What makes a good museum for kids? I’ve written before about how the answer is not always technology. Kids like pressing buttons, of course, but if that’s all you wanted you could just go to the elevator bank at any office building in New York. In fact, when it comes to museums, kids are (to borrow a phrase) people who need people.
The Ontario Science Centre in Toronto is a massive institution a few miles outside of the city. There is a maker-space where kids can fit together various pieces of wood and use glue guns to make sure they stick together. There is an enormous room devoted to the functioning of the human body, with an area where you can watch a video of yourself running in slow motion and rowing machines that measure your energy. There is an imitation ultrasound machine where you can listen to a baby’s heartbeat. There is a room where kids can test out homemade instruments to learn about vibrations and sound. You can spend a week in there but you will leave with a massive headache and, unless your kids can read well and concentrate over the sound of hundreds of other children running past screaming, they may not get much out of the experience.
The one exception is a highly entertaining one-man show devoted to explaining how different kinds of energy work. The kids enjoyed the explosions, of course, but they were also completely engaged throughout the presentation because it was done by a real human being.
If you wanted to understand what was missing from the rest of the Ontario Science Centre experience, the answer could not be found in the exhibits. There is hardly a topic that is not covered. Rather, it was the dearth of staff. Whether it was trying to get help making your Rube Goldberg contraption to work or trying to understand why the vibrations from piano keys could make nearby slime actually change shape, there was almost no one from the museum around to answer questions.
The experience at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago was precisely the reverse. From the cashier who offered advice about which exhibits to prioritize (and which were her personal favorites) to the man conducting a demonstration of how hurricanes work, everywhere we looked there were knowledgeable staff offering explanations, answering random questions and giving impromptu presentations.
In a room devoted to robotics, a man demonstrated how drones work. A college student helped kids put together the components of a simple robot. Another presented a robot soccer game. In a room with a giant model train, a staffer was explaining the scale of the model and pointing out some real landmarks. In the weather room, a member of the staff had children walk around in a circle going the opposite way from a twenty-foot swirl of water vapor to show how opposing air flows can slow the wind.
Of course, there were the all-important buttons for kids to push, but there was no need to just run willy-nilly from one to another, since the real live human beings offered a far more engaging learning experience than any machine. This is a lesson more museums targeted to the young need to learn: For children who don’t always have knowledge or patience to read lengthy explanations, there is no substitute for a good teacher. It is obviously expensive to hire such a large contingent of helpful people. But, as a parent, I can tell you: it’s well worth it.
Image: Ontario Science Centre