I’ve been interested in the concept of “play” in museums since visiting the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. I actually was born in Rochester, and grew up with this museum. It wasn’t until more recently when I became interested in museums as a career that I began to look at their mission & values more closely.
For the purpose of this post, I’m using a definition of play created by Dr. Stuart Brown of the National Institute of Play. He defines play as something voluntary, pleasurable, and that offers a sense of engagement. You play for the sake of playing, there are no requirements or rules, only enjoyment.
The Strong Museum is built around notions of play, and according to their mission, the museum “explores play and the ways in which it encourages learning, creativity, and discovery and illuminates cultural history.” This is clear in many of the exhibitions and spaces in the museum. For example, they have a miniature Wegmans with fully functional cash registers and fully stocked shelves of fake food, a “Reading Adventureland” that includes a life-size castle and library of fairytales, a post office, a nineteenth century house, and so much more. Scattered throughout the museum are crafting tables that include free choice and structured art activities. I spent hours here as a child, and to this day, it is one of my favorite museums.
But why do we need play and why is it important? According to the Boston Children’s Museum: “Through self-directed play, children can follow their interests, explore the unknown, link outcomes with choices, conquer their fears, and make friends.” Play is often a participatory action, so as we know from our class discussion this week, it serves as a unique experience for learning and fun. To take it one step further, play also has been documented in children as important for developing social and cognitive skills. Play also allows children to use their imagination and creativity, again important skills that will come into play later in life. Though a lot of the Strong Museum’s activities are directed and scaffolded by staff, there are just as many opportunities for free choice play. I remember spending many of my visits playing in the dress up clothes provided in the nineteenth century house, putting on made-up performances for parents and visitors.
Play isn’t just important for kids, it’s also important for adults. It again stimulates creativity and imagination, and lets us escape from the humdrum of everyday life. Digital technology is a great opportunity to get adults involved in play in the museum landscape. Though some adults might not sit down at a craft table and start glitterify-ing a paper crown, they might be more comfortable engaging with a playful game on an Ipad or touch screen, because it is something that is familiar in their experience. Nina Simon addressed a similar topic in one of her blog posts. One thing that the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History has been trying is to design interactives with adults in mind. If adults are inclined to think that the interactives are only for children, they will be less likely to participate. However, by using muted colors and more mature fonts, the museum is attempting to encourage interaction for all ages. Similarly, I believe that by incorporating digital technology interactives, museums might also find more adult participation.
Overall, I think finding spaces for play is important in many museums today, whether it is digital play, virtual reality, or even an old school board game. The Strong Museum can serve as inspiration and act as a guiding force as we take on “play,” games, and participatory museums.