January 2012: Boston Children’s Museum Finds Community is Great Teacher
IMLS community grants have a framework for bringing the whole field forward. We have a responsibility to share what we learn with our colleagues and other museums.
—Megan Dickerson, Community Programs Manager, Boston Children’s Museum
By their very nature, museums have information to share and programs to offer. But something special can happen when museums cultivate meaningful relationships with communities; they can find that they learn as much from the community as the community learns from them. According to Boston Children’s Museum Senior Community Programs and Partnerships Manager Megan Dickerson, "To really do ‘community work,’ museums need to acknowledge that the needs and assets of our communities are equal to (or sometimes greater than) our own needs and assets."
Cultivating mutually beneficial relationships in the content area of health and wellness became particularly important when KidPower—a new health exhibit—became the anchor exhibit of Boston Children’s Museum’s new wing, which opened in 2007. The exhibit, which promoted the idea of power in = power out (or energy balance), put the museum’s new health focus literally front and center. Simultaneously, the museum and the Association of Children’s Museums launched Good to Grow!—a six-museum leadership initiative that gave children’s museums a national voice in combating childhood obesity. With this renewed local and national focus on health, it was time to bring this commitment to Boston Children’s Museum’s community.
Because families make critical health choices in the places they live, work, and play, the museum collaborated with the Boston Housing Authority, public health experts, and tenants of four public housing developments to design GoKids in Boston Neighborhoods: a program structure that would convey fun, practical health messages to low-income and minority families, who suffer disproportionately high rates of childhood obesity. According to Dickerson, the museum knew where it wanted to go and why it wanted to do the program, but it left a lot of room for exactly how the program would work, making the program flexible and learner-focused.
"Health is a deeply personal issue," says Dickerson. "Although we had messages that we wanted to share, we also had to ask families what they wanted to learn and do. Instead of using a finger-wagging, ‘eat-your-veggies-or-else’ approach, we needed to ask families about what was going right in the health of their communities and what could be done better."
Forming Partnerships with Communities
The museum consulted with the tenant leadership of four Boston Housing Authority family developments—Washington Beech, Old Colony, Gallivan, and Charleston—to learn more about the community and find out what they wanted to know more about. The tenant associations provided advice on program logistics, such as location and timing, and also recruited participants. This feedback proved essential: Nearly 80 percent of the tenant association members had an opportunity to provide input into GoKids.
"As a children’s museum, our approach is different because we are, by definition, an audience-focused museum," says Dickerson. "We go into neighborhoods knowing we can learn as much from [the people who live there] as they can learn from us. Especially in the realm of health—we can only make so much of an impact at the museum; people make those choices at home, at work, and at play."
In the beginning, however, this user-led approach proved to be a little too open and too broad. In the first few months, the program offered wide flexibility in program timing and topics, based on community advice. With the help of the museum’s health and fitness fellow, program staff members were able to offer programs that addressed adult-initiated topics—from how to stop smoking to how to get kids to eat more vegetables—and also accommodated requests that programs be offered to the public housing development’s afterschool and early childhood programs. But not all of the topics built on the museum’s central expertise, and inconsistent timing also proved frustrating for families, the core target of the program.
In the program’s second iteration, program staff refined the list of possible topics and established more consistent, once-a-week evening program timing. Each evening program also included a healthful family dinner, served at a decorated table. "We knew that having dinner was going to be an important part. We were fulfilling basic needs . . . integrating dinner with the experience had the effect of opening participants up to the higher benefits," explained Dickerson. After dinner on the first night of the program, parents and kids enjoyed a participatory performance of Balancing Act, a musical that reinforced the power in = power out theme through songs about whole grains and exercise and even a rap about all the ways you can drink water.
At the end of that and each subsequent program, museum staff members—including six BNY Mellon CityACCESS Teen Ambassadors, bilingual Boston Public School juniors and seniors—asked participants what they liked and what they would like to learn more about next week. Teen Ambassadors took those ideas and designed ways of conveying messages of power in = power out through fun activities tailored to each audience. The results ranged from a dance party in which mothers—primarily of Dominican descent—taught kids and museum staff how to dance bachata, to a physical game of "Capture 5-a-Day," which was based on Capture the Flag and incorporated messages about how many fruits and vegetables to eat each day.
"With few exceptions, you can say that every parent wants the best for his or her child," says Dickerson. She says that one of the reasons this program exceeded its goals of participant satisfaction and reported learning is that parents could leave feeling affirmed and refreshed in their roles as loving parents who want their children to be happy and healthy. By addressing basic needs of eating a healthy meal and spending time together, explains Dickerson, you can then reach the higher needs.
GoKids thus became less about child obesity, and more about wellness. "The role of the museum in the community is to inspire learning or increase knowledge and the sense of self," says Dickerson. And inspire and increase knowledge it did: As a result of the performance and health activities, more than 90 percent of the program participants reported having learned something new about nutrition or exercise that they could incorporate in their daily lives and expressed interest in visiting the museum.
One of GoKids’ goals was for more families to have meaningful experiences at the museum, in the hope that family learning would continue. To meet this goal, families who attended three or more events could earn an annual family membership to the museum. The museum emphasized that this was not a free membership—families had to do work to earn this $125 value. Nearly 60 percent of GoKids participants earned this full family membership and nearly one-third used the membership to attend the museum after the program concluded.
The museum also wanted to ensure that new members felt part of the museum’s family. Dickerson says, "We challenged ourselves and the Teen Ambassadors to act as thoughtful hosts. How can we make our new members feel welcome and taken care of, and who else can multiply that effect?" Parent Ambassadors, parents or caregivers with a high level of involvement in GoKids, extended the program’s reach by leading field trips, distributing passes, and promoting upcoming programs.
Bringing Back What We Learn to the Institution
Merely presenting a program is not community work. Dickerson emphasizes that it is essential to have a reflective practice. "Everything in the program must nest together," says Dickerson, "If we are sharing meals with program participants, then we need to share meals with our colleagues to share what we learn; we have to stop, reflect, ask questions, and refine our practice. If a program element isn’t hitting our goals, even if we love that program element and think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, we need to have the humility to alter or remove it." This ensures that a program can change course if initial goals are not being met. According to Dickerson, "We have to go in thinking, ‘What can we learn and what can we bring back?’"