Friday, January 28, 2022

Three Mistakes to Avoid When Designing Spaces for Children

Photo credit: Matthew Clowney

Margaret Middleton is an independent exhibit designer and museum consultant. Middleton developed the popular Family Inclusive Language Chart and consults with museums on implementing inclusive practice. See their work at and follow them on Twitter @magmidd

Margaret was kind enough to share the guest post below based on their design work and contributions to the recent book, Welcoming Young Children into the Museum

Increasingly traditional museums for “general audiences” are listening to calls to improve their offerings for young visitors. As a former children’s museum designer, I am thrilled to see art museums and historical sites taking children’s museum experiences seriously. From kits of tools for looking at art to special labels and activities integrated into gallery experiences to dedicated spaces for little ones to learn through play, every effort to serve young visitors and their families is an important step in making the museum a place for everyone.

At the same time, there are a few common mistakes that museums make in their endeavors to serve toddlers and pre-schoolers. Here I focus on three mistakes I see most often and how to avoid them. All the recommendations I make here are drawn from the book Welcoming Young Children into the Museum by Sarah Erdman and Nhi Nguyen, for which I contributed a chapter about exhibits. Written by and for museum practitioners, this book is a thoughtful, useful guide to meeting the unique needs of children 5 years old and under in the museum.   

1. “Kids” as a single visitor category

The needs of a preschooler are typically very different from the needs of an elementary-age child and museum experiences should reflect this in activities, labels, and physical space.
To meet young children’s developmental needs in the museum, define who you mean by “children” and create activities with specific ages and stages in mind. Children 5 and under are typically not yet reading or writing and they are physically smaller than upper elementary-aged children. Be sure that the accompanying furniture you choose and the labels you write match the developmental stage of the activity.

For example, if you’ve designed an activity for preschool-age children like block stacking or color matching, be sure the activity doesn’t require reading and the seats are no higher than 12”. Use an anthropometric chart like this one ( to choose appropriate-sized furniture and hang heights for your audience. (We include an anthropometric chart on page 99 of Welcoming Young Children into the Museum.) Write accompanying labels for adult caregivers to read aloud to their child(ren) to help them facilitate the activity or to give context so adults can understand how the activity meets the learning goals of the exhibit.

2.  Focusing only on facts

Successful programs and exhibits for young children don’t only emphasize imparting content.
Instead of offering watered-down versions of content for grown-ups and aiming for only fact-based learning outcomes, museum experiences that center young children should meet them where they are developmentally. For young children, every day is a learning experience as they see new things for the first time, learn new words, and practice life skills that adults take for granted, like zipping up a jacket or navigating a staircase.
Consider experiential, relational, and attitudinal goals instead. In other words, focus not on what content a child retains but on what a child does, with whom, and how they feel about it.

(From Welcoming Young Children into the Museum, p 92.)

3.  Under-Staffing

Staff play an essential role in whether young children and their caregivers feel welcome in the museum.

You can plan thoughtful spaces with developmentally-appropriate activities, but just as much attention needs to be given to the staff who will care for the space. Gallery guides need to be given adequate time in their schedules to tidy up the exhibits, resources to swap out broken or worn parts, and training to engage with young children. And if staff were hired before you introduced special exhibits for young children, they may not be prepared to serve this new audience. Regular training can help docents get comfortable working with young children and their families. Chapter 6 of Welcoming Young Children into the Museum details the ins and outs of staff training including anti-bias/anti-racist pedagogy and how to support marginalized staff members.

Positive museum experiences can help young children make positive associations with learning and opportunities to see significant adults in their lives demonstrating their own curiosity about the world. And for adults who care for young children, child-friendly museum experiences provide space for bonding, making memories, and sharing their interests and values. Welcoming young children in museums is not easy, but it’s worth it. It’s an iterative process and mistakes are inevitable so keep listening to your visitors and trying new things. Good luck with your new initiatives!

Thanks, Margaret for sharing your thoughts with ExhibiTricks readers!


If you would like a chance to win a free copy of Welcoming Young Children into the Museum there are two different ways to enter:

1) Simply send an email to < > with the subject line "I want to win a book!" before February 13, 2022.

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On February 14, 2022, we will randomly choose one email submitter and one new subscriber to the ExhibiTricks updates to receive their books.  GOOD LUCK!

CONTEST UPDATE: Congrats to Susan K. and Judy H. for being the book winners!

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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

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