Research shows that adults offering children vague guidance, asking open-ended and reflective questions, results in more learning than precise guidance, giving the answer or solving the problem for the child. Facilitators can encourage families to converse and reflect with each other, which benefits the family. By modeling for caregivers and scaffolding both adults and children, facilitators can improve learning and family engagement.
Tips & Takeaways
- Designers should ensure that facilitators have a "magic hat" of ways to adjust their program to meet the needs of diverse families. Encourage nimbleness and creativity!
- Find ways to engage the disengaged, including the young, old, initially uninterested, etc.
- Practice designing and using open-ended questions to explain topics and lead participants toward discussion and comprehension.
Quick & Easy To-Dos
- If a facilitator asks small groups to brainstorm, problem-solve, or reflect during a program, continue to do so, but try augmenting the verbal instruction with a written sign or prompt that reiterates and, if possible, expands on the prompt. Provide adult caregivers with extra conversation starters or ideas for supporting the conversation and their children.
- Plan out the physical location for where you can hide your flexible and "surprise" content. You can’t easily adjust a program if you don’t have the supplies readily available.
- Practice your reflective questioning techniques – why did this happen? What do you observe that makes you say that? Think about ways that this might connect personally with your participants' lives or experiences.
Facilitators can maximize program engagement using best practices in modeling, scaffolding, flexibility, and by guiding adults and children.
Using Facilitation to Make the Most of Your Program's Engagement
Facilitators can use their skills to maximize participation across the family. It’s not just how many people can do something at one time; it’s about how many people can work together to accomplish a goal, have fun, make memories, participate together, and learn about each other.
Engaging the Disengaged Through Flexibility and Accomodation
It's about Preparedness and Nimbleness
- Cultivate a flexibility that allows you to be nimble and make on-the-fly decisions to alter the program to suit the needs of your audience.
- Do advanced planning to adapt the program to different family sizes or age ranges with minimal disruption. (In Under Pressure a family of 4 is the target gun crew, but simple options for larger and smaller families are already thought out so a facilitator can quickly and confidently accommodate any family.).
- Facilitators should be prepared to cut short, expand, change a program for disabilities, age, culture, and to allow for different approaches.
- Be prepared for all the contingencies/eventualities.
Remember, there are visible and invisible forms of diversity.
A Magic Hat for Greater or Different Engagement
What will appeal to each family audience? Find ways to add something special - not normally in the program - something that surprises participants. It could be advanced content, further resources, or something for toddlers to do (color or design the sail for the model boat being built by older members of the family). We let facilitators of our Out Run Out Gun program add timed races to the program to add complexity to the challenges. Be prepared with these possibilities in your back pocket.
Strategies for Dealing with Barriers to Engagement
Perhaps you have a family member who straggles in after everyone else got started. Latecomers don't have to interrupt your program negatively. Ask a child in their family to fill them in on the challenge. It makes the child articulate to goal of the program which is good for the child and lets others hear the goal again. Plus, it encourages the adult to get involved.
As we all know, families often come with toddlers and "littles." They can be a distraction to one or more family members, especially adults, if there's nothing for them to do, so have a related project ready for them. For our model boat building program, we have toy plastic boats little ones can put in the water tank to play with. We also encourage those old enough to color to decorate the boat's sail with markers. In another program, we have a small teddy bear they can play with.
Working with Super-Involved Parents
What if parents take control over your family program leaving the kids to watch? It happens more than you'd think. One solution we've found is to offer to start the program over again with the kids: "why don't we let mom finish this one, and you and I will work on this one."
Asking Questions to Promote Conversation and Reflection
It is essential that program designers include conversation starters, as well as themes and content that are relatable, spark memories, or encourage reflection. However, the facilitator is often needed to instigate, encourage, and sometimes even participate.
How does the facilitator encourage conversation and reflection? - Asking the right questions
This is a tough skill to master, but doing so exponentially improves the quality of a family's conversation thus benefiting the family greatly.
You can't just ask any question and hope to elicit a thoughtful response, never mind start a whole conversation. According to Nancy T. Haas from Project Explore, the goal in developing questions is to guide learning through open-ended, reflective questions, what she terms, vague guidance.  Children who receive this vague guidance were shown to have a learning advantage over those receiving precise guidance from adults (giving the answer or information to the child).
