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Innovative Exhibit Spaces for Early Childhood Learners Webinar - Your Questions

By Mary Mathias posted 08-19-2015 14:00

These questions were asked by attendees of the Innovative Exhibit Spaces for Early Childhood Learners webinar that took place on August 13, 2015. The panelists, Melissa Thomas from the Saint Louis Science Center in Missouri and Denise LeBlanc, with her colleague Lucas Skorczeski, from The Discovery Museums in Acton, Massachusetts, have provided the answers below. You can view the recording of the webinar on the ASTC Professional Development Vimeo page.

Q: We would love to know what kind of lanterns you used!
A: Denise LeBlanc - It’s the Promithi Solar Panel LED Lantern Cell Phone Charge Emergency Light Tent Light.

Q: Do you do any programming in the room?
A: DL - The room is small, so we don’t do large programs, but we have extra materials and kits so we, or visitors, could sing songs around campfire, read stories, or use special shadow books that with flashlights to project images. The Whoo’se There – Owl Shadow book is one of them, and there are others available.
Melissa Thomas - The Discovery Room is open for self-guided sessions, always with at least one staff facilitator available. We do not do specific programs in the room.

Q: We are working on an even smaller budget with a "night tent". Any suggestions?
A: DL - Vivian, I’d be happy to talk to you about your project, or to connect you with a team member here who can best answer your questions. or 978-264-4200 x 20

Q: Did you have any custom pieces made or did you purchase items off the shelf? Or a mixture of both?
A: DL - Most were modifications of existing structures, or new pieces, made in-house. Our exhibit director used real shingles, lattice, and other materials to replicate the look and feel of the outside of a house, porch, and doors. Purchased items included the lanterns, stuffed animals, books, and illuminated bug boxes from IKEA. We also had tiny ‘firefly’ lights made that blink randomly on the ceiling.
MT - Most items were custom built by our SLSC staff. Items purchased off the shelf include: Imagination Playground blocks, medium size; Micro Eye microscope (based in Australia); Aquarium; and Existing Tom Egan water table.

Q: I’m interested in exotic vs. familiar - safari vs. backyard. What are the relative benefits of things children are already familiar with, as opposed to exposing them to new things?
A: DL - We discussed the merits of each and there is definitely a place for each. For the changes we would have wanted to make to continue as the safari room (artist mural and new features) the costs would have been too high for our current budget. One thing I lament is that the outdoors is ‘exotic’ for some parents and children! Not a justification, but a consideration.

Q: What methods do you use to survey your audience?
A: DL - We used naturalistic observations and interviews during the prototyping. We also have comment boxes and do online surveys with our visitors and members through Constant Contact.
MT - We use a standard form for all programs/direct engagements that was meticulously developed by our Research and Evaluation team. You can inquire about further details by contacting Sara Davis at

Q: Will you please explain more about using prototypes?
A: DL - We experimented with and prototyped:
  • Darkened room – Covering windows and using dim lighting, flashlights, ceiling lights, lanterns, porch light; Tested kinds of lighting, brightness, and placement along top of the room, in the tree, and in the ‘crawl space under the porch’ – cut into the closet to create this effect.
  • Fire Pit – Simple model built with foam, string lights, and wood to test concept, size, and feature. Tested physical attributes (size, tripping, durability) and the concept of ‘playing with fire’, whether it should be encased or not, etc.
  • Shadow casting – Tested with overhead projector, power point projector, flashlights, and lights on floor projecting on tent fabric and other materials.
  • Crawl through log – Used sonotube, then added lights, then made cutouts to see if would work. We wanted to test adventuresome “crawl through,” balance opportunity, as opposed to a bench. But it was too dark to crawl through unless we added lights or made cutouts and that ruined the effect; it was also too hazardous to balance on, took up too much space, and didn’t work well as a bench or sitting spot for adults.
  • Insects – Would large insects be too scary? Where to place them? How to see and find them? Used glow boxes, or LED Cube, from IKEA.

Q: I love the project! Will you please discuss more about how the ideas were "risky" and what kinds of concerns were raised during planning?
A: DL - Would we transform a popular and iconic room into something much less desirable? We also had concerns about the ‘darkness’ – Would it be too scary? Would it be too dangerous and have tripping/ bumping hazards? Would people not come in?
Lucas Skorcaeski - Having the room read as “dark” but easy to see steps, different levels, and various small parts on floor and around room. We know that children and families are spending less and less time outdoors. Is camping or being outside relevant? Will people know what to do or how to behave? What about families that live in urban areas and don’t have the same concept of backyard or outside? Is this potentially a “foreign” environment for some families? Two of the neighboring exhibits have motifs of the outdoors and being somewhat local/regional, do we need more diverse environments represented? Are we limiting our scope? How is darkness multisensory? What does it look, sound, and feel like? Related, how does this space meet the needs of visitors with learning differences?

Q: Do you think the darkness was the sole reason for increased parent participation?
A: LS - No, but it didn’t hurt. I think that the darkness and it being a new exhibit made it somewhat novel which helped draw people in. We also changed the opportunity to sit in this space. It is now a front porch swing (we actually took it off the front porch of our administrative building). This is an object that is known and is an invitation to adults to sit. The overall environment with the camp fire and shadow play set a stage for storytelling and interactions.

