Designing Play

Interview with Collections & Exhibits Manager, Vanessa Eastmure

The London Children’s Museum empowers children to learn through play by providing a range of spaces and materials that engage multiple senses and scale from very small to larger than life. We sat down with our Collections & Exhibits Manager Vanessa Eastmure to explore the process of designing exhibits and delve into the impact of environments on a child’s learning.

Q: From an initial idea to the final exhibit, what is your process for creating new learning spaces?

While some exhibits require an external exhibit design team, other smaller scale exhibits can be done entirely by staff members at the London Children’s Museum. Regardless of the scale of the project, each exhibit is developed through multiple stages of design, with each stage becoming more and more detailed until the exhibit is ready for installation. These design stages are called conceptual, schematic, design development and final design. 

The conceptual design is the big idea of the exhibit and answers questions such as what the exhibit will look and feel like, what types of experiences might visitors have there, where and when will it be installed, and what budget should be allocated for its creation.

The schematic design begins to deal more specifically with the physical layout. We decide what exhibit elements will be included and where they will be in the exhibit. We also begin identifying what information might be included in the graphics as well as any artifacts that might be used in the space.

In design development, exhibits elements become more detailed. For example, if the schematic design includes a reception desk for a veterinarian’s office, in design development we will detail the size and material of the desk, as well as what will appear on the computer screen and what type of keyboard will be included.

In the final design, each element of the exhibit is accounted for and finalized. For larger-scale projects, this might mean preparing construction-ready documents to hand over to a fabricator. All materials for printing are finalized and all materials are purchased and prepared for installation.

Once installed, the exhibit is stocked with any items such as toys, materials and books that help create an immersive, interactive, and open-ended experience for our visitors.

Q: What considerations do you have to make when designing a new exhibit or component?

There are many things to consider when designing new exhibits and exhibit components for the London Children’s Museum, but primarily, we think about what experience visitors will have there. This is a particularly complex issue when you consider the range of different visitors we serve. The way a two-year-old experiences an exhibit is much different than the way a six-year-old or even an adult experiences an exhibit. Layered on top of this difference in age is the fact that individuals come to the museum with their own unique backgrounds, knowledge, expectations, and life experiences. It’s critical not to make assumptions about what we think visitors can do or know.

To create exhibit experiences that are engaging, educational, inclusive and welcoming we try to consider using a “low floor, high ceiling” approach in design. “Low floor, high ceiling” is a term that describes the idea of creating experiences that are easily accessible and available for all visitors to interact with, but that provide the materials and opportunity to become much more complex according to a visitor’s interest and skill.

A good example of this type of experience is our Wind Lab. In the Wind Lab, visitors are provided with a variety of materials such as paper cups, kitchen sponges, tape, and ping pong balls that can be combined and manipulated in many ways. Near these materials is a wind table with fans that can be set to different speeds and a wind tunnel that blows air up through a plexiglass tube.  For some children, placing a handful of feathers in the wind tunnel and watching them shoot into the air is a joyful and educational experience. Other children, however, may choose to make this task more complex by comparing how different materials behave in the wind tunnel. Another level of complexity would be to combine different materials to achieve different results. For example, this ball won’t shoot up into the air when I place it in the wind tunnel, but what if I add a sail? The open-ended nature of the materials allows visitors to build skills, increase their knowledge and spark curiosity at a level appropriate for each individual.

Another important consideration that is supported by the low floor high ceiling concept is repeatability. Many families are frequent visitors to the London Children’s Museum. Static exhibits, or exhibits designed around “push this button to see this response” will be far less engaging on a second visit than the first. A child who visits Street Where You Live several times over the course of a year can have a different experience each time. Not only are the materials frequently changed, but the child’s understanding of each exhibit component also changes. A child’s experience is heavily influenced by their ever-changing developmental stage. A child who has an upcoming dentist appointment may choose to spend time acting out the role of patient in the pretend dentist’s office, gathering information about what their experience might be like. At a later visit, after having been to the dentist, the same child may choose to take on the role of dentist, testing out new vocabulary and ideas that have recently been acquired.

Unlike more traditional museums which often select specific learning goals for their visitors to take away from an exhibit, children’s museums are more focused on providing endless learning opportunities. We offer visitors experiences focused on exploration and curiosity. This allows children to follow their interests, build on existing knowledge, and develop new skills.

Q: How does space impact the way that children learn?

When designing exhibits for children, it is important children recognize the space has been created for them. This means furniture and exhibit elements are scaled to their size. A child may struggle to cut with adult scissors, or push a full-size shopping cart, however, this is not a reflection of their capability, rather the inclusion of materials that were not designed for them. When given the opportunity explore and create in a space with tools and materials designed to function for their bodies, children can confidently display and build on their competencies.

Another way that the exhibit environment creates a sense of belonging for children is by purposefully including elements that invite children manipulate and add to exhibits. When children write on a chalkboard, build a structure, or create and display artwork, their work is not immediately wiped away or tidied up. The exhibit environment celebrates the competence of children by making their contributions an important aspect of the environment’s design. This helps to mark the museum as a place that belongs to children.

While scaling and designing for children is critical in creating a sense of belonging for young visitors, it is also important to remember that children do not come to the museum alone. Adult caregivers are critical in creating a safe, and supportive learning environment. We know that interested and engaged adults play an essential role in children’s development. Therefore, it is critical to imbed into exhibits not only space for adults to exist, but space for adults to comfortably join in play. For example, in the Street Where You Live exhibit, the tables and chairs in the restaurant are large enough to accommodate adults, creating the invitation to join in the imaginary play of ordering and being served food. Similarly, while smaller than average, the dentist’s chair is large enough for adults to play the role of patient.

Q: What has been your favourite exhibit to update, and why?

My favourite exhibit to update is the Lookout. As the original main entryway to Riverview Public School, the original occupants of our building at 21 Wharncliffe Rd S, the Lookout has an amazing view of Baleena, our whale skeleton. The steps down into the space serve as comfortable seating for adults, while creating a cozy, quieter nook. This feeling of respite encourages families to spend more time in the space, which results in children and caregivers engaging deeply with the materials. Over its many iterations, I have seen visitors spend hours creating intricate cause-and-effect or painting beautiful portraits in the walls. This space regularly reflects the experience of the visitors who have just left it, making it one of my favourite places in the museum.

Q: How can caregivers support their children as they explore some of the exhibits?

Caregivers can support their children in the museum by allowing children to take the lead. People learn best when they can pursue information about what interests them. This is equally true for children as it is for adults. If a child wants to spend an entire visit in the Dinosaur exhibit, that’s great! That child will have the opportunity to build knowledge about a topic that interests and excites them.

It’s important to recognize that when children are deeply engaged in play, they are learning. Play builds skills in everything from science, math, and literacy to emotional and social skills. Whether or not a child walks out of the museum having learned a new fact, they have built upon their existing body of knowledge, making new connections, and forming new questions.
The London Children’s Museum’s exhibit upkeep and updates are made possible in part by the generous support of Canada Life. Their gift helps us ensure we can continue to create new and engaging spaces for children every year. We would like to thank Canada Life for giving children the opportunity to play and learn in a space designed just for them!

Unearth Wonder

Help build our NEW dinosaur exhibit at 100 Kellogg Lane!

The future London Children’s Museum was shaped by the ideas and dreams of over 500 children, families, and community members. And children in our community made one thing very clear - our new home would not be complete without dinosaurs!

But to make our community’s dream a reality, we need your help! You can bring these prehistoric wonders to life by donating today. Every gift matters!

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