The USS Constitution Museum Team took a new look at an existing program, an interactive demonstration of caulking (waterproofing) a ship's planking. By taking a step back, thinking creatively, and doing intensive observation and prototyping, we turned a fun but mostly kids activity into a truly intergenerational program that actively engages adults and kids together in fun, doing, and learning.
- You can overcome adults’ expectations of non-involvement…but do it quickly!
- Set engagement expectations using verbal and physical clues.
- Design for and allow for flexible facilitation.
- Challenge yourself to continually try to keep adults engaged.
- Engagement is more than just the “do.”
- The right environment and program set-up is essential to family engagement.
During summer 2014, with our Engage Families project in full swing, the team decided to experiment with altering an existing "family" program to better engage an intergenerational audience. This program, “Tools of the Trade: Caulking,” designed in 2012, is a drop-by program that lets visitors try their hand at caulking, or waterproofing, ship’s planking. This is an historic process still done on board USS Constitution today. In fact, any wooden vessel needs some sort of caulking in the seams between wooden planks to keep out water. Historically, wickum (cotton) and oakum (tarred rope pieces) were hammered into the seams and covered with pitch to seal them. Caulking quickly and well was a skill reserved for a few shipwrights, though crew members would certainly have repaired old and worn out caulking while in port or underway.
Using period tools, including caulking mallets and irons (see image-forthcoming), and authentic materials, wickum and oakum, facilitators guided visitors in the three-step process of caulking on approximately 10” X 10” reproduced ship “planks.” As you can tell from the image, these were really 2” X 4”s hammered to a base. For obvious reasons, we didn’t actually have visitors use pitch. Instead facilitators mimed that step using a pitch ladle.
So why did this program need tweaking?
- Caulking is not familiar to most visitors. Getting them interested was a challenge. Trying to make them understand that our 2” X 4” boards represented a ship’s planking was not always an easy task. How do we make this relevant?
- Like most of our “family” programs, the adults would hang back while the kids tried it. We couldn’t always get the adults to want to try it out for themselves.
- Even if the adults participated, the program only allowed one person to work on one plank section at a time. There were no opportunities for collaboration or even helping.
- Where could we do this? Using an 6’ table with a facilitator on one side, especially when it was next to a wall or in a corner, didn’t give people much room to work at the table, which limited our access. With just two or three people at the table, no one else could tell what was going on. Also, having a facilitator behind of a table set up a paradigm of authority that we weren’t comfortable with and which, we felt, limited the types of interactions facilitators could have with visitors.
- No seating either to observe the action or to sit while doing the activity. Well…except for the facilitator. He had a chair….
- Some of our tools, though the appropriate historical size, were just too unwieldy for some kids (and even some adults!).
So what did we do?
Well, we experimented… a lot! We tried 3 or 4 different locations, added design elements, took away the table, thought about ways to make the process more relevant and authentic, and we thought critically about how our design and facilitation did (or, in this case, didn’t) allow for collaboration, teamwork, competition, or even multi-users.
Here’s what we changed and what we learned:
- We had to find a space without other distractions.
- We took away the 6’ table and added a real ship’s side (authenticity!). People understood what it was, especially when we placed it in a tableau of Constitution’s hull in battle.
- Getting rid of the table gave the facilitator more room to move around and allowed her opportunities to engage the visitor in various ways and at various levels.
- We added seating, not just for those doing the activity, but also for those watching. This encouraged people to stay longer, ask questions, feel more comfortable.
- We found a location where visitors passing would see the activity, which encouraged more to take part.
- We got more props, mallets and irons of all shapes and sizes.
- Instead of the 2” X 4” planks, we built a real ship’s side. It had different levels and allowed families to work side by side.
- We took this opportunity to add collaboration and teamwork to the activity by encouraging families to work together to complete a seam and/or take turns doing each step.
- We even added competition on occasion by timing them at their work.
- We added a display of tools and images separate from the activity space to catch passing visitors attention and allow them something to peruse while waiting for their turn or until the facilitator could engage them.
(Some of these may seem obvious, but we reiterated our expectations in the design and training of the program so that everyone was on the same page.)
- Greeting: Greeting everyone and making initial eye contact with each adult and child right away helped immensely, as did continuing to make eye contact with adults throughout the program. It’s amazing how hard it can be sometimes to turn our attention away from the kids.
- Invitation: Inviting the entire group (including adults) to sit at the activity station. Asking everyone to sit tells them right off, “you are all part of this activity.”
- Setting expectations: From the beginning, facilitators use words that imply everyone is involved, such as, “Caulking was often done in pairs, so you’ll be working together. There are 4 steps.” Actions do the same job, so facilitators should always be sure to pass objects to adults, e.g. make sure adults smell the pitch too.
- Make visitors (especially adults) comfortable with the activity by modeling behavior. In this activity, facilitators demonstrate actions we want the family members to try – caulk a small section first or smell the tarred rope before handing to a family member.
- Don’t let the adults get off easy: We’re not advocating you force anyone, but sometimes they just need the invitation. If adults don’t want to sit and caulk, we keep them engaged by assigning them a job that’s still part of the process, like rolling oakum.
- Last ditch effort: If adults decline the “do” after you’ve offered them seats and tried handing them props, continue to engage them in conversation. Here’s where everything we’ve said above comes in handy. If you’ve maintained eye contact and kept them involved, they will feel more a part of the process, even if it’s only the kids “doing” the activity.