Without even meaning to, program designers can send cues to adults that their participation is not desirable. We must be aware of the invisible messages we send in our design and facilitation and insure we invite everyone to participation and make them comfortable doing so.
Tips & Takeaways
- Explicitly invite adult participation at the beginning of your program and design cues that reinforce the need and desire for adult participation through the rest of the program.
- To make adults more comfortable interacting, wean them in with an easy, safe engagement experience to help them become comfortable participating.
Quick & Easy To-Dos
- If you pass an object around, try handing it to an adult first. Don't worry, grown-ups are usually good about making sure the kids get a turn to touch.
- Ask an open-ended question or one with no correct answer at the beginning of your program which everyone will be expected to answer. Preface the question by saying something like, "Today's program is for everyone, so I'm going to ask each of you to give me an answer to this question." (see video below)
- Use nametags during your program? Have both kids AND adults wear them. If you're not using them already, try it out.
Heather Nielsen discusses the intellectual comfort we can provide adults by making our expectations explicit from the start.
Sending Cues: "This Program is for Adults, Too"
As a field, we are very good at designing programs for kids. It's the adult caregivers we sometimes have trouble with. How do we pique their interest, make them want to be involved, and show them their contribution is valued?
Whether we realize it or not, our programs, environments, materials, and even facilitation techniques send messages to our audience. This is known as Invisible Pedagogy. Even when we use the term "family" program, if we are sending messages that our program is really for kids (only short stools or kid-sized scissors, for instance), who can blame adults for backing off or thinking they don't belong? We need to critically examine the cues we are sending. A successful design will set the expectation that our program is for everyone, including adults.
Marianna Adams and Beth Fredericks address how to counter preconceived notions that a family program isn't for adults. Turns out, it can be as simple as offering an invitation to participate:
5 Strategies and Examples for Setting Expectations
1. Signage & Marketing
Your messaging needs to start even before your program begins. How are you marketing your program? Does it sound like a program only for kids? Is your imagery only of children instead of adults and children working collaboratively?
Think about the words you are using in your signage and marketing materials. Use words and phrases like "for everyone," "the entire family," "for all ages," "work as a family team," "together as a group," and similar phrases.
Also consider fonts and color schemes. It's a tough balance. Too juvenile and adults will feel silly participating. Too mature and kids won't want to be involved.
This early prototype sign for our Engage Families library program (the text was also used in marketing materials) set forth the expectation that families would work together and promises an enjoyable time for adults and kids alike. The cartoonish cannons, though, may have sent a more childish message.
Our newer library program flier added the family challenge call-out, a photo of a family group, as well as a specific call to families with kids ages 6 and up.
2. Welcome & Introduction
Engage adults early and often.
- As you welcome families to your program, use the opportunity to tell caregivers that "this is for them too." Let them know that the program is designed for them to collaborate with their kids and other group members. In some cases, children might also need their help. You can't force adults to participate but make the expectations clear in a non-threatening, exciting way.
- The manner and method of your introduction sets a tone for the program. If you ignore the adults, they will quickly check out. Engage adults immediately and continually re-engage them throughout the program.
- Make eye contact with adults. Sometimes we're so focused on the little ones, we forget to look at the adults.
- If people are touching or examining something, make sure adults do so too even if you have to put the object intheir hands or direct their attention to a particular detail.
- If you use nametags, make sure everyone wears one. Adults will often be surprised when you give them a nametag, but it's a good indicator to them of their essential role in the program.
Nametags for everyone! It's simple, cheap, and easy, but it helps set an expectation of involvement.
3. "Participation Lite"
Many adults are not used to actively participating, even in "family" programs, so they may be uncomfortable at first. In order to keep it comfortable, especially for adults who are not used to participating in programs alongside their kids, start out easy. Give everyone a safe, comfortable entre into the program. We call this Participation Lite, an easy entry into to the type of hands-on, minds-on, interactive program we have in store for the family:
- Ask a straightforward question (opinion questions work well or a question about a family experience).
- The video below offers another technique you can use. Asking everyone to offer an answer to an open-ended question is an easy, safe way to let adults know they are meant to be an active participant in your multigenerational program. You can even preface the question with a phrase like, "I'm going to ask everyone to guess."
- Have everyone do an easy task (lift a cannonball to feel the weight).
- It may seem insignificant, but just the act of ensuring adults have the same opportunities to handle,explore, and interrogate (in this case feeling the actual heft of a 32lb cannonball - see photo) lets them know this program is for them, too.
- Let everyone explore an object (pass something around but give it to the adults first).
- During our Out Run Out Gun boat building activity, we hand around a bag of 50 cannons, pennies, so participants get the sense of how much weight they will add to their boat. We hand it to adults first. They're very good about making sure kids get to hold them, too!
4. Materials, Environment, and Setup
Remove silos and integrate opportunities.
Employ "components that clearly indicate when an adult's guidance is necessary"
If you have kids working at a small table and adults at a big table, you've essentially segregated them. If you only have child-sized chairs, where will adults sit? Child-sized scissors only fit child-sized fingers. What will adults use? Do you use cheap materials for "family" programs rather than the real, high-quality, authentic stuff you save for adult activities?
We added both child and adult scissors to our Out Run, Out Gun Program kit so now there's a size that fits everyone. Still, we don't tell people which scissors to use. We let families choose.
Learn more about authenticity on this page and listen to Heather Nielsen discuss the importance authenticity plays in delivering on families' expectations:
5. Facilitation Techniques
It's up to you! There's only so much good program design can do. In the end, much of the success of multigenerational programs depends on the facilitators. Strategic, inclusive facilitation leads to successful multigenerational programs.
1. Beaumont, Lorrie. "Developing the Adult Child Interaction Inventory: A Methodological Study." Evergreene Research and Evaluation, Dec. 2010. Web. 22 Dec. 2014: 38. The research team identified six roles that were most commonly exhibited by adults, and created a list of observable behaviors. This is an observation and interview instrument, which can be used by museum educators and preschool teachers to better understand how families interact in informal science situations.