by columnist Madeline Karp

I had the good fortune to spend Passover with my cousins this year. Being closer to Philadelphia now, we don’t see our New York family members as often, so we jump at the chance to spend time with them. Especially if we know one of the babies will be there.  I use the term “baby” loosely. The baby in question on this holiday is very much a toddler now.

Of course, being the second youngest cousin present, I was still relegated to the kids’ table – which meant we played together, all night long. We played Trucks. We played Blocks. He told me Je m’apelle Mickey Mouse. (He’s pulling to be bilingual, but his name is not Mickey Mouse.)

Needless to say, he surprised me in many, many ways. But perhaps what was most surprising of all was his ability to use an iPhone. Undirected, he unlocked the phone, paged through his parents’ apps, and correctly selected YouTube so we could watch Mickey’s “Hot Dog” song. (Click with caution. You WILL be singing this song for days.)

Did I mention that he’s barely two?


Dr. Marina Bers of Tufts University’s Department of Child Development has recently written a book on children and technology entitled Designing Digital Experiences for Positive Youth Development: From Playpen to Playground. An excerpt was included in Tufts’ most recent issue of Alma Matters magazine.

In her work, Dr. Bers posits that when it comes to child development, technology and computer software can act as a playpen or a playground. What’s the difference?

Playground: While they still need supervision, children make their own choices, use their bodies and surroundings in creative ways, and interact with others in their age group. Playgrounds are about autonomy.

– Examples of “playground” technology are programs Microsoft Paint or Word. They allow for the creation of original content. Like a playground, there are boundaries, but what you can do within those boundaries is more or less limitless.

Playpen: It doesn’t hinder development, but it doesn’t necessarily help foster it either. The space and resources provided are extremely limited. It’s more of a temporary holding space with “edutainment” options.

– Examples of “playpen” technology are websites like YouTube. Although they can aid in development, the child plays more passively.

So what does this have to do with museums?

Thinking through the exhibits in my museum, I realized that while we use a lot of technology, there is only one computerized interactive. It is in the corner of an exhibit we call The River, and honestly, I rarely see anyone use it. The kids are too busy splashing in the water, building boats and sending rubber duckies on pirating expeditions to even notice the nearby screen flickering facts about water conservation and the Schuylkill (pronounced: “SKOO-kill”) River.


Kids come to the Please Touch Museum to learn, but they also come to play. They use their imaginations, socialize, try out new skill sets and solve new problems. Confession: I’m sometimes frustrated when the museum is treated like a playground – I dislike being drenched with “river” water because a kid was roughhousing.

BUT! After reading this article I see that the museum IS a playground.

So…if a museum is a playground for kids, shouldn’t it be one for adults too? Shouldn’t exhibits reflect this?

Thinking over the museums I like best, they’re the ones that have found ways to involve me in my own education. They’re the ones that let me try new things, or put myself in situations I’ve never confronted before. If they use computer programs or kiosks, the content is interesting and open ended.

Similarly, the museums I’ve liked the least are the ones that ask me to shuffle through, stand and admire an important object, and then leave having “learned” something. And yet, I find that this is how most content is presented to adults – through tours and limited computer interactives. If it feels passive…it’s because it is.

Personally I find that in a museum, if a kid likes something, I’ll like it too. I want my museums to be like playgrounds.

So I’m asking you: What are some ways we can make “adult” institutions more like playgrounds? How can we redesign exhibits, programming, technology and content to get adult audiences more involved in their education?

Share your thoughts in the comments!