesthetic level, supplementary to the child-directed play? When done successfully, adult exhibit engagement frees the child to explore the space on their own while joyful adults are nearby for support. From artistic flourishes to thoughtful seating arrangements, an engaged adult experience can generate longer dwell times and increased observable behaviors related to play-based learning.

interPLAY, which focuses on play-based STEM learning, is informed by research and shows that guided play provides rich engagement with STEM phenomena and practices. The design of exhibits supported a nuance of guided play from low structure play utilizing loose parts or objects to game or ludic play with increasing structure with rules, and convergent outcomes.

The outcome of interPLAY is a developed framework for classifying STEM exhibits based on observations, practitioner focus groups, and literature as follows:

    The constructs that define the range of play-based STEM learning include the design of the play and embedded approach to STEM phenomenon, facilitation of the play-based STEM engagement, and
    the design elements influential of the play-based STEM engagement.

    The observational tool was developed for museum professionals to review new and existing exhibits while considering the framework constructs.

    The following resources are available to support museum professionals’ work

    Over the course of three years, the project team has collected data from a literature review, practitioner focus groups, and extensive site observations at 11 museums across the U.S. to understand how STEM content is presented in exhibits targeting children ages three to eight years old and how the presentation of this content impacts the playful learning approaches by children visiting these exhibits.

    interPLAY is a partnership between ACM and Oregon State University
    STEM Research Center to explore the intersection of play and STEM for young learners at STEM exhibits in children’s museums and science centers.