Your program's environment and set up can complement the multigenerational nature of your program or hinder it. Program spaces should be comfortable and inviting to families, as well as accessible and flexible, in order to fit the needs of diverse families.
Tips & Takeaways
- Adding appropriate context to your environment can help family members better understand the topic. Too much, though, can be distracting.
- Design your programs so that facilitators have an arsenal of ways to adjust the program as necessary to meet the needs of the participants and be given the agency to do so as they see fit.
Quick & Easy To-Dos
- Try moving an existing program to a new environment. What's different? Better? Worse?
- If you have floor seating for kids, try moving the program to a table with both kid and adult-sized seating options.
- Observe an existing program. Do participants of all ages look comfortable? Is there anything you can change, add, or remove that might make more of your participants comfortable?
- Remove objects or images that could be distracting to the program and/or topic at hand. Does that help focus your participants?
- Is there something you can add to the room or put on the work tables that will provide context to your theme without being distracting?
- Make a list of all possible locations for a new program. Think creatively - consider outdoor spots, exhibit spaces, and other non-traditional locations in addition to your typical program spaces. For each possible location, brainstorm the positives and negatives of doing the program there. Try them out!
- Observe the set up of an existing program. Can multiple family members huddle around? Are they easily and comfortably able to converse or do the activity together?
- Think about what your current set up may be lacking - a chair for grandma, stroller parking, a way for kids to see, etc.? Find three things you can add or change, even if it means simply adding a folding chair to pull out when a child in a cast or a pregnant women stops by.
- If your facilitator currently stands behind a table or in some other position reflecting authority and control, try having her move to a different location or try taking away the table. Does that change the nature of the interaction between the facilitator and the family or even within the family?
Developing the Optimum Environment & Set Up for Family Engagement
Your program’s environment sets the stage for engagement. The physical and spatial cues you send participants will inform their expectations and participation. Your venue, how you arrange the space, and the materials you provide can make people feel welcome or unwelcome; affect movement and interaction; determine how families work together; and either be a barrier to or a guide towards interaction. Similarly, the set up and the invisible pedagogy it conveys sends clear messages to participants about the type of engagement you're offering and about whom you want to engage (adults, kids, both, etc.).
As Stephanie Downey argues, our physical environment and design is as important as our words and signage in declaring that we want to engage everyone in a family. Though she refers specifically to exhibits, the Engage Families team argues the same is true for the messages sent by your program set up:
...museums may inadvertently send the signal that they are for children only, not families…exhibits are typically designed for small children and sometimes have the undesired effect of encouraging parents to step back and observe…The way an exhibit looks can signal to visitors that it is intended for small children only (e.g., small space and low to the ground)....” 
Remember, the first space or set up you try may not work. Even if it does work, be open to experimenting with different spaces and configurations. You may be surprised by unforeseen benefits and challenges. Be prepared to try others until you find what works best (PROTOYTPING!).
Don’t have a designated program room? That’s ok. You don’t need one. Try doing your program in an exhibit, reading room, or even outside! Depending on your topic, this may add useful links to relevant content, further reading, or provide a more authentic environment.
9 Considerations for Your Program's Environment
- Stroller access and parking.
- Proximity to restrooms, hand-washing, trash, and/or water.
- Easy entry or exit for families (if they need to sneak away to change a diaper or take care of a crying child).
- Wheelchair access; can family members with mobility problems get there?
- "Include tables and chairs designed to accommodate adults" .
- Storage for and access to program supplies, especially extra chairs or tables when needed.
- Can families easily find the space? If not, consider what wayfinding tips and tricks you can add to help out.
- Will it be visible to passing traffic? (Advantages: attract other participants, museum seems active and vibrant. Disadvantage: distract other visitors).
3. Comfort (physically, intellectually, and emotionally) & the Invitation
Is your space conducive to hosting multigenerational groups comfortably?
- Emotional comfort: is the space welcoming, approachable, and safe?
- Does the space feel family-friendly? Are there breakables or fine furniture?
- Will both adults and children feel comfortable in this space? Is the furniture adult and kid-friendly?
- Are there distractions for your program participants?
- Are there elements in the space that might confuse the family as to where they are or what is expected of them?
- Are there only kiddie chairs? Do you expect grandparents to sit on the floor? Are objects too high for kids to reach or too low for adults to see?
This library happened to have kiddie chairs and adult chairs. When the librarian wanted to take the adult chairs away, we asked her to keep them. That way, adults knew we wanted them to participate too!
- Indicators of Success:
- Everyone in a family group sitting together.
- Everyone able to be together and work together comfortably.
This little boy can't reach the caulking activity. Plus, he's using a mallet that is far too big and unwieldy for him.
The updated caulking program at the USS Constitution Museum allows family members to work alongside each other either collaboratively or competitively.
