“Teaching kids to play” is something that goes on constantly at home and in the early childhood classroom, but it also has implications for a museum or other informal learning space. These kids are just learning the fundamentals of play, and are now walking into a space where the rules may seem totally different!
Keeping that in mind you can look around your space and see how it supports children at play. If you are lucky enough to have a lot of staff on the floor then can model what is supposed to happen for the visitors. If not, and lets face it “not” is usually the case, then you have to get creative. Can you make signage that is understandable for pre-readers? Are the materials so clearly defined that someone can intuit their use (or, on the flip side, so open-ended they can be used in lots of different ways?). Is there media you can incorporate to do some of the modeling?
There is no ‘right’ answer, just the one that best fits your mission, space and budget. In fact, I would suggest you don’t commit to something expensive right away. Test some things out, see what gets the results you were hoping for and then implement it in a more permanent way.
Having a guide to the space is important not just for the kids, but for the adults. A lot of adults feel like they “aren’t good” at playing. They may be uncomfortable, feel like they don’t have ideas or don’t want to do it “wrong.” Having modeling and ideas out will encourage them to engage in the activity. Although we don’t want to stifle anyone’s creativity, sometimes having a “plan” in place will actually promote more play then a totally blank canvas!
Sometimes when we have worked really hard to design something, we just are too close to it. The activity seems totally logically, easy to understand and really FUN! We have to remember that to someone just walking in they don’t know the whole back story, all they see is what is right in front of them. So, let them in on your plan and give them some guidance so they can enjoy it just as much as you do.