Summary of Research
Think about not only hands-on, but also minds-on (intellectual and emotional) engagement. Active participation is more than simply a "do." Hands-on elements should be used to get participants thinking and understanding your content.
Providing opportunities to engage the adults in active participation with their children leads to learning and memory-making. All ages need to be engaged otherwise it will cut short the engagement of others in the group.
Tips & Takeaways
- Determine what you want to happen during your program. What do you want people to see, do, hear, feel, touch? How will they interact with the program and with each other during the program? How will you get everyone involved?
- Setting engagement goals help you stay focused on the family, the content, and maintaining relevancy.
Quick & Easy To-Dos
- Critically examine the hands-on elements of one of your programs. Do they move the story forward, help participants better understand the topic, or aid in the families' engagement with each other? If not, try removing the activity and see if it helps or hinders the program.
- If you are currently running a speaking-heavy program, try thinking of different ways of teaching the same information - maybe it's a puzzle, a scavenger hunt, or a Visual Thinking Strategies examination of an image. Think about minds-on, as well as hands-on activities.
Family Engagement Goal: Getting Everybody Actively Participating
The goal of the Engage Families Project was to find strategies and techniques of design and facilitation that incorporated individuals of all ages into family programs and got everyone actively engaging with the program and others in their family group.
Why is this important to us?
- Research shows that "learning is more likely to occur when adults are actively engaging with the child." 
- Social interaction within the family leads to learning and memory-making. 
- Families seek out opportunities to spend "quality time" together "to build and strengthen their relationships." 
- Kids stay longer when the adults are engaged. 
- Learn more here.
How do we engage all ages? Provide something for everyone.
It's even harder than it sounds to attract and keep the interest and involvement of everyone in a multigenerational group. In every family there will be diverse aptitudes and various interests. That said, to engage everyone in the group, "there has to be something of interest to the parent and the child. If one party is not interested it will cut short the engagement time of the other party."  The Design Strategies and Facilitation sections of this website are full of techniques for maximizing multigenerational engagement. Heather Nielsen of the Denver Art Museum looks to the success of the Pixar™ movie company in engaging both adults and children as a model for our own programmatic engagement:
As the Pixar™ example shows, engaging adults and children is done through thinking critically about your audience, your offerings, and seeking out what adult caregivers need to help be active members of the engagement process:
Active vs. Passive Participation
Back in 2012 we developed programs at the USS Constitution Museum for the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 with the goal of engaging all members of a family audience. We wanted to see adults actively participating by working alongside their children, conversing, collaborating, doing, laughing, and experiencing. That was our goal, that's what we designed for, but as we rolled out the programs we found to our dismay that kids participated but adults mostly hung back, took photos, watched, and/or helped as needed. They were participating but doing so passively. But we were not seeing the type of multigenerational engagement that we know, thanks to research, leads to learning and memory-making. So the Engage Families team wanted to push the envelope; to see if more inclusive, active forms of participation (conversation, problem-solving, teamwork, role-playing) could get us a more successful family engagement.
In effect, we placed values on the various forms of participation because we believed, based on research and out own experiences, that certain kinds of participation increased opportunities and maximized potential for multigenerational engagement and learning. For example, we valued helping a child tape her tinfoil boat together less than we valued adults and children brainstorming the design of that boat. To us, the latter activity was more substantive based on the needs and goals of our program and was more likely to foster deep thinking, memory-making, and fun.
Every institution has the right to place their own values on types of participation and their own goals for adult participation in their programs. Similarly, every program will have its own participation goals and needs.
Getting adult caregivers to move from passively taking photos (top) to actively participating with their families (bottom) is the goal of the Engage Families Project and the aim of the strategies included in this website.
What We Mean by Active Participation
"Active participation requires the use of the senses and the stimulation of emotions and, in turn, substantially enhances the quality of the visit.”
-Graham Black, The Engaging Museum, 203-204.
Here is a list of characteristics of active participation developed by the Engage Families team. Our goal is to see one or, ideally, more of these characteristics among all participants in our multigenerational programs.
- Cheering/High fives
- Teaching each other
- Touching/Exploring an object
- Making connections
- Sharing knowledge
Setting Family Engagement Goals
As you enter the program design or revision process, it will be important to keep in mind how setting engagement goals will help focus and define your program. These goals should be set in the context of your content goals (see next section on content goals). The two support each other (See "Using Hands-On to Get to Minds-On").
