Designing museums, zoos, botanical gardens and cultural and informal learning institutions for young children

The design of the environment has a profound impact on the behavior and learning of young children. Young children read the environment differently than adults. They look for ways to interact with what is referred to as the environment’s affordances. A child subconsciously tries to test out what the environment affords her to do with it. Often, when adults think a child is misbehaving, the child is responding exactly the way the environment "told" them to and set them up to behave. Environments that do not take this into account produce undesirable, and possibly unsafe, behaviors from children. The behavior can also disturb the enjoyment by other patrons.

Boredom is an important design issue when it comes to younger children visiting a cultural or informal learning facility. Young children learn differently than adults and older children. They are bored by passive exhibits (except of course with swimming sharks). They have a biologically programmed need to interact with the environment—to learn by hands-on, interactive experiences. Interactive in this case does not mean pushing a button and having technology talk to you. It means true manipulation of the environment.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a University of Chicago psychologist, has researched boredom in children. He says that boredom is caused by a mismatch between what children have the ability to do and what they are expected to do. They enjoy themselves, when their skills match the task at hand. If they're challenged beyond their capability, they become anxious and often claim boredom as a defense. If not challenged enough, they're bored. Since children's skill levels change constantly as they develop, the point where boredom sets in is a moving target.

Linda Caldwell, a professor of leisure studies at the University of Pennsylvania, has identified another factor in boredom. She says children become bored when they don't think they have control over their lives and in what they are doing. This conclusion is supported by Csikszentmihalyi, who points out that when an individual's capabilities are balanced with the challenges of a particular activity, the result is a sensation of confidence, or being in control.

If a family visits, and their children misbehave and/or are bored, the family doesn't have a pleasant experience, the desired educational outcomes aren’t achieved and the family doesn't return or recommend the facility to their friends.

Children's development runs a predictable course through different developmental stages. The best way to approach design for children is to design exhibits and events so they progressively meet children’s needs as they develop with a continuum of challenge that allows their skills and interests to match the task at hand.
Anthropometrics are very important. Design needs to match the size, physical range and abilities of children-and this varies greatly as children grow. This requires activities and events that are designed to work for a wide range of ages. For example, the average height variation between a 3-year-old and an 8-year-old is 14", or almost 40%. All to often, museum and cultural environments are only designed with adults in mind. They accordingly set younger children up to feel incompetent, to not be able to enjoy exhibits, often to not even be able to see exhibits. It is important to follow the principle of universal design, to make the environment usable by all patrons—adults, people with disabilities and children.

Are you bookish? Hooked on sports? Transported by music or art? Like adults, kids are smart in different ways. Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner has identified the theory of multiple intelligences that says we all possess eight distinct and somewhat autonomous intelligences to differing degrees — linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily kinesthetic, intrapersonal, interpersonal and naturalist. Just how much talent we have in different areas depends on a combination of genetic and environmental factors. We tend to be most interested in activities that match our stronger intelligences. There are also distinct differences between the interests of girls and boys. Therefore, the variety of exhibits and activities must appeal to the broadest range of multiple intelligences and to both genders.

Designing for children is no simple task. Most adult designers have a completely different perception of the environment than the users they are designing for. If you put children in an environment not properly designed for them, all kinds on unexpected and undesired behaviors and outcomes result. Children are going to use the environment in ways that their biology tells them to, so it's the responsibility of adults to design children's environments carefully to produce the desired behaviors and outcomes. Positive outcomes for children's behavior and learning in a museum, zoo, botanical garden, or cultural or informal learning setting will be produced only when the environment has been designed with a thorough knowledge of child development, play, anthropometrics, ergonomics, environmental factors, wayfinding, environmental psychology and universal design.