Research shows that social interaction within families leads to overall enjoyment and learning because it helps families develop a shared knowledge, better understanding of each other, and family memories.
Tips & Takeaways
- Get people talking to you and, more importantly, each other.
- Design discussion prompts into the program
- Add opportunities for problem-solving, teamwork, collaboration, role-playing, competition, surprise, and/or reflection
Quick & Easy To-Dos
- Add conversation starters to an activity table.
- Make an individual activity into a team job; have participants work together to assign themselves roles, whenever possible.
- Insert competition. Have families battle it out either within the family unit or as one family against another.
- Rather than giving instructions on how to do something, try giving families a goal and letting them work out together how to get there - Process over product.
Conversation is the currency of learning" - Minda Borun
What the Research Says
Research clearly shows the correlation between family conversation and learning, supporting developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky's concept of learning as a social and shared experience in an informal context. Families act as a social learning group when they participate in programs and "typically attach great importance to social interaction:" 
The "most commonly cited learning behaviours include: asking and answering questions, providing descriptions, offering explanations, directing and orienting, pointing, observing and modelling, pretending or roleplaying, providing clues or making suggestions, creating and presenting work, and offering reinforcement."
However, conversation between family members results in more than learning the subject matter. It also "leads to the development of shared knowledge, memories, family history, as well as an increased understanding of each other."  It's not surprising then that "conversations are pivotal in a family's attempt to find shared meaning in an exhibit"  or that "visitors' recollection of their museum experiences are almost always influenced by the social interactions they had with other members of their social group." 
Getting Families Members Talking to Each Other
First of all, you need to determine what you want families to talk about. What are your conversation goals? How will each question or conversation help you reach your intended program outcomes? Try out your ideas during the prototyping process.
No matter what happens, go where the family is and follow the conversational paths they set. Their motivations and experiences will often set the tone and tenor of you programmatic conversations.
Here are 7 strategies and techniques, along with examples from the USS Constitution Museum, you can incorporate into program design to help get families talking.
1. Provoking Discussion
Design discussion prompts into your program that will get the family talking or debating.
In our Quill Pen Writing program, families can choose to fill out an “allotment” form, an agreement that the Navy will automatically send a percentage of a sailor’s wages home to whomever he specifies. We often ask kids if they would send their wages home (most kids say “no”). That usually gets caregivers and kids talking about why or why not, what role kids today have in helping to support their families, and how different life was 200 years ago (for better and worse).
Sometimes adults need help finding ways to talk to their kids. You can model opportunities both in your design and facilitation. Try posting open-ended discussion starters and questions for adults to use. See "Modeling and Scaffolding" on the Maximizing Engagement page for other strategies.
2. Collaboration and Teamwork
Providing visitors with a challenge gave them a common goal and created the potential for exciting, memorable experiences.
-Scott A. Pattison and Lynn D. Dierking, “Exploring Staff Facilitation That Supports Family Learning,” 78.
When we first tested the Out Run Out Gun boat-building program, everyone received the same type and amount of supplies in order to build their model boats. When we added the store (see photo) and a spending budget, we increased opportunities for groups to strategize together, discussing how to spend their limited funds.
A father and son discussing how to spend their group's money at the Out Run Out Gun store.
The Out Run Out Gun Store. Each group has $30 to spend on a type of tin foil, material for a sail, and supports.
Working collaboratively has learning benefits as well:
"Visitors who learned the collaborative inquiry game showed even more improvement than those who learned the individualized game, spending more time investigating the posttest exhibit, making more frequent and more abstract interpretations of their experiments, building more collaborative explanations, and engaging in more coherent inquiry investigations than controls. Qualitative analysis suggested that the collaborative inquiry game was superior because it required all family members to participate, work together, and explicitly articulate their interpretations."  Additionally, collaboration requires conversation and negotiation which " may heighten each person's investment in the outcome...." 
