How can museums scaffold playfulness?

During Christmas, I enjoy catching up on trends I may have missed throughout the year as I observe the family gift exchange with my in-laws. This year, one family member received an adult dot-to-dot book—an apparent innovation on the popular adult coloring book. It looked intricate, engaging, and beautifully designed—and very appealing as a way to relax and get creative in a relatively low-stakes way.

Given the popularity of the adult coloring book, a dot-to-dot book for adults isn’t surprising. Creating art is both productive and soothing. Also, coloring and dot-to-dot books provide the scaffolding needed for adults to create something cohesive and aesthetically pleasing simply for its own sake.

Recently, I started working at Historic Ships in Baltimore as a part-time Museum Educator. This experience has been really valuable for me because it has opened my mind to the power of hands-on learning in cultural and historic spaces, something with which I had little prior experience. At Historic Ships, the Educators offer a variety of programs that allow visitors to engage actively with history by performing real tasks such as turning a ship’s sail, raising cargo, or running a gun drill.

As with coloring and dot-to-dot books, these activities might not seem, at first glance, likely to appeal to adults. They require some level of risk, vulnerability, and openness that most of us don’t entertain in our daily state of guardedness and fatigue. But they can nevertheless be pitched and scaffolded in ways that are captivating and engaging.

Adults, like children, love to be playful, but museums and cultural institutions, I believe, sometimes struggle to entice them to experience these instincts fully. I explored this question in an earlier post, asking how museums could invite adults to play in their spaces and with their content, and suggested some initial thoughts based on personal experimentation and relevant posts by other bloggers:

  • Include adult content and design choices
  • Provide platforms for sharing
  • Scaffold to ensure success
  • Ensure the visitor’s contribution is meaningful to the institution
  • Make it fun

Returning to this question, I would now suggest a couple of additional points:

  • Make the process (not just the outcome) meaningful and challenging. After observing programs at Historic Ships, I’ve noticed numerous opportunities for give and take, genuine challenge, and critical thinking with visitors.
  • Treat visitors with unconditional positive regard. This is a concept developed by psychologist Carl Rogers that advocates an enduring and fundamental acceptance of clients’ contributions. This attitude on the part of the museum is valuable in establishing the trust and safety required to solicit visitors’ participation in an activity. It means responding respectfully and encouragingly even when a visitor asks a question that seems obvious or silly, giving real thought and consideration to all visitor contributions, and accepting all levels of participation as valid and worthy.
  • Finally, thank visitors for playing. Participation is an act of generosity, and frequently, courage.
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Image taken at The Matilda Joslyn Gage Home.

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