Defining Interactive Children’s Exhibits: Why Touch Screens and Technology Aren’t Enough

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

Interactive children's exhibit

Interactivity is a buzzword in the museum and exhibit design worlds. It’s widely accepted that interactive attractions are more engaging and connect more deeply in the minds of children that have been raised on computers, tablets, and smartphones. Today, the term “interactive” describes everything from fully virtual museum experiences to guided narration tours in more traditional museum settings. But what does interactivity really mean, and is there an inflection point that needs to be hit in order for exhibits – especially those geared toward children – to be effective?

Children engage in hands-on play

In a recent paper “Designing Exhibits for Children: What Are We Thinking?” Gail Ringel offers a fascinating perspective. In her position as Vice President of Exhibits and Production at the Boston Children’s Museum, she’s overseen some pioneering development in the interactive children’s exhibit space. She suggests that a basic interactive approach isn’t enough. “As we focus on designing interactive exhibits for families, there seems to be pretty broad agreement that engaging people in play, and thinking about family dynamics in museums will get us to exhibit design heaven: we’ll attract, hold, and communicate to people. And while it’s true that being playful seems to work better than some approaches, I’m here with some pretty bad news: it’s probably not working nearly as well as you think it is.”

Ringel goes on the highlight one of the core process deficiencies that’s impacting interactive attraction development today. The issue is epitomized by projects that simply replace traditional signage with iPads and call the result “interactive.” Often, Ringel says, we approach interactive exhibit development for children with a fundamental misconception: that children think like adults, but simply have less experience, read less, and need to move more.

Interactive children's science exhibit

Instead, interactive design development has an opportunity to fundamentally rework the way that designers conceive of attractions. We need to move beyond developing an attraction and then choosing an appropriate technology to convey the message as an afterthought. Technology as a medium has its own fundamental strengths for teaching and engagement. Children’s brains at different developmental stages process information in specific ways in relation to that technology.

Hands-on play at MindWorks

By embedding technology into the core DNA of an exhibit’s design and creation, we have the ability to produce a transformative experience for the kids that visit our museums. But the presence of technology alone doesn’t guarantee engagement. And the definition of interactive includes concepts like hands-on play, experimentation, role-play, and environments that stimulate the kind of play that helps children understand and integrate ideas.

Las Vegas Interactive Exhibit for Families

Exhibit designers need to move beyond the surface touches of technology and interactivity, and instead seek new ways to leverage these tools for true creative and educational impact. If our commitment to children’s learning and enjoyment in the museum space is to have an impact, we need to dig deeper to make meaningful connections between our goals and the wide range of tools available to achieve those objectives. Interactivity, technology and play deserve a central role, not only in our museums, but in the very way that we conceptualize exhibit project design.

One response to “Defining Interactive Children’s Exhibits: Why Touch Screens and Technology Aren’t Enough”

  1. I learned that children think like adults, but they move more and read less. This knowledge informs us to integrate play and physical activities into our interactive exhibits.

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