Family Learning in Museums

January 1st, 2016

This Knowledge Base article was written collaboratively with contributions from Scott Pattison and CAISE Admin. This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


Museums recognize the importance of the caregiver who accompanies a child to a science center or another type of museum. As a result, research in the past few decades has sought to inform best practices for exhibit development and interpretation through exhibit design and labels. A strong core of researchers in the field emerged who specialize in “family learning” (Borun & Dristas, 1997; Borun, Dristas, Johnson, Peter, Wagner, Fadigan, Jangaard, Stroup, & Wenger, 1998; Crowley & Callanan, 1998Crowley & Siegler 1999; Crowley & Galco, 2001; Crowley & Jacobs, 2002; Diamond, 1981, 1986; Dierking, 19871989Dierking & Falk, 1994; Dierking, L. D., Ellenbogen, K., & Luke, J. 2005; Ellenbogen, K., Luke, J., & Dierking, L. 2004; Pattison & Dierking, 20122013).

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

More recently researchers have begun to look more closely at specific roles caregivers play in their child’s experience. Leinhardt and Knutson (2006) identified roles of grandparents as: 1) storyteller, 2) playmate and 3) modeler of caring interactions. Researchers at UPCLOSE in Pittsburgh has also explored the role of grandparents (Sanford, Knutson, Crowley, 2007).

In 2006, as part of their NSF grant, Preschoolers, Parents, and Educators (PPE), the Boston Children’s Museum identified the types of adult-child interaction that support early science learning in 3-5 year-old children. The development of an observational instrument, called the Adult Child Interaction Inventory (ACII) was central to the Children’s Museum’s PPE project, and informed its thinking and practice. The three-year PPE study, was expanded to a wide variety of children’s museums and science centers. Six caregiver roles were identified which support childrens’ experience with science: 1) Player, 2) Facilitator, 3) Interpreter, 4) Supervisor, 5) Student of the Child and 6) Co-learner (Beaumont, 2010). The Adult Child Interaction Inventory and a User’s Guide can be downloaded at:,_Parents,_and_Educators:_Strategies_to_Support_Early_Science_Literacy)

Fender, Palmquist and Crowley (2007) have investigated the role of parent conversation and explanation in helping children acquire expertise in a museum setting. Gaskins and her colleagues have identified the unique cultural nuances displayed by caregivers in museums (Gaskins, 2008). She has looked at how African American and Latino caregivers differ in their “folk theories” about the role of the caregiver in a child’s experience. She has explored whether cultural groups view play differentially as a way for children to learn and whether adults are considered to be appropriate playmates. Jessica Luke and her colleagues have focused on the role of parent engagement in school museum partnerships (Luke, 2004, 2006, 2009). They have explored questions such as: What does it mean to be a parent partner in science? What is the unique role of a museum in bringing home and school together for a program? What strategies are most effective for achieving this goal?


Beaumont, L. (2010). Developing the Adult Child Interaction Inventory: A Methodological Study. Unpublished manuscript, The Boston Children’s Museum, Boston, MA.  Retrieved from

Borun, M., & Dristas, J. (1997). Developing family-friendly exhibits. Curator, 40(3), 178-196. Retrieved April 9 2013 from

Borun, M., Dritsas, J., Johnson, J. I., Peter, N. E., Wagner, K. F., Fadigan, K., Jangaard, A., Stroup, E., & Wenger, A. (1998). Family learning in museums: The PISEC perspective. Philadelphia, PA: The Franklin Institute.

Crowley, K. & Callanan, M.A. (1998). Identifying and supporting shared scientific reasoning in parent-child interactions. Journal of Museum Education, 23, 12-17.  Retrieved from

Crowley, K., & Jacobs, M. (2002). Islands of expertise and the development of family scientific literacy. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley, & K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning conversations in museums(pp. 333-356). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.  Retrieved from

Crowley, K., & Galco, J. (2001). Family conversations and the emergence of scientific literacy. In K. Crowley, C. Schunn & T. Okada. (Eds.), Designing for science: Implications from everyday, classroom, and professional science (pp.393-413). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Crowley, K., & Siegler, R. S. (1999). Explanation and generalization in young children’s strategy learning. Child Development, 70(2), 304-316.  Retrieved from’s_Strategy_Learning

Diamond, J. (1981). The ethology of teaching: A perspective from the observations of families in science centers. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA.

Diamond, J. (1986). The behavior of family groups in science museums. Curator, 29(2), 139-154.

Dierking, L. D. (1987). Parent-child interactions in a free choice learning setting: An examination of attention directing behaviors. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL.  Retrieved from

Dierking, L. D. (1989). The family museum experience: Implications from research. Journal of Museum Education, 14(2), 9-11.

Dierking, L. D., & Falk, J. H. (1994). Family behavior and learning in informal science settings: A review of the research. Science Education, 78(1), 57-72.

Dierking, L. D., Ellenbogen, K., & Luke, J. (2005). The family learning initiative at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis: Integrating research, practice, and assessment. Hand to Hand, 19(1), 1-6.

Ellenbogen, K.M., Luke, J.J., & Dierking, L.D. (2004). Family learning in museums: An emerging disciplinary matrix? Science Education, 88(1), 48-58.  Retrieved from

Fender, J. G. & Crowley, K. (2007). How parent explanation changes what children learn from everyday scientific thinking. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 28, 189-210.  Retrieved from

Gaskins, S. Designing exhibitions to support families’ cultural understandings. Exhibitionist, Spring 2008, 11-19.  Retrieved from

Palmquist, S.D. & Crowley, K. (2007). From teachers to testers: Parents’ role in child expertise development in informal settings. Science Education, 91(5), 712-732.  Retrieved from

Pattison, S. A., & Dierking, L. D. (2012). Exploring staff facilitation that supports family learning. Journal of Museum Education, 37(3), 69–80. Retrieved from

Pattison, S. A., & Dierking, L. D. (2013). Staff-mediated learning in museums: A social interaction perspective. Visitor Studies, 16(2), 117–143. Retrieved from

Sanford, C., Knutson, K., & Crowley, K. (2007). We always spend time together on sundays: Grandparents and informal learning. Visitor Studies, 10(2), 136-151.  Retrieved from

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