3. Problem Solving
Offering parents (or care-givers) a structured, coinvestigative role in exploring phenomena may significantly enhance families' inquiry."
- J.P. Gutwill & S. Allen, “Facilitating Family Group Inquiry at Science Museum Exhibits," 738.
Putting a team together and handing them a problem to solve naturally leads to conversation. In Out Run Out Gun the issue was how to design a model boat that will float, hold 50 pennies ("cannons"), and sail as fast as possible down a "raingutter regatta." Families had to work together to choose their supplies (they were given a limited budget), engineer and build their boat, test, revise, and test again until they succeeded.
A boy describes his ideas for building a model boat to his family. Working together to problem-solve encouraged a family chat.
Researchers at San Francisco's Exploratorium found that programs posing a problem, encouraging experimentation, and requiring interpretation of the results between the family members led to deeper inquiry at their interactive science exhibits. This article explains in greater depth the design and evaluation processes, as well as the results of their research.
Ask visitors to adopt a role and then give them a team activity to complete or problem to solve. This could be a persona they will take on for the activity or just a job, such as the “recorder” or “gluer.” Having your group take on individual roles requires them to negotiate among themselves to complete those roles or jobs. Also, talking “in role” may make some people more comfortable communicating with each other.
A family discussing and assigning roles during the Under Pressure program.
Want to encourage more conversation? Let the family group choose the roles (see Family Agency in this post for more info) as we did with our Under Pressure gun crew roles. In this case, families were asked to form a gun crew in order to fire their Alka-Seltzer™ "cannon." Each gun crew has four roles to fill in order to prepare, load, aim, and fire the cannon (see below). Using one-word descriptions of each job, families talked among themselves to assign roles to the appropriate family member. It was a moment for families to learn about each other and reinforce family dynamics.
In the first iterations of our Alka-Seltzer™ cannon-firing program, participants fired the cap into the air. By simply adding a target, participants now needed to talk about how to aim, how much Alka-Seltzer™ to use, and other issues that didn’t exist before.
In addition, the competitive aspect of a target increased the intensity of the program resulting in more focused engagement.
Adding a target also added complexities of distance, angle, and charge, resulting in the needed for more intensive and targeted family strategizing.
Central to all forms of experiential learning theory is the need to ‘review the experience’, to establish its ‘perceived relevance’ and to engage in ‘reflective observation’….”
- Graham Black, The Engaging Museum, 141.
Adding opportunities for reflection into your program can encourage families to chat, share, and learn from each other. You can have families reflect on a concept, something they've done or seen, or connections to their lives.
Reflection doesn't always have to come at the end of a program when it often feels like an add-on ("anyone have any questions?). Find opportunities to allow for reflective discussion within the program, during transitions or other appropriate junctures. Learn more here.
It's a simple concept, but it gets people talking to each other. What unusual, unexpected, or surprising facts or activities can you add to your program? In the USS Constitution Museum's Alka-Seltzer™ cannon-firing program, it was the unexpected pop of the film canister for the first time.
A moment of awe and surprise as gaseous pressure caused by the combination of Alka-seltzer™ and water send the canister cap flying.
1. Hass, Nancy T. “Project Explore: How Children Are Really Learning in Children’s Museums.” Visitor Studies 9.1 (1997): 63-69. Findings from a multi-phase research project about whether or not children are learning in children's museums, including thoughts on how exhibit designers can increase a child’s learning by increasing adult engagement.
2. Adams, Marianna, et al. "What We Do and Do Not Know about Family Learning in Art Museum Interactive Spaces: A Literature Review." www.familiesinartmuseums.org, 2010: 7. 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.
7. Gutwill, J. P., & Allen, S. “Facilitating Family Group Inquiry at Science Museum Exhibits.” Science Education, 94.4 (2010): 710-742. 739. A study of how inquiry games deepen families’ scientific inquiry practices in a science museum setting.
9. Gutwill, 736.