The science of play and learning: DuPage Children's Museum getting serious about education research

Naperville's DuPage Children's Museum always has taken play very seriously.

At least since the late 1990s, the museum has conducted some level of research and audience evaluation — not for marketing, but to gain a sense of what young visitors experience as they create and play.

Consulting studies while developing new exhibits and evaluating established exhibits for effectiveness has been the norm for the 31-year-old organization. But during the past five years, the museum has stepped it up a notch in the research department.

With the help of a psychology professor at North Central College, a membership as a founding partner in the Association of Children's Museum Research Network, and other national connections, the Naperville museum has increased the academic quality of its research, gotten some studies published and begun to present its findings at a broader level.

The uptick in the academic evaluation of play means this suburban museum is making its presence known not only in the world of museums but also in the wider realm of early childhood education.

Museum leaders hope the research will create a lasting effect on the understanding of play as it relates to childhood development.

“We as an institution value research within our walls,” said Thomas Sullivan, director of education and programs. “We're excited for opportunities to contribute to the field.”

Sharing findings

The museum's most recent research has taken three major forms. Staff experts and research partners have analyzed how the museum can better reach Latino families with playful early learning experiences, how children talk about play, and how parents perceive play and learning.

“Play is not frivolous,” Sullivan said. “It is the vehicle for learning for young children.”

“The Access Project” is the name of the museum's recently completed study on culturally responsive programming, which found museums need to provide transportation, language support and assistance for parents as play partners to help Latino families best engage with informal early learning.

Nicole Rivera, an associate professor of psychology at North Central College in Naperville and the museum's academic research and evaluation partner, conducted the research along with Alix Tonsgard, the museum's early learning specialist.

Tonsgard then presented the findings at two national conferences this fall, attending gatherings of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and ZERO to THREE, which supports learning among babies and young children. Both organizations involve museums and other early educators, broadening the reach of the findings made here in DuPage, Sullivan said.

Since Rivera's first presentation of her children's museum research in 2013, studies completed at the facility have been presented nine times in four states and published five times in journals including “Curator,” a scholarly magazine for museums, and “Hand to Hand,” the quarterly publication of the Association of Children's Museums.

Meaning of play

Finding out how children talk about play is another recent project that fell mainly to Rivera. The researcher said she and her students conducted focus groups with Scout troops and interviews with 100 museum visitors ages 4 to 10 to gather their data.

The kids told researchers play helps them determine what they enjoy doing and get better at tasks that don't come naturally. Rivera said children realize play helps them build empathy and social skills as they share and relate.

Kids also called upon their parents to play more often. “Put down the phone and play with me!” was the refrain from the focus group of Scouts, who didn't hold back in expressing their desire for more fun time with Mom and Dad.

“They're aware of how important this is for them,” Rivera said.

But parents, Rivera has learned, often think of learning only in academic terms and don't realize play helps with childhood brain development. That's why the museum also has researched parental perceptions of play and learning, trying to determine where people think the two concepts overlap.

In a world with overscheduled families and distractions from technology, the museum determined many parents feel they don't know how to play alongside little ones.

Museum leaders are trying to change that lack of confidence by showing parents the ways they already engage their children in play in informal settings, whether it's at home, the grocery store or the museum.

“It's not just children who learn through play,” Sullivan said. “It's all of us.”

Next up: Math

Museum leaders have a hunch that parents feel least able to engage their children in playful learning when it comes to math. That's why the organization's next initiative is called “Numbers in Play.”

Set to begin in July and last through 2024, the research project will include development of a new math exhibit to update the play area on the upper floor, as well as a focus on helping parents develop strategies to recognize math in their daily activities and pass along a comfort with math to their kids up to age 8 through fun activities.

The difference between this research on what Tonsgard calls “math anxiety” and most other scholarly assessments on the topic is the venue.

“The majority of research on math anxiety is in classrooms,” Tonsgard said.

Studying the same subject in a less structured place, where kids can explore, will help the organization break new ground in the field of early education, leaders say. Tracked by researchers will be the level of math anxiety felt by children, parents and educators so the museum can find ways to decrease that feeling.

It's the classic scientific method. The museum has its question about numeric learning and its hypothesis about how to support it. Now it's time to test, retest and see what comes.

“The new project is not just, ‘How do we meet the developmental needs of the children,'” said Kim Stull, director of exhibits and operations, ‘but, ‘How do we support the adults who support those children?'”

  Arianne Bonifas of Bolingbrook plays with her daughter, 14-month-old Riley, at the DuPage Children's Museum in Naperville. The museum has conducted research that has found many parents and caregivers feel unsure about how to engage their little ones in playful learning. Bev Horne/
  Nicole Rivera, an associate professor of psychology at North Central College and academic research and evaluation partner at the DuPage Children's Museum in Naperville, often works with Alix Tonsgard, the museum's early learning specialist, on studies at the intersection of play and learning. Bev Horne/
  North Central College students, such as Isabella Ayala and Charlie Blim, sometimes get involved in research conducted by Nicole Rivera, associate professor of psychology, at the DuPage Children's Museum in Naperville. Bev Horne/
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