However, in the excitement of creating new spaces and opportunities for families, it is easy to overlook the smaller, logistical, elements that are actually quite critical for young child-museum-visit-success.
I would encourage all museum professionals to take a look around their space. Whether you are a big institution working actively to bring in families, or a smaller museum doing the best with what you have, there are a few simple “tweaks” that will really make a big difference. In reality, the most exciting and engaging space for young learners might fall apart without these five modest components.
1. Somewhere quiet
Moms who are nursing/bottle feeding want a place quiet and out of the way (please, don’t suggest the bathroom…would you want to eat there?). Parents with children who need some time to calm down also appreciate a quiet area. It doesn’t have to be fancy, even a little used gallery or a side lobby works.
2. Unisex changing options
Having changing tables is a lovely lovely thing…but when they are only in the women’s room it makes it hard on Dads! Also, pretty please have paper towels available near the changing table. Sometimes you need a little extra for clean-up and, in our case, my son is terrified of hand dryers.
3. Stroller Access
My stroller is my mobile house, it has everything we need for the day. If you are able to have stroller access to any part of your museum, make sure that information is available. Add it to your website, mark it on gallery maps, make sure staff know the best routes from A-Z. Luckily, stroller accessible and wheelchair accessible can go hand-in-hand so having the information will help a lot of people.
If you are in a historic building or have some other reason why strollers can’t get around…make that information available too! A bonus is “stroller parking” if you can’t get around with it inside.
4. Tips on kid friendly areas
Is there a great gallery that my kid would love? Is there a space where he can take a snack break? A bathroom that would fit my stroller? Ask staff and volunteers who have kids to draw up a list of tips and tricks for your museum. Make sure this is on the website and something the info desk has access to. Also, make sure your staff is comfortable offering information when they see a family come in. A lot of people will come and ask, but others might be overwhelmed and appreciate a few ideas up front!
5. Staff with an understanding attitude
This is probably the trickiest one, because you can’t just “make” it happen. However, having a staff who is friendly and understanding about the stuff kids do can really make life easier for parents. Yes, I have a lot of stuff and will be slow getting through security. Absolutely, my child might throw a tantrum in the middle of the gallery that I am unable to stop. It comes with the territory and feeling like the staff is “on my side” will really help us all get through it.
At the Garden of Glass in Seattle, we rounded the corner to the “greenhouse” area. A guard saw us (with toddler in tow) and gave a huge smile. “Here you are!” he said to my son “This is the reward for being so good in the galleries…you can run as much as you like!” Just knowing up front what was OK for us to do (and that the guard was glad to see kids in the space) made the trip 100% better.
So, how can you make it happen? Build time into front-line staff training to talk about families who visit the gallery. Give staff a safe place to problem solve (and vent) about things that are happening on the floor. Make sure they have resources available so they can direct families to changing tables, areas for eating and places for nursing (let me reiterate..not the bathroom!). Make sure these expectations trickle UP so that ALL staff who might come into contact with visitors know what is expected.