Integrating Parenting Skill Information Into Exhibitions for the Early Childhood Audience


Stephanie Ratcliffe

"Integrating Parenting Skill Information" is a three month study at the National Zoological Park , funded by the Fellowships in Museum Practice program, and under the sponsorship of Judy White, Chief, Office of Education, National Zoological Park. The project's goal is to develop and evaluate experimental labeling techniques created specifically for parents and caregivers of preschoolers visiting the zoo.

During the spring and fall, staff at the National Zoological Park report increased sightings of an interesting phenomenon_paths and walkways filled with stroller after stroller of preschool children pushed by their caregivers. These groups eagerly seek out any awake, moving animal more exotic than the family pet. Is there a way to create labels that not only encourage thoughtful looking and learning from live animal exhibitions but also provide parents and caregivers with information that will help them become better learning facilitators with their children?

The goals for this project are to develop a set of site specific labels targeted toward adults that would acknowledge the parent or adult companion as the child's primary teacher and promote self-awareness about their natural ability to be learning facilitators; encourage adults to be cognizant of their child's point of view when experiencing new situations; and provide practical strategies for looking and learning from live animal exhibits.

Parenting skill information offered in the labels would encourage parents and caregivers to ask "What can I do to help improve my child's experience and learn from all this?" Science can be an intimidating subject for visitors of all ages. The early childhood audience needs concrete experiences but museum and zoo exhibitions often present only abstract concepts. Attentive and creative parents naturally provide conceptual bridges for children, often relating what the child sees to his/her everyday life therefore making the experience relevant. Museum, zoo and science center exhibit content and design should encourage parents and children to discover ideas together, relieving parents of an all knowing role. Parents can be most effective as role models by being curious and enthusiastically embracing new ideas_not having all the right answers. Text written for parents will be friendly, not authoritative, with the intention of making parents feel empowered as teachers by asking questions, exploring and being curious alongside their children. Parenting information can be provided in any type of exhibit. This particular project will focus only on content and strategies appropriate for caregivers of preschoolers.

In an effort to better understand adult-preschooler visitor groups, three sets of data were collected:


  • Informal observations of adult-child pairs throughout the zoo to determine exhibits with intrinsic holding power for this specific audience.


  • Interviews with adults to discover their expectations of their visit when accompanied by a preschooler


  • Time and focused observations of adult-child pairs at three live animal exhibits to determine the frequency of certain behaviors.


Exhibits with intrinsic holding power were attractive because of their physical design. The size or activity level of the animals exhibited also appeared to be a significant factor for holding this audience's attention. A high level of animal activity seemed to facilitate interaction between adult and child. "Look at that one. He stood up and said something like `come and play with me'." "Look at him stick his head out and say `Hi honey, I'm home'."

Adults consistently interpreted animal behavior in very anthropomorphic terms for their preschool companions. "Look, he is collecting hay for his bed so he can go night-night." "It is a good thing they like each other."

Adults often described the physical and logistical challenge of visiting the zoo with a preschooler. The location of bathrooms, hills, shade and refreshment stands had a great impact on the structure of the visit. "The bathrooms are too far apart for children who are just potty training."

More than half of the visitors interviewed expected their zoo visit would include some type of learning activity for their preschool companion. "We have books at home; he sees them here and we talk about them." "I expect him to be excited learning new animals." Several visitors also mentioned entertainment as a primary motivation for their visit. "Just a day to do something different." "Just to have fun."

Initial observations indicated that parents almost always initiated behavior that encouraged the group to leave an animal exhibit. Closer examination revealed that this only happened half of the time. Children also determined when the group would move on the next exhibit.

Throughout the data collection and analysis process, the initial goals of the project have been assessed and modified. Preliminary conclusions question several aspects of the original idea for parenting labels and call for a closer look at assumptions embedded in the original idea.

Are site specific labels the appropriate medium for communicating parenting information? Labels themselves are a limited medium. It is difficult to say anything in-depth and meaningful in a label of reasonable length especially when factoring in the logistical constraints of a preschool companion. Labels are one-way communication between the institution and the visitor. This is not a good model of communication for what seems most useful and appropriate for this audience _ conversations and interaction between the child and the adult.

To what extent should museums enter into the parenting business? No matter how non-authoritatively suggestions are written, some visitors may interpret them as the right way to interact with their child. There is no right way. What is common or perceived useful by one segment of our culture may not be appropriate in another. Providing parenting labels within the context of the zoo visit may not be the best method for helping parents feel empowered as learning facilitators. Perhaps the goal of encouraging adults to be self-aware about the nature of their interactions with their children is just too ambitious for a label.

This project has studied the feasibility of providing parenting skill information within museum exhibits, but the study has raised more questions than it has answered. As museums struggle to articulate a self-defined educational mission, we must be willing to acknowledge those avenues that may prove inappropriate regardless of their good intentions.

(Stephanie Ratcliffe is Exhibits Specialist at the Maryland Science Center, Baltimore, Maryland. Ms. Ratcliffe is the Smithsonian's third Fellow in Museum Practice and was in residence at the National Zoological Park in March and mid-August through September 1993.)


Integrating Parenting Skill Information Into Exhibitions for the Early Childhood
Reading List:

Carey, Susan. Conceptual Change in Childhood. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985.

Cusick, Lois. Waldorf Parenting Handbook. Spring Valley, NY St. George Publications, 1984.

Falk, J. H. and L. D. Dierking. The Museum Experience. Washington, DC: Whalesback Books, 1992.

Rogoff, D. and J. V. Wertsch (ed.) Children's Learning in the "Zone of Proximal Development." Washington, DC: Jossey-Bass, Inc. 1984.

Rogoff, Barbara. "Adult Assistance of Children's Learning." The Contexts of School-based Literacy. NY: Random House. 1986.


The Fellowship in Museum Practice program, funded by a generous endowment from the Smithsonian Womens Committee, enables professionals to use the resources of the Smithsonian as a laboratory to investigate methods for strengthening and expanding museum practices.

The Office of Museum Programs recently named the four Fellowships in Museum Practice recipients for 1994:

Betsy Pitzman, Director, Homer Society of Natural History-Pratt Museum, Homer, Alaska. Project title: "Museums as Agents of Social Critique: Perspectives from the Makers and Users of Issue Oriented Exhibitions. Project dates: April - June 1994.

Charles R. Reiger, Exhibit Builder, Kauffman Museum, Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas. Project title: "An analysis of current approaches to travelling museum exhibitions and the development of new solutions for use in the production of such exhibitions." Project dates: August - October 1994.

Andrew Jay Svedlow, Assistant Director for Programs, Museum of the City of New York, New York. Project title: "Life Long Learning and Museums: In Pursuit of Andragogy." Project dates: November 1993 - March 1994.

Martin Tillet, Naturalist, Howard B. Owens Science Center, Lanham-Seabrook, Maryland. Project title: "The Development of Science Education Lessons about Maryland Dinosaurs." Project dates: January - June 1994.

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