Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota

Report date
February 2017

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

This project tested whether a Children’s Museum could play an effective role in our community’s efforts to ensure ALL children are launched and supported on a trajectory toward optimal development and school/work/life success. Efforts centered around: 1) Engaging families of young children that experience barriers and additional life challenges in opportunities at the Museum; 2) Providing families with special activities designed to promote positive child development and nurture parent-child bonds. The values of “Marnita’s Table” provided a foundation for these efforts. Based upon feedback received from parents, community partners, and staff/volunteers with a role in the project; a grounding in these values was important to our project’s progress and success:
• HOSPITALITY – ALL who participate feel uniquely welcomed;
• INCLUSION – ALL voices are invited into the co-creative process;
• YUMMY – A smorgasbord of tantalizing experiences are offered to appeal to diverse tastes and needs; each experience is seasoned to unleash the power of PLAY and the power of RELATIONSHIP;
• PRACTICAL - The smorgasbord menu is informed by what is relevant/happening right now for families.
HOSPITALITY and INCLUSION - 97% of parents responding to a Sense of Community Survey administered three times during the project agreed their family felt welcomed at the Museum. 100% agreed the Museum seems like a place where people really care about children and families; and that staff at the Museum took into account the needs and interests of their family. 94% agreed they felt like their family belonged at the Museum. 93% agreed they felt like their suggestions to help improve the Museum were invited and valued. Comments shared by parents: “People should know this is a great place for families”. “The first time I came I had a lot of reservations. Staff treated me the same as everyone else - I didn’t feel judged – that doesn’t happen very often. The Museum is an accepting place.” “Chi Miigwetch (Ojibwe “thank you”) for everything you shared with me and my family, for the opportunities you provided, and for always making us fell genuinely welcomed.”

At the conclusion of the project, Community Partners and staff/volunteers concurred that families felt special; the environment of structure and support they experienced fostered a sense of community AND ownership.
YUMMY and PRACTICAL - Comments shared by parents during a focus group discussion at the conclusion of the project revealed: “Exciting every time – always fun and different - activities were great to bring ideas we could use at home.” “There is always something different at the don’t have to entertain your children, they will entertain themselves.” “Families come, see and love the Museum.” “Parents can compare experiences with other parents.” “I learned about child development – also what to expect as my child continues to develop.” “Educational for both child and adult.”

Community Partners and project staff/volunteers reflecting about how families benefited as a result of participation agreed: Varied programming and curated content were effective; The diversity of playtime activities and the openness for parents to follow their child’s lead created many opportunities for both children and parents to try new things; Playing with children, parents could experience the Museum through their child’s eyes and at the same time see them learn – creating a sense of ownership for parents in their child’s learning.

Key lessons learned

It was necessary for many factors to align for families to participate in this project. While an initial focus group discussion with teen parents indicated high interest to bring their children to the Museum; the reality of juggling multiple jobs, attending evening classes, or living in survival mode with little time or energy to think about adding another activity to their day, were contributing factors when it came to not being able to participate in this project. Similar barriers exist for many other families this project sought to engage. At the same time, 128 families were able to attend at least one playtime session; with 20 families participating in six or more sessions. Of the core group of families that attended repeat sessions, the role of a cultural connector/family advocate played a critical role in inviting, encouraging, supporting and affirming their visits. The need to continue to engage families in conversation to understand their interests, needs, hopes, and challenges; and the impactful role cultural connectors/family advocates play to encourage families to check out the Museum and support their ongoing participation, were key lessons we will bring forward.
“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 both the input and feedback provided by families that participated in this project; Museum SPACES, CONNECTIONS, and the “smorgasbord of tantalizing” OPPORTUNITIES center around PLAY that were offered at each playtime session were very much in accord with the interests, needs, hopes and aspirations that families brought with them to their experiences at the Museum.