In this clip, Beverly Sheppard and Heather Nielsen highlight how setting engagement goals can help ensure you stay focused on the family and maintain relevancy during the design process.
Sample engagement goals:
- Participants will feel a connection to the artist's motivations based on the artist's experience and identify how it relates to their experiences.
- Participants will imagine what it would be like to be the queen bee of the hive and share their thoughts with the group.
- Participants will feel the weight of the ax and how it strains their muscles to make a connection to the challenging physically experience of woodcutters.
Sample family interaction goals:
Since we know that social interaction within the family leads to learning and memory-making, it's important to consider how you want family members to engage with each other.
- Families will work together to design, choose materials, and build a model boat.
- We will encourage kids to find something they can teach their adults during the program.
- Families will share memories about ....
Discussion Starters for You and Your Colleagues
During our Engage Families brainstorms, there was lots of disagreement within the team about whether or not we can value certain forms of participation over others. We all agreed that adults on their cell phones or engaging in unrelated conversations were not participating. But what about other forms of participation that fell into a more liminal space? For instance, is watching participating? What about taking photos? The majority of us agreed that watching can be active or passive. When active, the individual is intently observing, and it is often interspersed with moments of conversation, questioning, and even doing (see "Firsthand Learning Through Intent Participation"). Similarly, we often see adults step back from other forms of participation in order to take a photo. They remain, though, an active participant during the photo-taking process. On the other hand, passive observing is more like zoning out. And adults who are not paying attention but who occasionally snap a photo when something draws their attention is also passive.
Another voice in this discussion is Heather Nielsen of the Denver Art Museum. She asks us to "open up our perspectives of what successful family experiences can look like." She is wary of us as designers and facilitators imposing our desires on families. What do you think?
Using "Hands-On" To Get "Minds-On"
"Active participation does not necessarily mean pulling levers or pressing buttons. Physical involvement is only a means to an end. The real ambition is to engage the visitor’s mind, to generate a sense of discovery – what is now referred to as ‘mind-on’, rather than just ‘hands-on’….We can generally suggest that – while each individual is unique and will learn within his or her own balance of elements – visitors learn by a mixture of:
Doing * Thinking * Watching * Reading * Listening
Imagining * Interacting (with staff and each other) * Discussing Assimilating.” 
1. Haas, Nancy T. “Project Explore: How Children Are Really Learning in Children’s Museums.” Visitor Studies 9.1 (1997): 63-69:64. Details findings from the multi-phase research project including thoughts on how exhibit designers can increase a child's learning by increasing adult engagement.
2. See What We Do and Do Not Know about Family Learning in Art Museum Interactive Spaces: A Literature Review  and Falk, John H. Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, Inc., 2009) 33.]
3. Marianna Adams, et al., "What We Do and Do Not Know about Family Learning in Art Museum Interactive Spaces: A Literature Review," Family Learning in Interactive Galleries (FLING), www.familiesinartmuseum.org, 2010, 13 & 4. This comprehensive review, circa 2010, covers the changing definitions of family, facilitation, audience motivations, social interaction, audience goals and values, parent behaviors, as well as describing the life-cycle of a family’s visit to a museum.
4. Beaumont, Lorrie. "Developing the Adult Child Interaction Inventory: A Methodological Study." Evergreene Research and Evaluation, Dec. 2010. Web. 22 Dec. 2014. 73. The Adult Child Interaction Inventory (ACII) team identified six roles that were most commonly exhibited by adults, and created a list of observable behaviors. This report presents the method, results, and discussion of the research study.
6. "Kids & Their Grownups: New Insights on Developing Dynamic Museum Experiences for the Whole Family." Denver Art Museum, 2013. Web. 13 May 2014. This report details the Museum’s process of creating new experiences for children and their caregivers by increasing the Museum’s relevance and providing opportunities for family participation.
7. Graham Black. The Engaging Museum: Developing Museums for Visitor Involvement. London: Routledge, 2005. 198. This practical guide outlines various ways professionals can develop their programs, exhibits, and general museum atmosphere to best engage the public.