The Role of Prior Knowledge and Parent-Child Interactions in Children's Learning in Museums

Erin Anne Wilkerson, Loyola University Chicago


A recent National Academies Report (NRC, 2009) indicates that informal learning experiences - including those occurring in museums - can be valuable to the development of crucial understandings of culture and science even for pre-kindergarten children. In the current study, we systematically investigated characteristics of parent-child interactions in a museum exhibit that are most effective in fostering young children's learning and retention of information. Specifically, we aimed to encourage greater object manipulation and more descriptions of evidence and explanations as parents and children learned about ancestral Puebloans in an exhibit at The Field Museum. We further examined if parents and children were able to retain and use what was learned in the Pueblo (1) to understand a different culture (the Central Plains Pawnees) featured in a different exhibit and (2) to report their experiences days and weeks after the museum visit. The sample of 83 children (M age = 4.9 years; 41 girls) and their parents (1/3 recruited through Chicago Public Schools) were randomly assigned to one of four conditions: (1) Objects-Only, (2) Cards-Only, (3) Objects + Cards, or (4) No Cards or Objects (Control). Before entering the exhibit, families in the Objects and Objects + Cards conditions were presented with six "target" objects to manipulate (e.g., a mano and matate, a device for grinding corn). These objects were also featured prominently in the exhibit. Prior to exhibit entry, families in the Cards and Objects + Cards conditions were given pictures of these same objects on cards that also included Wh-questions about these objects (e.g., "What do you think this is used for?"). Analyses of parent-child interactions in the exhibit reveal that our intervention was largely successful. For example, families who manipulated objects prior to entry into the exhibit (Objects-Only and Objects and Cards groups) were more likely than those who did not to be classified as high in object manipulation in the Pueblo exhibit. As shown in Figure 1, parents in groups that received cards (Cards-Only and Objects and Cards) asked more Wh-questions about the target objects in the exhibit than those who did not receive cards. Parents who received cards prior to exhibit entry also asked more Wh-questions relating that which was being experience to what their children already knew (associations), and more Wh-questions about the functions of target and nontarget objects in the exhibit. With regard to the memory conversations, our analyses show that after a 24-hour delay, parents in the Objects + Cards group were asking more Wh-questions and their children were recalling more information in comparison to Control parents and children. Following a two-week delay, children in the Objects + Cards group were recalling the most information. Additional analyses of parent-child talk in the Pawnee exhibit is presented that further suggest substantial impacts on learning for young children who are engaged both in object manipulation and conversation during informal educational experiences.