Q: Are activities and curriculum linked?
A: LS - Given that the space is most utilized by children five and under (with the majority being three and under), linking to curriculum was not a deciding factor in the design. Furthermore, STE standards in Massachusetts have been going through many revisions and drafts, making it difficult to use these as a guide. Any connections to curriculum are now being made after the opening of the space.
MT - All Discovery Room activities are linked to NGSS, Common Core, Missouri State Standards, and Missouri Early Learning Standards.

Q: Did the age of the visiting kids change when you turned a light space into a dark space? Were younger children scared off?
A: DL - Some younger children might be more hesitant to enter, but the adults almost always jump in and encourage the kids to come in and play an active role in their explorations. Older children seem to enjoy the extra challenges.
LS - No noticeable changes have occurred in our visitation since opening this space. Having this space in our building that is geared towards younger children almost guarantees that this it is being used by young children exclusively. I have seen some children walk by the room several times before heading in, but have not heard any comments of children altogether avoiding it. The biggest question we played with and prototyped was finding the right balance for lighting. We wanted the room to read as dark, but not actually be dark. Using blue lights, indirect lighting, and ambient lighting, the room is actually very easy to see in but “feels” more dark than it actually is.

Q: What are the dimensions of your Discovery Room?
A: MT - About 2,500 square feet.

Q: Seems like you have some child-made images in some areas of the space - do you have any other places where children-made work is shown?
A: MT - Not yet, but we’re thinking about how to incorporate that. I saw a good example of displaying kids’ drawings at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. They had a station for pencil drawings of shells and a nearby display with x-ray style slots to hang drawings from. Papers shown here are about 8.5” x 5.5”:


Q: Do you have an age limit for the room?
A: MT - We are designed for children ages 1-8, but don’t restrict. Some kids have grown up with us and still enjoy coming with younger siblings.

Q: We would love to hear any comments about the effectiveness of the medium vs. large imagination playground blocks.
A: MT - I only have experience with medium, and they work well in our size space. They are manageable, but still give the big block play experience.

Q: Where did you get your animal costumes?
A: MT - I made them… I’m crazy, I know :-)

Q: What did the Shadow Theater cost?
A: MT - The screen is translucent plexiglass with a wood frame. I’m not sure of exact materials costs. It has a 3” stage for the performers with ADA accessible ramp. It has fabric curtains that are stapled to the frame, so you can’t actually walk through or move them. The entrance is to the left of the screen.

Q: What is the name of the microscope?
A: MT - Micro Eye

Q: The moon phases projection is really cool!
A: MT - Thanks! It’s just a projector with 28 images. We have a two-button controller so we match the projection to real time.

Q: That's a big kid! Your target audience is 2-5?
A: MT - Our target is 1-8. We see that range on the weekends and holidays, and more of the 2-5 year olds during the week.

Q: What materials were used for rocket structure/walls?
A: MT - Melamine from Home Depot. It was about $20 per 4’x8’ sheet.

Q: Would you be willing to sell the blueprints to the rocket?
A: MT - You can contact Chris Lucas, our exhibit production manager, at for more info.

Q: Any feedback on if/how the star room is encouraging conversations?
A: MT - We haven’t recorded conversations, but do see a variety of real and made-up constellations in the room.

Q: What kind of staff do you have – volunteers or paid?
A: MT - We always have one paid staff, and add volunteers/interns seasonally during busy times.

Q: Do you provide stroller parking somewhere?
A: MT - Stroller parking is outside, and we have coat hooks inside for “valuables” that visitors don’t want to leave outside. Strollers are allowed when the child is in the stroller (like an infant), but empty ones have to stay out. This is an emergency escape policy based on our size and capacity.

Q: Do you limit the number of visitors in the room at a time?
A: MT - 50 people. One adult per four children ratio for groups.

Q: How do you manage larger groups or visitors who are aggressive in their use of the exhibits?
A: MT - We use the phrase “That’s not safe” a lot, meaning safe for you, others, or the exhibit. Then we immediately offer an alternative activity, or more appropriate way to use the item. I also occasionally have to ask kids to walk so that everyone can stay safe. We’ve had good success with both of these methods.

Q: You mentioned a ticket to this area. Is there an extra charge? (I remember visiting your museum and there was no charge for admittance.)
A: MT - The science center is free, but Discovery Room is $4.00 per person ages one and up, per session. Members are free.

Q: How did you capture 'early childhood hours of engagement'?
A: MT - This is a calculation of number of people per hour of operation. Sara Davis can give you more information about how we record this information.

Q: Do you have a list of the hands-on activities you do in the room? And would it be possible to have that list?
A: MT - Yes, please send me an email and specify if you mean standard offerings or the facilitated activities.

Q: How do you clean the blocks, costumes etc. in the area?
A: MT - We spot clean as needed, and have a “toy in the mouth” bag that caregivers use frequently for the littlest ones. We close for three days three times per year for deep cleaning and maintenance. These happen after Labor Day, New Years day, and Memorial Day. We have very light attendance in these weeks and they are spaced nicely through the year.

Q: How many sets of toys, costumes, etc. do you have for the area?
A: MT – One to two, depending on the activity. For example, we have one set of costumes that we wash, and two different marble run activities that we rotate on the same table.