Stand Back: Watching and Learning from Returning Families

This article is part of the “Inside the Curve: Business as (Not Quite) Usual” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Pam Hillestad, Glazer Children’s Museum

I believe passionately in silver linings, but I have to admit that even my optimistic ideals were shaken to the core when we re-opened the Glazer Children’s Museum in June 2020. None of us knew what to expect. From a business standpoint, I wasn’t sure how we were going to recover, but I was even more worried about how we were going to create a positive experience for families coming out of quarantine. Would they come? What would they expect? What would they need? We weren’t sure, but we hoped that if we watched and listened we would figure it out.

Fairly quickly, we noticed that groups stayed together and experienced the museum differently than they had in the past. They remained in family units and were much more aware of where their children were and what they were doing throughout their visit. No longer distracted by phones, conversations, or the outside world, adults appeared more physically and mentally involved in their family’s visit. The reality of the threat of COVID-19 and navigating a new normal seemed to force them to be more present in the moment. We saw caregivers genuinely immersed in their children’s experiences.

Capitalizing on Change

We were not surprised that caregivers were newly cautious, but we were excited at the renewed attention they gave to their children and the overall level of family engagement. Preparing to add daily programming back into the schedule, we asked ourselves, “What if we could create programming in such a way that even when COVID-19 is no longer a concern, families still exhibit this kind of engagement during museum visits?” In an attempt to answer this question, we re-imagined our daily programming schedule and began to prototype what eventually became the Family Play Project (FPP).

First, we set up a programming area designed to give families their own spaces within it. The museum has two staircases. When we reopened, we designated one as the “up” staircase and one as the “down” staircase. The programming space we chose at the top of the “up” staircase was immediately visible and welcoming to families as they made their way to the second floor. In this 1,100-square-foot area, we set up six small, family-sized tables, six feet apart, and put a bottle of hand sanitizer on each table. Our program team staff, called playologists, stood near the top of the stairs and invited guests into the area to try the day’s activity. They shared materials and instructions with families by placing items on colorful trays and passing each family a tray as they entered the space and sat at their own table to participate.

In the first few months, activity themes changed frequently. On one day, we would offer an art activity at 10:00 a.m. and then a STEM activity at 11:00 a.m., for example. In one of these first art programs, playologists gave families a tray of leaves and other natural objects and invited them to use a glue gun, eye stickers, paint sticks, and other materials to create an animal or picture of some sort to either leave on a gallery wall or take home. After handing each family a tray, playologists then stepped aside to allow them to complete the activity on their own. Initially intended to keep both staff and guests at a social distance from each other, this type of “hands-off” programming was a big shift for everyone. Our playologists were used to interacting with children face-to-face while parents either opted out or participated in a cursory way. Families were used to letting us guide their play.

We put this new format in place as a temporary measure to help staff and guests feel safer. However, we soon found it also gave our program team time to observe and encourage family play. More importantly, we discovered it allowed caregivers more time and space to engage deeply with their children around the program. It wasn’t just that they were keeping closer tabs on their children’s physical location during a museum visit; we now saw a new level of interest in the programming activities. We saw deepened, joyful connections and knew we had stumbled upon something important.

Committing to Change

As you can imagine, the initial change was not easy for the playologists. The moments of joy the team had formerly experienced working one-on-one with children had been transferred to the caregivers—and that was a hard adjustment at first. The team missed their old interactions with children and weren’t sure they were doing their jobs correctly anymore. After all, who were we, if we were not directly instructing or playing with children? That question led us to take a deep dive into the world of playwork and to begin to determine for ourselves where the intersection of museum play, family play, and playwork lay.

We had to dig in, examine our mission, consult our strategic plan, and determine who we wanted to be and who our families needed us to be—now. And while a little painful at the time (isn’t all change painful?), it was ultimately revelatory. This process has put the museum on a path, toward not only establishing ourselves as convening experts in the field of play, but also centering ourselves in the community as champions of play for children and families. Within a few weeks not only had the percentage of engagement in our daily programs grown, but so too had the amount of dwell time in them, the quality of the interactions, and both the level of participation and overall satisfaction of caregivers. The daily program participation capture rate soared under 10 percent in 2019 to 34 percent in 2021. We felt we had found the holy grail!

By stepping back and providing families with tools, we were building a more meaningful programming space. To celebrate this discovery, we decided to put all of our daily programming “eggs” into the family play “basket,” and we have not looked back. Prior to the pandemic, we had the typical scheduled programming at timed intervals and in different locations throughout the museum. Now we are committed to open programming throughout the day and primarily in one location.

The Family Play Project’s discovery phase continued through the fall of 2020 in the dedicated “up” staircase area. Frequently observing families in the space, we tracked daily metrics as well as dwell times. Families were engaged and having fun, and we were learning how to interact with them from the sidelines, wearing what Penny Wilson calls “the cloak of invisibility” in her essay, “The Playwork Primer,” published by the Alliance for Childhood.

