Monday, December 20, 2010

Parents Talking with Parents: A Simple, Successful Discussion Board at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh

On a recent trip to the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, I noted a discussion board in the "Nursery" gallery. The design is nothing special: a question printed on construction paper with a bunch of post-its and pens for visitors to respond. But the board is excellent, and I could see that instantly from a quick read.

What makes this discussion board stand out?
  • The questions are specific, personal, and written to elicit responses that will be useful to other parents and caregivers.
  • People take the questions seriously and write interesting, descriptive, diverse responses.
  • People feel compelled to comment on each other's comments, writing things like "ditto" or "Get over it!" with arrows pointing to other comments.
The questions fuel the high-quality visitor response. The questions are written for parents and caregivers to share tips, ideas, and stories with each other. The question this month is "What are your tips for traveling with an infant or toddler?" Looking at the board, I saw several specific, unique suggestions like:
Use Google Maps to find a park(s) along the way. A short break to run/swing/etc. is good for all. Look for elementary schools just off highway.
Drive @ night: -go during their longest sleep time -split driving w/ someone and take turns napping -You'll be tired the next day but getting there faster is worth it!
This post-it had another one next to it with an arrow and a "Yes!" written on it.

There were also funny ideas, like "Grandma in the back seat," as well as a healthy debate about the merits of DVD players. I didn't see a single off-topic comment, and while the board wasn't overflowing, it was certainly well-used.

Yvonne Atkinson, the Early Childhood Specialist who runs the Nursery discussion board, shared with me a few favorite questions from the many years she's been running the board:
"What was the best conversation you've ever had with your child?"
"How do you feel about your child playing with toy guns or combative toys like swords and knives?"
"What have you found out about yourself from being a parent?"
"What's the oddest food combination you've ever seen your child try?"
Yvonne told me that some questions fall flat--those that are too involved and require a complex response, as well as some that just receive generic answers. She's found great questions from her training in early childhood development, parenting magazines, and the occasional visitor comment that can be translated into a new question. Yvonne has been collecting the questions and some of the best answers for the past eight years, and she keeps refining and adding new ones as time goes on.

I firmly believe that questions work best when they have a real "listener" on the other end. While I'm sure a board with a question like "What's your favorite thing about being a parent?" would receive some heart-warming responses, it wouldn't be as useful as this board is. I always ask staff members who are writing questions, "Who cares about the answer to this question?" In some cases, it might be the institution or staff. For the Nursery discussion board, it's other adult visitors to the Children's Museum. You get the sense reading the question that someone needs your advice, and if you've figured something out that works for you and your child, you want to share.

Every adults who takes a child to a Children's Museum cares about his or her identity as a caregiver. They want to do a good job of it; it's part of the reason they came. To me, this simple by-parents-for-parents board is a great way to serve an important constituency of the Children's Museum--adults.

This is a participatory comment board in a true sense. The institution facilitates the space and tools to allow visitors to provide information to each other. The information is as diverse as the adults who visit the museum, and different answers are useful for different readers. The museum doesn't have to have all the answers. It just has to host the space for the conversation.

What's the next step? The Nursery is changing, and Yvonne is using questions like "What's your favorite book on parenting?" to figure out what resources to stock in the Nursery's library in its next iteration. The staff members are also considering expanding the project in two ways: inviting visitors to share their own questions on a second, nearby board, and documenting some of these questions and answers online. They have eight years of archived content from this discussion board. I can't think of a more perfect starting point for a children's museum interested in encouraging conversation among its visitors online.

Note: for more on designing good questions for visitors response, check out these posts.
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