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The amazing non-scribbling machine

12
May/10
A scribbling machine
A scribbling machine

We take a lot of pride in the fact that most of the activity we offer to the public are enjoyable and engaging to a wide variety of audiences, from small children, to teenagers, to adults, as well as about equally to boys and girls.

Whereas that's true, the demographics of the Exploratorium are such that about 60% of our visitors are kids, and so, rightly or wrongly, there is a widespread assumption that we are a "children's museum", therefore the activities we offer must be "children's activities".

Take scribbling machines, for example. Using a simple hobby motor, and off-set weight, some construction materials, and colored markers, visitors get to construct a contraption that, through the vibrations caused by the motor, draws interesting scribbles on the floor. (Instructions on how to make one for yourself are here!)

Mothers and daughters
Mothers and daughters


Boys scribbling
Boys scribbling

A typical scene at an activity table is this: parents closely working with young kids to help them through the admittedly more complicated aspects of building the contraptions; or older kids making and playing with their creations. A casual observer would be justified in making the assumption that children are the intended audience for this activity.

Recently, a woman approached me during an event and, quite timidly, told me that she had been trying to get her son, who was completely immersed in another one of the activities offered in the Studio (marble machines), to come and do one of these scribbling machines instead, because she thought they were cool. Her son's participation, in other words, would have given her permission to engage with the acticity!

But then she asked, after a little hesitation: "Are these just for children?"

I assured her that no, adults were allowed to make their own too! And that was the permission that she needed to start working on her own contraption. In order to do so, however, she had to change the role that she had been playing. She came in as a parent, and therefore an "expert" of sorts almost by definition. But she had to shed that role to become a "novice" maker, and thus became a learner, in a way. She had to (re)acquaint herself with how to connect a battery to a motor, how to work with crafting tools, and, perhaps most bravely, how to be in a situation where she didn't know what she was doing, but figuring it out as she went along. I think that these are very rare and important opportunities for both parents and their children to see each other in a different light, and appreciate seldom-seen aspects and abilities. But it's also a good reminder for us to remember that what we ask, of both adults and children, is not trivial, and puts them in a vulnerable and sometimes uncomfortable position.

Holding the mysterious non-scribbling machine...
Holding the mysterious non-scribbling machine...

Here she is holding her finished piece, which surprisingly did not do what the activity was designed to produce, that is it was not a scribbling machine at all! However, it was incredibly well thought out and delightful. What is it? Well, to find that out, you'll have to watch the video!


Luigi-
There's another explanation for what the woman was doing. In John Falk's research on identity and museum visits, he found 5 identity-based motivations that visitors exhibit in museums. For parents in science centers and children's museum, the identity of "facilitator"--the person who facilitates another person's experience--is very typical. This woman probably came to the Explo to facilitate her son's learning, and she had to extract herself from that self-concept to enjoy herself as an explorer instead. That may sound kind of abstract, but Falk's research showed that people evaluate their visits based on the extent to which their identity motivations were fulfilled. So a parent-facilitator walks out of a museum happy if her son had a good time. When this mom shifted her identity motivation, she could feel that the visit was valuable/successful if SHE learned something too.

And I'm sure glad she did! The challenge, I think, is to help parents feel sufficiently covered as facilitators so they can explore other roles in science centers too.

I think this is right on Nina. Giving people an opportunity to move in and out of roles comfortably is something to strive for. Looking across the experiences we're offering, what is it about the design of the experience that allows someone to move from observer to do-er...parent to participant...novice to expert...expert to novice most effectively?

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