Reflections on the community innovation process

MEANINGFULLY ENGAGING KEY STAKEHOLDERS: Essential to testing this Children’s Museum Model were the experiences and voices of key stakeholders - the families that participated. The joy of learning through the power of play was evidenced throughout the project in the faces and voices of parents and children alike. As the Museum sought to ignite the curiosity of children by providing an awe-inspiring environment, this project appeared to ignite the potential parents saw in the role they could play to fuel their child’s curiosity and expand upon their child’s playful learning. As noted by a Project Facilitator: “Families had the opportunity to play in an amazing child-focused environment and to SEE and UNDERSTAND that learning was taking place”. There was a general sense that parents left these experiences more aware that PLAY = LEARNING, inspired and more confident about their role as their child’s first and foremost teacher. The outcomes associated with this level of engagement for these key stakeholders represented this project’s greatest success. These outcomes also affirmed the interests, hopes and aspirations these stakeholders articulated at the onset of this project.

Progress toward an innovation

The Museum and its Partners had an opportunity to involve key stakeholders – parents of young children – in co-creative efforts to test a model that: 1) engaged at risk families at the Museum; 2) provided meaningful opportunities to playfully promote positive child development and nurture parent-child bonds. Throughout the project, parent stakeholders expressed high levels of satisfaction about their engagement at the Museum – indicating the Museum as a place where they felt they belonged, were welcomed, and enjoyed spending time with their children. At each session, parents articulated areas of learning for both their child and themselves related to diverse aspects of childhood development. Parent stakeholders offered constructive feedback about logistical features of the sessions (timing/flow of special activities, sibling care) that was used to help refine service delivery aspects of the Model. Clearly, this project underscored the potential of a Children’s Museum to engage and enrich “at risk” families with young children and serve as a consequential “player” in our community’s efforts to launch children on a trajectory of optimal development and school/work/life success.

What it will take to reach an innovation?

Perceived and concrete barriers prevented many families from engaging in the activities of this project. One Community Partner noted some families she works with see the Museum as a place for “other” families; but where their family may feel they didn’t belong or would be judged. While families that participated in this project indicated the exact opposite of this perception; continued efforts must take place outside the Museum’s walls to make positive connections with diverse families as an important next step to assure the Museum is both accessible AND inviting for all families. Other barriers – parents juggling multiple jobs, attending evening classes, and families dealing with basic life challenges (i.e. homelessness, food scarcity, health concerns, etc.) – will continue to exist for families the Museum and its Community Partners seek to engage at the Museum. Exploring possibilities around bringing the Museum and its activities TO the places and times when families gather outside of the Museum may serve as a promising strategy to connect with more families, build relationships, and ignite the joy of learning through the power of play for both parents and children.

What's next?

The Museum Model that was tested during this project – Museum SPACES that delight, CONNECTIONS that invite, and OPPORTUNITIES that build might centered around PLAY - received high marks from all stakeholders involved in this project and served to meaningfully address outcomes that were targeted for the Museum, community partners, families, parents and children. Given the success of this model to engage families and provide experiences that meet important child/parent/family needs and aspirations; conversations are taking place about how to take this project to the next level. Of particular note are exploratory conversations around a School District-City of Mankato-Children’s Museum partnership and how the next iteration of this project could bring the initial project's greatest successes and lessons learned together on a refined pathway- serving to bring all stakeholders closer to a breakthrough in the innovation process: a level playing field where ALL children in our community experience connections and opportunities that will serve to launch them on a trajectory of optimal development toward school/work/life success.

If you could do it all over again...

Consistent with our Interim Report, we would advise ourselves not to 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. We would advise ourselves to be realistic about the staff capacity that is truly necessary to fulfill these objectives. With a project that 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; and relationships with families seeking to provide their children with experiences 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; carving out the time necessary to connect, converse, listen, reflect, and repeat these steps over and over again is essential.

One last thought

Innovation, as noted by Cameron Esposito in her 2015 BushCONN keynote address, happens when ideas and perspectives collide. Much is to be gained by learning and doing TOGETHER - What will propel you forward is the community you build WITH your audience.

We engaged a videographer to help tell the story of this project. This video conveys how ideas and perspectives shared by diverse stakeholders, learning and doing TOGETHER, coalesced to make innovation happen. An excerpt:

“The Museum is a place to question, to explore, to create, to find answers in a very open-ended way. The more parents feel invested in their children and able to support their children to become the best human beings they can be, the better off we are. In knowing that the Museum can provide that place for them, it’s an extremely valuable thing… These families know that they are important, that their presence is important, and that their children are welcomed and encouraged in what they are doing – it’s developed a sense of ownership in the Museum for these families. So that even after the project is done, parents are going to seek out ways to get there because they know it is a good place to be."