How Museums Can Shape the Culture of Learning


“As a society, we have a responsibility to ensure that our youngest children are engaged in quality learning experiences; and museums, as important community institutions, will need to seek opportunities and contribute in new ways to this critical effort…[museums] have an important role to play in shaping the learning of this young generation [and] joining forces with educators and policy makers from across the community to meet early learning goals.”               ~Journal of Museum Education, Spring 2012

How can museums shape the culture of learning for kids today? Let’s picture, for a moment, how museum visits, paired with classroom experiences, can change education for the better.

“Being there” with the real thing makes an enormous impression on kids. In the presence of artwork, artifacts, or scientific evidenceIMG_4446IMG_4449, kids make connections right away. They contemplate what an artist might have thought about. They find their own meaning in what they observe. They wonder. Probe. Ask questions. Imagine.IMG_4454IMG_4637

When there’s a context for a museum visit, the possibilities for expanding children’s thinking are endless. Teachers and family members who take kids to a museum after they’ve engaged in a specific study build on an existing narrative. Kids who follow up their research by seeing something “real” in a museum, start adding new pieces to a story. They might begin to envision themselves in a different time and place or imagine what the future might bring. When they engage in a dialogue with their peers, they develop new vocabulary and theories of their own. In short, such museum visits, coupled with prior investigations lead to deep thinking, good questions, and further investigating.

Waynflete’s Lower School Study of Matisse

IMG_1437 IMG_1446






School Group Visiting the Center for Maine Contemporary Art

Less is more.
 It works best to plan a visit ahead of time and know just what the visit is going to be about.

Adults who guide children through museums generate the most dialogue when they ask open ended questions. Queries that start with, “Why do you think” or that move children to find evidence for their hypotheses help children dig into their experience. When families visit a museum together adults often know just where their child’s passion lies. Posing questions that tap into children’s interests moves kids to apply important skills (like seeing patterns or making inferences.) Research shows that children who get the most out of traditional (not just children’s) museum visits link their museum experience to knowledge they already have. Adults can help kids build these bridges.

If it is possible to make Art or make journal entries in a museum gallery, take the opportunity!IMG_4660 Kids and families value hands-on learning, and more traditional museums are providing spaces for this to happen.IMG_4645 IMG_4650

IMG_4633Malcolm Gladwell’s premise that repeated experience and lots of practice pays off is an important tip. Multiple school visits to the same  museum or exhibit can have a big impact on children’s thinking. When children know they don’t have to soak up everything in an hour before its time to head back to the classroom, there is much to be gained. They can reflect, share their questions as a class, and begin to seek answers.

Children today are burgeoning young researchers – in schools and outside of them.

IMG_4828Learning in museums can be a major part of a new (school) culture – and it’s time to start investigating what that could mean. I welcome your thoughts.


Nancy Harris Frohlich



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