Q&A: Designing Playful Learning Spaces : NPR Ed An exhibit designer at the Boston Children's Museum says kids are 'natural scientists,' and she wants to create experiences that cater to that.

Q&A: Designing Playful Learning Spaces

The Boston Children's Museum opens its doors for grown-ups to play after hours. Dave Levy/Flickr hide caption

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Dave Levy/Flickr

The Boston Children's Museum opens its doors for grown-ups to play after hours.

Dave Levy/Flickr

When we talk about playing and learning, we naturally think of children's museums. Most major cities offer some experience like this, where kids are able to get their hands dirty, and — shocking! — learn something at the same time.

The museums — at least the good ones — are always both engaging and interactive in a way that's fun for kids, but they're also fun for grown-ups too. As we've been reporting for our series on play next month, it got me wondering: What goes into creating great museum experiences, and how do designers go about them?

And so I took my questions to Margaret Middleton. She's an exhibit designer at the Boston Children's Museum, generally at the top of anyone's list of the most innovative kid-friendly museum spaces in the country. It also has the distinction of being one of the nation's first children's museums.

Before joining the Boston museum, Middleton designed exhibits at the San Jose Children's Discovery Museum in California. Her background is in industrial design.

Margaret Middleton, Boston Children's Museum Courtesy of Margaret Middleton hide caption

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Courtesy of Margaret Middleton

Margaret Middleton, Boston Children's Museum

Courtesy of Margaret Middleton

I spoke with her about the connection between learning and play. About how to design spaces that appeal to children and other kinesthetic learners. And about how designers can make museums fun.

On your blog, you describe yourself as "a designer and maker of playful learning environments." What does that look like?

"There's no typical day for me. It is kind of all over the map and that's one of the reasons why I really like my job. I get to work in 2D and 3D, I work on the computer and I get to work in the shop a little bit. Mostly what I'm doing is I'm having great conversations with the educators at the museum and the outside advisers and we collaboratively come up with experiences that meet the needs of the education piece and doing it through play and fun experiences."

When you're thinking about the qualities to build an exhibit, what goes through your mind?

"Play is naturally conducive to learning. It's one of the best ways to learn: learning by doing, learning by playing and experiencing things. That's what experimentation is all about. Play and science have a lot in common that way. The boring parts about it I guess, is that I have to be thinking about making sure that it's safe and that everything that we're making is going to be durable. It gets touched by thousands of hands every day. That's more the practical side of things."

Can you talk about the connection between play and learning?

"The mainstream thought about play and learning is that they're different from one another. In the children's museum world, we know that they're the same thing. We tell people that we're all about play and learning, but we know that for us, it's hard to separate those two things. People in general, not just children, learn really well kinesthetically, where we learn by doing, experimenting, playing around with things, seeing what happens. When you can have an experience with your hands and your brain and you're making guesses or using your imagination, those are memorable experiences and we create memories that way. Some of the more effective learning experiences are those kinesthetic ones and we all enjoy having fun too. We wouldn't keep learning if it weren't an enjoyable experience."

What about playful experiences for adults?

"When I tell grown-ups that I work at a children's museum, they always say, "I would love to go back there, but I don't have any kids." But we actually have evening events for grown-ups because it's an effective way for grown-ups to learn too.

The work that we do at the children's museum is not just for children. We make sure that our experiences are meaningful and enjoyable for the whole family. Kids don't go to the museum all by themselves. We have to make sure that we're providing a fun and meaningful experience for grown-ups too.

It's funny because when you sit down and you watch families interacting in a museum, you'll notice that the children will be happy to spend lots and lots of time. We usually think of children as having very small attention spans, but if an experience is successful enough, they're happy to just keep doing it over and over again. Kids repeat, they are natural scientists all on their own. They are happy to sit and learn that way for a long time. Parents will be the ones who are like: 'Okay, let's move on. This is boring.' That's when we know we need to up the experience for grown ups there. Our more successful experiences that we create are either involving grown-ups in the child's learning or providing experiences for them to co-play so they can be playing and learning next to their children, which is helpful too."

On your blog, you wrote that "Designing for children (and other kinesthetic learners) in museums is often mistaken for dumbing-down the museum." Can you expand on that a little bit?

"We usually associate kinesthetic learning, learning by doing, with children and therefore as a lesser learning style than say, sitting in a lecture hall. Not only is that offensive to children, it's also just not true. We seem to have this bias that learning can't look like fun, and that's a pretty dreary way of looking at the world. Grown-ups and children alike learn in a whole range of ways and while sometimes learning looks like sitting down and being quiet — which can be very enjoyable — it's just one type of learning and it's certainly no better than other types of learning. In children's museums, we design experiences that engage the senses, stimulate the imagination, and encourage social interaction. Experiences that engage lots of different parts of the brain are particularly personal, memorable, and enjoyable and it looks like play — because it is."

What's one thing you want to make sure I take away from this conversation?

"I would love there to be more conversation between traditional museums and children's museums. I think we're on to something in children's museums. I think we do some things really well. We have our wildly successful grown-up programs where we only allow grown-ups in the museum for. You can tell that kinesthetic learning works for grown-ups too and that we don't need to have such a separation between the two."