Heather Nielsen explains this concept further:
4. Avoid Distractions
- Are there distractions for your program participants?
- Or will the program distract others? The surest way to discourage conversation is to have to “shush” participants.
The caulking program got lost in the USS Constitution Museum's Discovery Center, where interactive games and video terminals sit throughout the room.
Add as much content and context to your space as possible to promote understanding, connections, and further explorations (but not too much, which can be a distraction - it's a fine line).
- Does the space help to contextualize your program? Are there related exhibits, books, or images nearby?
- Does the space feel like part of your museum or library? Is it so far removed that all context is lost?
A cannon is just an idea until you can see how big it is and learn it weighs as much as your family's SUV. This is a full-size print out we took to libraries.
We moved our quill pen program, during which people sign their own 1812-era enlistment paperwork, to a table outside the House of Rendezvous tavern (where 1812 sailors would have enlisted) in our life at sea exhibit, All Hands on Deck. This adds context and allows participants to directly continue their experience inside the exhibit entrance next to the table.
It's easier for children and their families to connect with environments and activities that have an element of the familiar."
Daryl Fischer, Crocker Art Museum, Best Practices in Cultivating Family Audiences, 10.
Immersive environments are particularly effective in contributing to lengthened visits and stimulation of learning interactions between adults and children."
Wolf, Barbara, and Elizabeth Wood, “Integrating Scaffolding Experiences for the Youngest Visitors in Museums,” 32.
How can you get a family group working together and everyone feeling important to the process?
- Family groups should be able to work together simultaneously toward a shared group goal. You need room for multiple people and something for everyone to do in order to be actively and continually engaged.
- Each family member has something important to do to forward the group project and everyone can work simultaneously.
The set up should encourage families to group around the activity.
- Indicators: The family group is huddled around the project, doing and/or conversing.
With the facilitator on one side of the table, families could only be on the other side - there was no way for gathering around.
This family can huddle together so everyone can take part.
In this case, smaller tables made huddling and gathering even easier.
8. Facilitator Space
Where will the facilitator go? Avoid putting her in an authoritative position behind a table.
- This lightens the mood and removes the stigma of facilitator as omniscient and controlling, thus establishing a more relaxed environment and allowing adult caregivers to take on roles of intellectual authority.
- The facilitator is free to move around as needed and can offer guidance, ask questions, and encourage conversation around the space.
The Roving Facilitator
Allow facilitators the flexibility to move around. You want them to not only lead the program, but become part of it. That way, the facilitator can model behavior, lead discussions, help out, and answer questions. This lightens the mood and removes the stigma of facilitator as all-knowing authority figure, thus establishing a more relaxed environment and allowing adult caregivers to take on roles of intellectual authority when appropriate.
AFTER: The two photos above show how pulling the facilitator (in the red vest) out from behind a table allows him to roam, help out as needed, chat with visitors, and engage passers-by.
Is your set-up and environment adjustable to the needs of a diverse and ever-changing audience?
- Sometimes it’s as simple as the difference between a picnic table with attached benches and a table with movable chairs.
Picnic tables vs. adjustable chairs and tables
- Consider adjustable tables, chairs, and various ways you might change your set up to accommodate visitors.
- Prepare your facilitators with an arsenal of pre-designed options to choose from and give them the authority to make further changes, as needed.
Tables that can be easily raised and lowered, as well as being small enough to gather around and reach across, allowed this gentleman in a wheelchair to join his family in the Under Pressure program.
- Facilitators have the initiative, ability, and preparation to make on-the-fly adjustments as needed to fit the needs and abilities of their audience?
- Are there chairs available when needed, adjustable tables, can someone in a wheelchair take part?
The older women in these photographs (below) both planned to sit on a permanent bench ten yards away and watch their grandchildren from afar, but when we pulled out chairs, they stayed and each took an active role in the program:
* These characteristics that lead to family learning were identified during the transformational family learning research of the Philadelphia/Camden Informal Science Education Collaborative. Find a link to the report, which includes research methodology and examples of these characteristics in an exhibit setting, here.
Seating Adults and Kids: Keep 'Em Together
When the Engage Families team did our first library program, we laid down a tarp for floor seating and set up a perimeter of chairs. Of course, the adults sat in the chairs and the kids on the floor. We quickly realized we were sending the wrong message if we wanted multigenerational participation. So, in subsequent programs, we removed the tarp and made chairs and tables available for everyone.
1. Downey, Stephanie, Amanda Krantz, and Emily Skidmore. “The Parental Role in Children’s Museums: Perceptions, Attitudes, and Behaviors.” Museums & Social Issues. 5.1 (2010): 15-34: 29. This study, conducted at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, explores parents’ perceptions of play and their role in children’s museums.