Adult caregivers seek out fun and enjoyable experiences for their family to experience together. In addition, research proves that a child's play leads directly to positive social, cultural, and educational growth. Parent and adult involvement in a child's play increases the efficacy of that play. However, parents are not always comfortable or don't know how to support their child's play. Design and facilitation can help them.
Tips & Takeaways
- Consider what you can do as designers and facilitators to create a judgement-free zone that encourages adult play.
- It is the designer's role, as well as the facilitator's, to scaffold adult involvement in play and find ways to help adults successfully play with their children.
Quick & Easy To-Dos
Our goal: families laughing and learning together"
-Marilyn Solvay, USS Constitution Museum
Family Fun Leads to Learning: What the Research Says
Many families say that they chose to visit museums because they anticipate that there will be fun and entertaining things for everyone in their group to see and do there... Not surprisingly, when families are asked to describe what they find valuable about a museum experience, they often reference the fact that they can enjoy themselves and have a good time"
-Marianna Adams, et al., "What We Do and Do Not Know about Family Learning in Art Museum Interactive Spaces: A Literature Review," 4 & 13.
When all is said and done, we want our families to have fun in our programs! After all, we know that families participate in programs to have fun together. [1a] That doesn't imply a lack of learning. The two are not mutually exclusive according to John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking.  In fact, Graham Black found that "people felt that entertainment can add to their learning, not take away from it."  Numerous studies prove that children's play helps develop their language, social skills, sense of self, civic engagement, and social capital, as well as their success in formal learning environments. 
And fun is not just for kids. Adults also want to have a good time with their families, and recent studies have shown the benefits of adult play. We should encourage that co-participation since "children's play is more likely to result in learning outcomes when adults are involved." 
In order to increase adult involvement, Project Explore found it important that exhibits "be enjoyable and playful to adults as well as children and contain subject matter that is comfortable and familiar to adults."  We believe this to be true for programs, as well.
The adults in this family are certainly enjoying the Under Pressure program and forming a "permanent" memory with a family photo afterwards.
Helping Parents Support Play: It's Not Just the Facilitator's Job
"The Parental Role in Children's Museums" study found that "Parents lack the confidence, knowledge, or skills to facilitate play for their children…parents are unsure of what strategies they should employ to best facilitate children’s learning and development…some parents expect staff to support them in these endeavors. It's the museum's role to build adult caregivers’ awareness of and capacity to facilitate their children’s play. Our facilitors can help with this,  but the Engage Families team would also argue that this parental support starts with effective and appropriate program design that scaffolds families and helps them utilize the play aspects of our programs to their maximum benefit. Indeed, as Suzanne Gaskins argues for exhibits in "Designing Exhibitions to Support Families’ Cultural Understandings," we would argue for in our programs:
Exhibits should be designed to help adults quickly recognize their support roles and provide enough information so that adults can scaffold their child's experience...keeping these strategies in mind will go a long way to support parents in their roles as play facilitators." 
Learn more in the "Modeling" section of Maximizing Engagement.
1a. 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, 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.
2. Graham Black. The Engaging Museum: Developing Museums for Visitor Involvement. London: Routledge, 2005: 192. This practical guide outlines various ways professionals can develop their programs, exhibits, and general museum atmosphere to best engage the public.
3. See The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) website. NAEYC is a professional membership organization that works to promote high-quality early learning for all young children, birth through age 8. This page features links to various studies and publications about the importance of play.
4. 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: 18. This study, conducted at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, explores parents’ perceptions of play and their role in children’s museums. A quick Google search will net you numerous articles on the benefits of adult play. Here are a few: The Psychological Case for Adult Play Time and The Importance of Play for Adults, both accessed 13 April 2016.
5. Hass, Nancy T. “Project Explore: How Children Are Really Learning in Children’s Museums.” Visitor Studies 9.1 (1997): 63-69: 67. Nancy Hass, Project Explore Manager at Please Touch Museum, details findings from the multi-phase research project including thoughts on how exhibit designers can increase a child’s learning by increasing adult engagement.
7. Discussed in Downey, 30. See whole article for more: Gaskins, Suzanne. “Designing Exhibitions to Support Families’ Cultural Understandings.” Exhibitionist. Spring 2008: 11-19: 30. How families from various cultural backgrounds bring to the museum different assumptions about the educational potential of play and of adults’ role in it and outlines ways that museums can respond to these diverse expectations.