Discover Children's Story Center

Review

of an Exhibition

by Justine Roberts

Published on January 18, 2011

  • Description:

    Discover Stratford in the UK is a gem of a museum. It is organized around the concept of storytelling and it contains a series of environments to stimulate role play, imaginative and fantasy play, dress up and prop making. There is an outdoor area as well as the indoor space. It is quite small and it was originally – as front desk staff explained to me – designed to be a linear experience but visitors just didn’t use it that way and gradually the Museum let go of that organizing concept. There are some vestiges still – a kind of iconic character that is meant to be your guide shows up here and there but has no real role to play – but visitors don’t seem to notice or to be affected by the disconnect.

    It has an art area, a soft sculpture “forest” out of a fairytale, a food area with vaguely throne-like chairs, and some places to tell your own stories. Its all washed with natural light and open and cohesive visually.

    There are lots of imaginative/role play exhibits in children’s museums. And there are an increasing number of quirky, playful designed environments that eschew bright colors and plastic materials as they do here. In that sense, Discover Stratford isn’t breaking new ground. But what Discover Stratford has really done well, and what sets it apart for me, is its ability to encourage parent-child interaction.

    One of the big issues for children’s museums, as I see it, is designing for families. By that I mean balancing the needs of adults and children in such a way that they use the exhibits together, as a social unit, and experience the visit as one of enjoyable interaction. There are some characteristics of exhibits that accomplish this and I think these are so well integrated into the Discover Stratford experience that it is almost easy to overlook. But in a way, that ease is precisely the point.

    Here are a few of the elements that I think made a difference and I have posted a lot of pictures to illustrate these:

    1) Exhibits appeal aesthetically to both adults and children. They are colorful and patterened but the shapes are fun, the colors are unusual, and the environment is playful rather than childish.

    2) They have amenities for all users – like integrated seating, and the right height tables, and good sightlines that support independence. Chairs are comfortable for adults to sit in while allowing them to be part of the action.

    3) They contain interactives that spontaneously engage kids with a combination of intrinsically motivating activities and an intuitive interface, and which at the same time offer adults roles to play that are appropriate for them. This approach takes adults seriously as learners, and it treats them as an integral part of the museum experience. So adults can let their kids climb and then reconnect with them at the top, or hold their hand as they cross the trip-trap bridge. The kid is taking the lead but the adult is still a play partner, coach, cheerleader, and aide.

    4) Graphic communication is tuned to encourage adult/child interaction. The graphics were written for adults to read aloud, or to call attention to things the kids were doing and their accomplishments – so helping the adults notice and celebrate their children’s achievements.

    5) The shape of tables and scale of activity areas encourage conversation by creating areas to cluster and work in parallel or collaborate. Just take the double stair as an example of how design can encourage participation.

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