Respect the family dynamic and give families choice and agency whenever possible.
Facilitators should prioritize information so as to not overload participants. Stick to relatable content presented in an accessible, comfortable way.
Tips & Takeaways
- It is part of a facilitator's role to work throughout a program to maintain the engagement of all program participants.
- Use transitions as an opportunity to engage the disengage or re-engage drifting adults.
- Allow families the agency to choose, whenever possible. Remember, they know each other best.
Quick & Easy To-Dos
- Are you losing the focus of participants, especially adults, during a programmatic transition? Try using a question, instruction, or prompt to re-engage. This element can also serve as an opening to engage a dis-engaged observer or latecomer.
- If there is a moment in your program when the facilitator assigns roles, materials, or makes a choice for a family, consider ways of letting family members (or the family group) chose, thus giving the families agency.
- Plan out your transitions. How do you connect one topic to the next? How is everything in your program connected?
- If you currently "give away" the answer to problem or question, find ways to let your participants solve the problem or answer the question by practicing vague guidance, asking open-ended, reflective questions that support people while they discovery the solution for themselves.
Facilitators play an essential role maintaining engagement throughout the program by conversing with families, asking questions, all the while letting families make their own choices - a series of continual engagement and re-engagement negotiations.
Continually and Consciously Engaging Adults and Families
Now that the family has accepted the invitation to participate and started the program, it falls to the facilitator to ensure that all family members continue engaging throughout the activity. Scott Pattison and Lynn Dierking, while studying staff and family interactions in science centers, found that "posing challenges, promoting math talk, and supporting visitor interactions" were "promising approaches to deepen visitor engagement and empower visitors."  It's about being responsive to the family visitor in order to facilitate the learning experience in the way that best suits the family, as Beverly Sheppard argues:
5 Strategies for Maintaining Engagement
How can facilitators be responsive, adaptable, and maintain engagement throughout a program? Here are some things to think about:
1. Being a "Guide on the Side" vs. a "Sage on the Stage"
According to Marianna Adams, too often facilitators feel the need to empart knowledge to program participants by acting like a "sage on the stage." It is far more difficult, she argues, to be an effective "guide on the side," working with family members to make connections and guide their experience.
Beverly Sheppard of BKS Consulting explains that the facilitator's role is to be a partner to the family, one who uses facilitation tools to bring together the program and the family while knowing when to step aside:
2. Prioritize Information
This may seem anathema to the concept of facilitation, but knowing when to step back is as essential as knowing when to step in, what questions to ask, and what to say.
Does this seem too hard? Think of ways to convey content in a different way to get to the same point and in ways that will attract (or be of interest to) different people. Information should not just being delivered from facilitator to individual family members but provide opportunities for ideas to be shared, bounced around, cross-pollinated. Recognize that everyone has something to contribute, so let the facilitator’s authority be shared with the family.
Layer in content in other ways. Use authentic vocabulary in context without stopping to define every word or “dumb down” the vocabulary. Think of this as the program equivalent of the 50 words or less exhibit label. Think through your words – be strategic, not scripted.
Why is this important?
...appropriately designed staff facilitation integrating visitor interest and prior knowledge prompted families to engage in more learning conversations during and subsequent to the interactions" [emphasis added].
Scott A. Pattison & Lynn D. Dierking. “Staff-Mediated Learning in Museums," 119.
Mix it Up
In her blog post on Invisible Pedagogies, Andrea de Pascual argues that “we want to change [the] power-knowledge barrier built between educators…and the participants….” Have more than one educator in the room “so as not to have a single point of view, but also to show that among the ‘agents of the institution’ there can be disagreements and even discords. It is a scheme to make the one true voice disappear in favor of a multiplicity of voices, all of them being equally valid. We also think that it was fundamental, in order to bring down this wall of conventional teaching, to introduce analytic dialogue (based on the possibility instead of agreement) and open-ended activities receptive to the unexpected." 
3. (Re) Engage During Transitions
Some adults try to sneak away during transitions or they start chatting with other adults and their focus shifts away from the program. Be aware of this phenomenon in order to invite the adults back into the program.
On the other hand, transitions can be a good time to engage the disengaged. Ask a question, extend an invitation, or otherwise take the opportunity to insert disengaged adults into the next phase of the program. During the USS Constitution Museum's Under Pressure cannon-firing program, we transition from the reproduction cannon to the gun crew tables. We take the opportunity to invite the disengaged to join their family at a table and then we ask everyone to take a guess at how many sailors it took to fire a cannon. We ask everyone to answer this question, even adults standing back, taking photos, or otherwise removed from the action (see a short video here).
In Out Run Out Gun, the shift from building the model boat (above) to trying it out in the water (below) is a good opportunity to invite disengaged individuals to come over and watch.
Sometimes, we just point out an opportunity to take a photograph. That way, at least we are engaging the person with what their family is doing.
4. Let Families Have Agency
As we discussed in Inclusionary Design page, family members know each other best. They want, sometimes need, to make their own choices that best suite their familial needs and pre-existing relationships. Facilitators need to respect this. It's part of the role negotiation discussed in Establishing Engagement.
We observed staff and family members using a variety of cultural tools, drawn from social practices appropriate in both everyday settings and, especially, museum contexts, to assert, support, and contest roles and to negotiation changing situation definitions aligned with family or staff goals."
Children need adults who know them intimately and can introduce new play experiences that will stimulate growth… there is general consensus that adults play a key role in the facilitation of play-creating optimal environments, time to play, and support, which might take the form of encouragement and praise, conflict resolution, and scaffolding.”
5. Dealing with the "Tough Stuff"
Taking inspiration from the book, Puzzles about Art: An Aesthetics Casebook, Marianna Adams offers suggestions for dealing with those topics which, at first glance, seem too tough or esoteric to tackle with a family audience (or any audience for that matter).
Sometimes, It's Ok to Step Away
The greatest sign of success for a teacher...is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.’”
-Maria Montessori, educator (1870-1952)
In the USS Constitution Museum's programming, we aim to design and set up a program that gets families working together. Our facilitators serve an essential role ensuring the success of that family engagement, but there are definitely situations within the program where we want to see families working with each other independently. For us, this is a sign of success.
1. Pattison, Scott A., and Lynn D. Dierking. “Exploring Staff Facilitation That Supports Family Learning.” Journal of Museum Education 37.3 (2012): 69-80: 78. This article focuses on the important role that adult family members play in unstructured interactions with museum staff. The authors also offer some tips for front-line staff who facilitate family programs.
2. Pattison, Scott A., and Lynn D. Dierking. “Staff-Mediated Learning in Museums: A Social Interaction Perspective.” Visitor Studies 16.2 (2013): 117-43: 119. This article explores the nature of unstructured staff-facilitated family learning at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, highlighting the importance of role negotiation between staff and adult family members, particularly during the initiation of interactions, staff and visitor facilitation of family learning, and the introduction of new learning goals by staff members.
4. de Pascual, Andrea. “Invisible Pedagogies: Expanding the Concept of Education in Museums.” Art Museum Teaching. Web. 3 April 2014. This blog post examines the concept of Invisible Pedagogies, as well as some real-world examples of how institution’s transformed them into more positive, clear experiences for their visitors.
6. 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: 19. This study, conducted at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, explores parents’ perceptions of play and their role in children’s museums.