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The Value of Play

[2010]
A summative evaluation with a children’s museum
Please Touch Museum, Philadelphia, PA

As part of a museum-wide initiative to improve the visitor experience, the Please Touch Museum (PTM) contracted with RK&A in 2005 and 2009 to conduct formative, summative, and impact evaluations in the context of the new museum and its strategic priorities. This case study, however, refers specifically to the impact study, which looked beyond individual exhibits and programs to examine the entire museum experience against the impact the Museum aspires to achieve.  

How did we approach this study?

Using a rigorous mixed methods research design, RK&A gauged the extent to which PTM fulfills its mission, “to enrich the lives of children by creating learning opportunities through play” and achieves certain strategic priorities.  Among the strategic priorities, RK&A examined the extent to which PTM “increases recognition among parents . . . of the value of play as a life-long learning activity.”  Given that the new museum had just opened, findings served as baseline data against which to measure future improvements and changes.  Methodologies included: exit questionnaires, timing and tracking observations, and rubric-scored exit interviews.  The target audience for the study was children ages three to ten years and their adult caregivers.

What did we learn?

Findings from questionnaires and exit interviews suggest a discernible perception gap between the play beliefs of PTM staff and adult visitors to PTM.  Questionnaire respondents most frequently ranked the statement “provides opportunities for the children I’m with to have fun” as an accurate descriptor of what they value about play at PTM and least frequently ranked the statement “contributes to the academic achievement of the children I’m with” as an accurate descriptor of what they value about play at PTM.  Notably, interviews with adult visitors reveal more nuanced perceptions with regard to play and point to an opportunity to help parents see the strong links between play and learning.  For instance, one-half of adult interviewees talked about play in the context of skills and abilities, especially socialization and imagination (but did not explicitly associate these skills with learning).

In timing and tracking observations, RK&A documented children’s interactions with accompanying adult caregivers.  Observations show that most adult-child interactions were “hands-off” and supervisory, instructional, or disciplinary in nature. Only about one-third of adults played with their children.  Interestingly, these findings contradict the role parents indicated in the standardized questionnaires, in which most adults indicated that their role in the Museum is to “play and learn alongside their children.”

What are the implications of the findings?

The study at PTM identified three main barriers to adult caregivers valuing play as learning: (1) most adult caregivers lack a clear understanding of the learning benefits of play in children’s museums; (2) adults lack confidence in and knowledge of how to play with their children in a children’s museum; and (3) the nature and design of children’s museums may actually discourage parent involvement.  Understanding adults’ perceptions can equip PTM with the information necessary to: communicate the value of play, support parents in effective play facilitation, and design exhibits that encourage adult-child interaction. Ultimately, these actions will lead to more enriching play experiences for families.

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