By late December, we were posting daily capture rates over 30 percent. We instinctively knew that this was not simply a COVID-19 phenomenon, but that we had stumbled on the great white whale in children’s museums: a way to build relationships with caregivers and give them the support and space they needed so that they could enjoy a meaningful and playful experience with their children.

Project Appeals to Families—and Donors and Supporters

By January 2021, based in part on metrics and in part on gut feelings, we decided to continue the Family Play Project format for our daily programs in the upstairs space. But instead of running a couple different daily programs, with ever-changing themes, we selected one theme per month, allowing us to deepen the impact. Phase 1 of this new iteration involved building a Family Play Project calendar, choosing a theme for each month and tying as many of the other daily elements and museum spaces of the museum into it. Our first extended focus topic, bears, was an introduction to the Wild Kratts exhibit that followed. A screen in the FPP area was tuned to a Panda Bear webcam, and families learned how to fold origami bears together in the project activity. In addition, playologists learned a number of interesting bear facts to share with guests and all of our story time books were about bears.

Along the way, we also discovered the well-branded Family Play Project was very appealing to partners and donors. In April 2021, we partnered with Tampa Bay Water and created a Family Play Project with a special emphasis on water. Families stepping into the “up” staircase space were welcomed by water-related images on the walls, including art by First Nations Artist Christi Belcourt portraying the interconnectedness of nature and images explaining the water cycle. Families received a tray that included a black sheet of paper, oil pastels, and a copy of a family water pledge, which they could sign. Bilingual signage on each family table shared information about Christi Belcourt as well as some key water-related vocabulary words, such as aquifer, mangrove, and percolation. Children were captivated by the oil pastels, and adults were intrigued by the artist and her technique, which is characterized by rich, saturated colors that look like native beadwork, frequently on a dark background. Many families signed the water pledge as well.

Refining and Adapting—An Ongoing Process

The Family Play Project nicely illustrates the lessons we have learned about family play. While children are almost always eager to participate in an activity, choosing a topic that also interests caregivers increases family involvement. Currently, Family Play Projects are planned well in advance and integrated into the broader museum program. Some months the focus is attached to a partner (Tampa Bay Water) or an exhibit (Daniel Tiger), while other months it is attached to an event (celebrating the museum’s birthday). Each month we develop a theme-based, scaffolded family play activity, a story time book list, a musical play list, and a felt wall in the play space. The Family Play area is open all day long and families participate on their own schedule. Playologists are focused on inviting people into the area and supporting them, while giving families space to do the activities themselves.

We are still in the process of determining exactly what elements complete the perfect recipe for a meaningful, playful family experience, but we are learning more every day. In retrospect, Meditation and Mindfulness, our least successful theme, seemed to be an unfamiliar topic to caregivers, with activities like trying yoga poses and writing affirmations. What seems to consistently work best are themes that involve a lot of loose parts for children and a reason for caregivers to pay attention (either an intriguing topic or a perceived dangerous or “adult” tool, like a glue gun or hammer). Over the last eight months, we have continued to add and tweak elements, consult our play experts and families, and work cross-departmentally to develop a framework that captures what we are seeking. Our current model for the ideal project includes family learning goals based on topics we believe will delight and appeal to both children and adults, such as the use of interesting or novel tools (microscope, skin tone crayons, oil pastels), colorful tabletop and wall signage, multimedia elements, and an opportunity to either display a project on the gallery wall or take it home.

This summer, we added an intercept survey to our metrics, and now ask random families to complete a short survey on their way out of the programming space. To date, responses show that 91.7 percent of caregivers agree or strongly agree their child/children discovered something new about themselves and/or others today; 84 percent agree or strongly agree they discovered something new about themselves or their child today; and 97 percent agree or strongly agree they had fun. These responses have convinced us not only that are we headed in the right direction, but also that we are filling a need for the families we serve. Currently under development, a research project with the Department of Child and Family Studies at the University of South Florida will further probe FPP outcomes and results will guide future work in this area.

While so many difficult and awful things have happened during the past year and a half, we are thankful and extremely glad we took the time to watch, learn, and listen to our families when they returned to the museum. Their vigilance in protecting their own families struck a chord with us and the Family Play Project grew from there. We have recently added back some daily pop-up activities in other areas of the museum throughout the day. Families are starting to relax and sometimes will even join another family at the FPP table. On the whole, they are still more engaged than they were pre-pandemic. It is our deepest hope that the lessons learned will inform our future playwork and help families continue to build deep connections through play.

Pam Hillestad, vice president of play and learning, has served at the Glazer Children’s Museum in Tampa, Florida, since 2017. Previously she was a high school English teacher and soccer coach on U.S. Military bases in Portugal, Turkey, Bahrain, and Italy.