I spent last weekend at the park with my two boys, ages 4 and 6. The place was full of excited, giggling children running every which way, and none of them wanted the day to end.
I caught myself wondering what the magic was about parks that made children never want to leave…and why they don’t tend to feel the same way when we take them to the museum.
The answer might seem obvious: at the park, children can play. But what is the psychology behind why they often prefer a fun excursion to the park over a visit to the museum? In my opinion, it all comes down to four key components:
Interaction, Emotion, Accomplishment, Emulation
These are the components that come into play when a child seeks the thrill of going down a slide, or pushes to come in first, or tries to climb higher than they have before. These also come into play when a child encounters a new environment, builds something with friends, or challenges them. All of these activities present the opportunity for children to feel joy and pride, and receive praise from their parents.
Is it possible to activate these motivators at the museum?
What can we do to make a visit to the museum just as exciting for our children as an afternoon at the park? A museum isn’t a playground; it doesn’t provide quite the same freedoms that a park or garden does. However, some museums do offer engaging and thrilling experiences for children – experiences that address the psychological motivators mentioned above.
But things can get messy when you decide to visit a museum with your family on a whim. As a parent, I’ve often been disappointed by the lack of “on demand” solutions for capturing a child’s attention and helping them to have fun in cultural environments. While science museums tend to be very imaginative when it comes to engaging young visitors, the same can’t be said for all museums. In most cases, it’s best to plan your visit in advance to make sure appropriate activities are available for children. Otherwise, you may be left to your own devices on subjects you may not necessarily be familiar with.
Digital devices to the rescue?
This is where digital tools on tablets and mobile phones come in handy. They provide an “on demand” solution with great possibilities, they offer content that can be adapted to many audiences depending on age level, skills and interests.
Digital tools provide quick solutions that are likely to activate all four motivators we’ve discussed above — turning museum visits into an experience your child will want to do again and again, and giving parents tools they’ll be excited to talk about with their friends. Here are a few examples:
This is, of course, where the digital tablet comes in. A tablet should never be the focal point of the experience, but rather, a starting point. It should foster conversation between you and your child and facilitate interaction with the works of art and other artifacts on display. This is why digital games that combine storytelling and puzzles are the perfect tool for facilitating that interaction — they engage children and make them active participants in the cultural experience.
Digital tools can intensify the emotions children feel when they see a work of art or visit a heritage site. First of all, when they listen to a story, they are transported into the world of the imagination. In order for this to happen, you need a passionate narrator who not only tells the story, but brings the characters to life.
Digital tools offer infinite possibilities that are both fun and exciting for your child. For example, with augmented reality, your child could meet a historical character, dress a friend in a medieval costume, or pet a dinosaur… and of course, take photos to capture all the fun! Your child could also have a memorable cultural experience in virtual reality, which has been shown to have a particular emotional impact (see our article on VR here).
In short, digital tools bring you the best of new immersive technologies that can transport your child straight into another time and place.
A digital visit can also foster a sense of accomplishment in several different ways. First, they provide rewards when the children earn points, collect objects, or look for virtual clues. Games also encourage them to keep progressing, for example, when they make it to the next step in a game because they were able to complete a challenge.
Gaining knowledge also contributes to that sense of accomplishment. When children learn something from a story, a quiz, or funny anecdote, they feel like they’re the only one who knows this special information, and they feel proud of what they know.
Another way to activate this motivator is to encourage creativity by asking the child to solve a complicated puzzle or complete an artistic challenge.
Games should be as varied as possible. That way they present a variety of challenges based on listening and observation (for example: searching for clues in the décor or in a work of art), questions that require careful reflection, or fun tasks (like taking a selfie posing like a character in a painting).
Games should also allow the child to accumulate points and/or objects to stimulate a healthy sense of competition. Children can then share their scores with friends.
These four motivators also have a biological basis
This empirical approach also has a more scientific explanation. Each of the motivators mentioned above also release different hormones that contribute to feelings of joy and happiness: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins.
- Dopamine produces the feeling of satisfaction we get when we earn a reward, meet an objective, or experience a good surprise.
- Serotonin triggers the feeling of self-esteem and self-confidence. It is released when a child feels proud.
- Oxytocin is released during social interactions; it produces feelings of attachment, connection, and sharing with others.
- Endorphins produce feelings of well-being, related to laughter.
Besides their emotional virtues, these hormones also facilitate memorization. Dopamine, for example, strengthens episodic memory, which allows us to relive scenes from the past.
When to start?
Today’s children are immersed in an environment that is both digital and physical. They see technology as a means to foster interpersonal relations and connect with both the reality and fiction of others’ lives.
When digital tools are used intelligently, they help museums and heritage sites to create strong ties with young visitors, allowing them to discover and enjoy the many treasures these sites have to offer.
Whether digital tools should be used in museums and heritage sites is no longer a question. The question for museums to answer is “How can we adapt digital tools to the particular needs of each museum and heritage site?”