To engage underserved families in designing and testing a children's museum model that is responsive to their needs, interests and challenges
What has been most instrumental to your progress?:
ENGAGING FAMILIES: Community Partners played a key role in the success of this project to engage diverse families in Children’s Museum playtime activities that were associated with project goals. Community Partners not only passed along promotional information about Museum “Birth to Three My Family and Me” opportunities through their family communications networks; in many cases Community Partner staff purposefully met with families to invite, encourage, and support family engagement in these opportunities. These efforts took place during one-on-one and home visits, group meetings, times when Community Partner staff invited and accompanied families to initially “check out” the Museum, follow-up phone calls, as well as through providing an on-site presence during the implementation of the playtime events. In many cases, it was this only through Community Partner staff serving in the role of “Cultural Connector”; that many families were identified, informed and prepared with a threshold of comfort needed for them to enter into the Museum and fully engage in the activities of this project.
IGNITING POTENTIAL: “To enrich the lives of children through SPACES that delight, CONNECTIONS that invite, OPPORTUNITIES that build might, and PLAY that ignites the potential of EVERY child” is the vision that fuels the efforts of the Children’s Museum and its Center for Childhood Community Partnership. Elements of this vision – Museum SPACES, CONNECTIONS, and OPPORTUNITIES centered around PLAY; provided the foundation upon which Birth to Three My Family and Me playtime activities were structured. Based upon feedback provided by families participating in playtime activities; these elements appear to be in synch with their families’ interests and needs: “Glad I came – probably wouldn’t have thought to come to the Museum with a 5 month old. We are getting a lot out of it.” “Who knew my son (12 months) loves to paint? We are now painting at home every day.” “ I learned that if I have fun, my kid has fun also ”; are just a snapshot of highlights shared by families about Museum/Birth to Three experiences that bring many families back time and again to experience the smorgasbord of tantalizing experiences prepared for each event.
INVITING FAMILY VOICES: Diverse avenues have been utilized to seek input, solicit feedback, and invite family partnership into efforts to refine the Museum Model. Parent focus group discussions have played a key role in helping to illuminate what needs/interests draw families into participation at the Museum; as well as what barriers prevent engagement. A Passport to Play feedback survey, implemented during each playtime session, has shed light on the diversity of learning outcomes that parents and children have experienced. It has also pointed to specific suggestions for improving upon their Museum experiences. Finally, a Sense of Community Survey, administered twice during the implementation of this project, has offered a family voice in the conversation around whether the Museum is playing out its desired role to serve as a gathering place where ALL families experience a sense of welcome and belonging. All of the input, feedback and perspectives gleaned through these avenues will be used as this Museum Model is tweaked and modified – moving toward a result that offers to be more effective and equitable as families are included as partners in the innovation process.
Key lessons learned:
“If you build it, they will come.” The Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota is not unlike a “field of dreams” where families flock to step out of the rigors of everyday life and take centerfield in a place rife with imagination, possibilities, and play. The attraction of the Museum as a place for respite from life’s challenges and a time for family fun has been viewed as an asset for bringing ALL families through its doors. A key lesson learned through this project is the perception on the part of some families this project seeks to engage, that the Children’s Museum and its “field of dreams” may be something for “other” families, but not necessarily intended for “my family”. As noted by a Community Partner closely connected with Head Start families – they see this beautiful Museum and think it is “too good” for them – that it is for other families (i.e. White/middle class); but their family would feel uncomfortable, out-of-place, perhaps even judged. As a Museum committed to a vision where ALL families feel welcomed and invited; this perception of the Museum itself presenting a barrier to participation has served as an awakening and call to action.
The need to connect with families on their turf or places they may gather outside of the Museum (Head Start classrooms, Ready to Learn Home Visits, ECHO Food Shelf, etc.), and provide opportunities for families to see and experience some of the WHO and WHAT of the Museum well before they even consider a Museum visit, is imperative. Offering families an opportunity to take a video “trip to the Children’s Museum” to find out what a Children’s Museum is and what to expect when they come in the front door; or bringing hands-on play activities to off-site locations and introducing Museum staff to greet, meet and share a sampling of Museum activities; are strategies that have been identified by families and Community Partners to help change perceptions of the Museum as a place that IS in fact welcoming and inclusive of ALL families.
Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving:
INCLUSIVE: Prior to the start of this project, Museum staff and Community Partners engaged in a discussion/strategic planning process to envision the possibilities around how the new Children’s Museum could serve as a resource for families in our community – particularly those families experiencing additional life challenges and barriers that may hinder the optimal development of their children. This project represents the first genuine effort on the part of the Museum and Community Partners to bring families into the conversation – to glean perspectives, invite input, respond to feedback – so that the emerging Model is inclusive of all parties involved - most particularly those directly affected by these issues. We have learned from some families that the Museum itself can be perceived as a barrier to participation; however once families arrive and are able to engage at the Museum; they have reported high levels of enjoyment and satisfaction around Museum SPACES that delight, CONNECTIONS that invite, and the diverse “smorgasbord” of OPPORTUNITIES that have been offered through this project to nurture parent-child relationships and promote the positive development of EVERY child.
Other key elements of Community Innovation:
PLAY has served as a key element in this project’s progress toward innovation. PLAY within the informal learning center of Children’s Museum has been viewed by Community Partners as a powerful element to engage disenfranchised families, strengthen parent-child bonds, and get children started on new pathways to school success. PLAY has enticed parents seeking fun opportunities to interact with their children, afforded opportunities to step out of the stressors of everyday life, and supported their experience and view of themselves as their child’s first and foremost teacher. PLAY has intrigued children by inviting them into new environments and experiences that beckon exploration, imagination, creativity and fun. PLAY has served as the unifying factor that initially brought all parties involved in this project together, and PLAY will continue to serve as the universal connector that binds the aspirations of these parties to ensure the optimal development of ALL children and the capacity for each child to attain his/her unique potential.
Understanding the problem:
Immigrant/refugee families, teen parents, families living in poverty, families exposed to chronic stress due to homelessness, domestic violence, or substance abuse - This project was able to touch the lives of over 100 families dealing with significant life challenges. While this number represents a good start, we know that these families represent only a small portion of families within our community that could be engaged in this project. Efforts by the Museum and Community Partners to promote this opportunity and invite participation were ongoing and extensive. Through these efforts we learned about the Museum as a barrier to participation. In addition, we learned about parents juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet, attending evening classes, or living in a survival mode that leaves little time or energy to think about adding another activity to their day – barriers that Museum SPACES, CONNECTIONS, OPPORTUNITIES, and PLAY, not to mention incentives for participation; could match. Clearly, many factors enter into the complexity of issues that surround families raising young children and due consideration of these factors continue to be a necessary part of any solution.
If you could do it all over again...:
Do not underestimate the thought, time and care that it takes to engage all parties that are part of an innovative process that seeks to be truly inclusive, collaborative and resourceful. This project centers around relationships: relationships within the Museum across all departments and with the Museum’s Board and volunteers; relationships with Community Partners that represent a diversity of organizations – each serving diverse constituencies with diverse needs; and relationships with families seeking to provide their children with experience that will enrich their lives and enhance their well-being; while at the same time dealing with life challenges that can easily overwhelm these aspirations. Developing, nurturing, connecting, informing and responding within the context of all of these relationships take a great investment of time and care – something that was significantly underestimated at the conception of this project.
One last thought:
Responding to the questions posed in this report has offered a good opportunity to share many details about the progress of our project. While we hope the words we have shared to illuminate our experiences offer a clear window to understanding what has been taking place within our community and at the Children’s Museum over the course of this project, we look forward in the coming days to produce a video to help tell the story of Birth to Three My Family and Me. The sense of joy, excitement, and animation that families and stakeholders (Museum staff, volunteers, and Community Partners) bring to each of the Birth to Three sessions is difficult to describe in words. Short of joining us at the Children’s Museum to experience a playtime event, we look forward to the opportunity to more readily convey the essence of this project and more fully articulate its impact through this video production.