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Family Touring Tips

Over the past ten years, there has been a major movement in museum education departments to address family audiences. As museums increase the number of special events, self-guided tours, workshops, and activities designed specifically for families, docents must master touring techniques for groups composed of both adults and children.

Family tours have a distinct dynamic, one that differs greatly from both tours designed for adults and those designed for school groups. Adults taking a museum tour are interested in gaining knowledge. They appreciate facts, figures, and detailed information that give them new insights and verify their own knowledge. Adults can stand for longer periods of time and generally have longer attention spans than children. If they are not interested in the information they are receiving, they are independent enough to leave or rejoin the group later. Adults may share children’s enthusiasm and natural curiosity, but they have a tendency to show more restraint in their reactions. For this reason, it is often difficult to gauge their interests and know when to shift gears.

In school groups, the children are of similar ages and they know each other. This makes them comfortable speaking out and participating. Field trips often relate to, or reinforce, concepts in the classroom curriculum. Even though students are in a different environment and may participate in alternative learning methods, a certain decorum is maintained because they are still grouped with children of their age and grade level. Because of this, interactive teaching techniques are particularly effective with school groups. Worksheets and games can be designed for specific age ranges or grades. Although a teacher and chaperones accompany the school group, the students are the main audience the docent addresses.

Why Families Visit?

Families visit museums and other such facilities so that they can learn together and be together. Family tours should provide plenty of opportunities to do both and to enjoy a common experience.

How to Tour Families Parents may be novices in your particular museum, and any information that the docent directs toward the children may be new to the adults as well. After giving parents some basic information or explaining a task, they will enjoy participating and becoming helpful allies to the docent. Parents are often more enthusiastic and responsive when they are learning with their children in a fun and informal environment.

The type of information you present should be appropriate for the children’s developmental level and interest. Focus on questions that they can answer from observing closely or through speculation. Avoid detailed information that will not be of interest to children. If you are successful at keeping the children engaged and happy, the parents will also enjoy themselves.

Getting Started

Greeting and orienting the families in your group initially sets the tone for the rest of the tour. A first visit anywhere can be intimidating, disorienting, or overwhelming and your tour may be the first experience the family has ever had in your institution. You can alleviate much of the anxiety by establishing a warm welcome, expressing your delight that the families have chosen to visit your facility, describing the focus and length of the tour, and discussing what families might expect to see and do.

Keep in mind that a tour of your institution is only part of a larger family agenda that typically involves a visit to the museum shop and cafeteria, as well as some free viewing time. A little league baseball game, movie, or birthday party may also be planned the same day. Information at the beginning of your tour will help families allocate their time according to their own schedules.

Expecting the Unexpected

The family tour docent must expect the unexpected. Unless the tour is preregistered, the family audience is always the great unknown. You may have anticipated teaching families with children 6 to 1 2 years old, only to find that most of the children are preschoolers. Often younger siblings must accompany the rest of the family, but rather than breaking up the family it is preferable to take everyone. Tell the group before departing that the tour is geared to a particular age group and that if younger children become restless, they may need a “time out” with an adult that is away from the group. Give families permission to leave your tour if necessary. A crying child can be very distracting for you and for the rest of the group. If permission to leave has already been expressed, then parents usually will not feel obligated to remain.

Encouraging Participation

Encourage participation from the beginning of your tour by asking children if they have been to the museum before, what they expect to see, and what they think are the most important rules. The questions you ask and the responses you receive in the first five minutes can help you assess your group and adjust your tour accordingly. Choose your route carefully in order to accommodate strollers or wheelchairs. Knowing your resources and collections well will enable you to be flexible, and should help you to select age appropriate activities.

Choose a theme or a specific area of the museum to give your tour cohesiveness, and do not feel obliged to teach everything you know or planned. You might prepare for eight stops but only have time to make four. Seeing fewer objects but exploring them in depth promotes greater understanding and is particularly satisfying.

Staying on Track

Once you have assessed your group and updated your route, remember to keep your primary goals in mind. My personal goals when teaching families include encouraging families to see and respond to selected objects, facilitating personal connections to what is being observed, promoting family interaction, and imparting the idea that learning together can be fun. Another important goal is awakening a sense of curiosity, enthusiasm, and awe (the “oh, wow” effect). If the tour is well planned, the docent can be flexible enough to shape the information, activities, and length of program to meet the overall goals.

Promoting Family Interaction

Adults, as well as children, learn by doing. Plan for a variety of activities. It is tricky to find activities that will pique the interest of both kids and grown-ups.

At one stop you might have families compare two objects, at another stop you might have them manipulate materials, such as measuring their height against the leg of a dinosaur or sketching what they see on a piece of paper. At another stop, you might have a directed looking discussion that focuses attention on an object by having them respond to provocative questions. You might pass out pencils and an activity sheet that includes basic background information (which empowers parents) and questions that can be answered by looking at the objects. Then have families share what they have learned. By varying the activities from stop to stop, you touch on different learning styles. As families interact together, you can give assistance and encouragement to individual family units. If you are successful in facilitating this kind of intimate interaction among families, you have reached the primary goal of your family tour.

Enjoying the Rewards

In interviews, adult museum visitors Providing opportunities to participate in activities addresses a family’s desire to spend time, and do things, together. Photo: Amy Jared frequently mention that childhood visits to the museum with their families are the primary factor influencing their decision to visit the institution as an adult. Facilitating positive family interactions in your institution is challenging and rewarding.

I have found the family audience to be open, forgiving, accepting, and appreciative. I find the rewards in repeat visits by families, in the nods and appreciative smiles from parents, and the little squeals of delight when children proudly share a discovery with an adult. Your love for the subject you are teaching and your enthusiasm for families and their discoveries will be contagious!

Amy Jared is the Coordinator of Family Programs and Children’s Art Classes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art where she has Worked for the last ten years. She is also responsible for developing all special events and outreach programs for families. Ms. Jared is actively involved with both national and local community arts organizations.

Jared, Amy. “Family Touring Tips,” The Docent Educator 4.4 (Summer 1995): 16-17.

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