What does Haas mean by open-ended, reflective questions? She provides this example from observing adults interacting with children using a component called, Maxi-Rollaway, which encouraged kids to put up barriers along a slat of wood with the goal of keeping a ball from falling off the slat: "The experimental design consisted of setting up impasses along two pathways of the Maxi-Rollaway. The child's task was to correct these barriers in order to allow the ball to flow smoothly from the top of the board down all ramps to the bottom…the adult utilized vague guidance. Using reflective questions, she supported the child in solving the problem on his/her own. 'Uh-oh, what happened to the ball?' 'Why won't the ball go down?' 'Is there something you can do to help the ball go down?' 'Is there something else you can try?'" 
J.P. Gutwill of the Exploratorium in San Francisco also encourages the use of open-ended questions in order to elicit a positive cognitive response: "we also challenged them [parents] to pursue questions to which no one knows the answer. This latter request successfully encouraged both parents and children to actively investigate and reflect on the exhibit, as demonstrated by their improvement in the skill of interpreting results.” 
Still unsure how to craft a good question? Nina Simon offers some suggestions in her Museum 2.0 blog. She lists some examples of "right questions" and "wrong questions:" 
Excerpted from Nina Simon, “Design Techniques for Developing Questions for Visitor Participation.” Museum 2.0 Blog. 28 April 2009.
What makes Simon's "wrong" questions wrong? In fact, you may have used some of them in your own facilitation to some degree of success. It seems in this case, as in most everything we do in program design and facilitation, it's all about providing participants with an appropriate context. Yes, if you asked "what's the girl in the painting doing?" or "what does freedom meant to you?" it might turn people off. But, in the right context, these could also be useful questions for moving your discussion along or even giving participants an opportunity to grapple (indicator of a "right" question) with important issues. In some cases, these are transformative questions. Should we shy away from the these? Not always or as a rule. In the right context and in a comfortable, safe space, these may be just the questions to build a family memory or spark curiosity to know more.
It doesn't have to be complicated
As Beth Fredericks explains, sometimes simple reflective questions, such as "What do you think...?" or "have you ever...?," help participants make connections, and subsequently make meaning, of the activity:
Marianna Adams gives one example of how a facilitator can provoke conversation:
If you're not getting the responses you're looking for, perhaps you're not asking the right question(s). Are your questions too vague, too big, too esoteric, too embarrassing or intimidating? For instance, at the USS Constitution Museum, we could ask, "how does a cannon work?" Some visitors know the answer to this, others know just enough to guess, but for some this is overwhelming and intimidating - they don't want to look stupid. What if we broke the question down into component parts? We could ask about gunpowder, gasses under pressure, and cannonballs. That way, our questions are building towards the goal of understanding how a cannon works.
Recently, Rika Burnham and Elliot Kai-Kee have ignited a debate about the efficacy of questions, even open-ended ones. In their book, Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience, Burnham and Kai-Kee note that, all too often, questions simply act as a stand-in for the delivery of facts and are too difficult for most faciltiators to use effectively. Jackie Delamatre offers a defense of questions in a recent Art Museum Teaching blog. What do you think?
Modeling and Scaffolding
Be a Cheerleader for the Parents.
They've made the effort to bring their children to your program. It takes effort, time, and resources. They're trying to do the right thing, so let's help them out.
Not every parent is comfortable engaging with and teaching their children. The facilitator can assist by modeling teaching behaviors, making learning visible for adult caregivers, and scaffolding the parent so that they can help their own child engage and learn.
- By asking appropriate questions, encouraging reflection, and working successfully with a child, you are modeling for the child's adult caregiver. You can also point out to the parent what you and doing and why so that they can try to emulate your behavior with their children during the program and in the future: “Identify Skills Explicitly. Numerous studies in the learning sciences have shown that people learn new skills better if it they [sic] are explicitly articulated.” 
- J.P. Gutwill and S. Allen found that most visitors do not take the full opportunity to use advance inquiry strategies: “common inquiry behaviors at a sample of interactive exhibits were ‘do and see’ (i.e. manipulate and observe the outcome), whereas more advanced inquiry strategies such as describing results or drawing conclusions were relatively rare.”  Facilitators can model the inquiry for them.
- Give parents cues and hints of questions they might ask or pedagogical tools they might use with their children.
The Challenge Card on each table is a tool both facilitators and caregivers can use to help adults and kids discuss the boat building process.
- You can also scaffold the child's learning: "the adult role in scaffolding children’s learning experiences occurs when the adult or parent recognizes that some additional form of support, guidance, or resources is needed to help the child move toward understanding, independent learning or mastery of that task or concept…This type of adult involvement allows the child a level of autonomy while at the same time helping her to learn the process.”* 
- Another example of the importance of scaffolding is summed up by Mary Ellen Munley: "Some types of coaching and guidance result in more learning than others. Controlling or minimal interaction that simply encourages children to continue playing and instances where adults explain principles or causal connections to children result in less exploratory behavior than does scaffolding interaction that encourages exploration by asking questions and by directing attention to specific aspects of the exhibits (Van Schijndel, Franse & Raijmaker, 2010).” 
- Parents know that making connections and helping their children find relevancy is important (learn why here), but they don't always feel equipped to help their children do so. Parents at the Denver Art Museum explained that "they didn't always find the art accessible and asked for help in talking about it with their kids - not explaining it so much as making it relevant." That's why it is our job as program designers and facilitators to, as Heather Nielsen argues, "support connections to daily life."
Making learning visible
- When you see a child doing something that denotes learning or skill-building, point it out to the parent. He or she may not recognize the activity as a learning behavior: "look at Johnny pick up the button with his tweezers! He's developing his pincer grasp!" or "Mary is using the scientific method and her critical thinking skills to hypothesize what will happen and then test her hypothesis."
Engaging Parents as Facilitators of Children’s Learning: A Methodology Checklist from FEAST
This checklist is the product of research done by the FEAST (Facilitating Engagement of Adults in Science and Technology)
consortium of European science museums and science centers. The report, designed to assist museum educators in supporting parents and caregivers in educating children in informal science institutions, explains how museums can help caregivers become more involved in their child’s learning and how museums can improve their programs and exhibits to be appropriate for both adults and children. The document provides five workshops for facilitating adult engagement with children, one of which includes this checklist of ways facilitators can help adult caregivers support their children in engagement and learning. 
Supporting Adults' Play With Their Children
Have Adults Forgotten How to Play? Invite Them Back
Sometimes it's difficult to get adults to play alongside their children. Beth Fredericks followed by Marianna Adams discuss the facilitator's role, using verbal and visual prompts, in breaking down the barriers adults sometimes have participating in playful activities.
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"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." 
1. Haas, Nancy T. “Project Explore: How Children Are Really Learning in Children’s Museums.” Visitor Studies 9.1 (1997): 63-69: 67. This project studied if children are learning in children's museums and how exhibit designers can increase a child’s learning by increasing adult engagement.
3. Gutwill, J. P., & Allen, S. “Facilitating Family Group Inquiry at Science Museum Exhibits.” Science Education, 94.4 (2010): 710-742. 716, 739. A study of how inquiry games deepen families’ scientific inquiry practices in a science museum setting. Results indicated that visitors who learned the inquiry games improved their inquiry more than those who did not.
4. Nina Simon, “Design Techniques for Developing Questions for Visitor Participation.” Museum 2.0 Blog. 28 April 2009. Web. 26 April 2016.
7. Wolf, Barbara, and Elizabeth Wood. “Integrating Scaffolding Experiences for the Youngest Visitors in Museums.” Journal of Museum Education 37.1 (2012): 29-38: 33. Lessons learned from the work done in children’s museums can provide models for those in other museum settings to meet the needs of early learners.
8. Munley, Mary Ellen. "Early Learning in Museums: A Literature Review." MEM & Associated and Smithsonian Institution’s Early Learning Collaborative Network. Web. 12 April 2012: 18. This paper summarizes the results of research conducted in museum settings or in other locations using learning resources and materials designed by museums and that focuses on learning by young children.
9. Linnemann, Rossi, Camilla, Erica Locatelli, Maria Xanthoudaki, and Heather King. “Engaging Parents as Facilitators of Children’s Learning in Science: Materials for Training and Design of Family Workshops.” FEAST Project – Facilitating Engagement of Adults in Science and Technology, 2013: 11. The report, designed to assist museum educators in supporting parents and caregivers in educating children in informal science institutions, explains how museums can help caregivers become more involved in their child’s learning and how museums can improve their programs and exhibits to be appropriate for both adults and children.
10. "Kids & Their Grownups: New Insights on Developing Dynamic Museum Experiences for the Whole Family." Denver Art Museum, 2013. Web. 13 May 2014. This report details the Denver Art Museum’s process of creating new experiences for children and their caregivers by increasing the Museum’s relevance and providing opportunities for family participation.
11. 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. This study, conducted at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, explores parents’ perceptions of play and their role in children’s museums.
12. 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.