[ Proceedings Contents ] [ Forum 1997 Abstracts ] [ WAIER Home Page ]

Discoverland: Exploring young children's interactions with science exhibits

Wendy Speering,
Scitech Discovery Centre

Léonie J. Rennie and Terence P. McClafferty
Curtin University of Technology

This paper describes a generic approach to researching young children's interactions and understandings of exhibits at science centres and science museums, and whether exhibits achieve their intended science-related outcomes. Previous studies in science centres/museums have researched audience, visitor engagement (time), gender preferences and general behaviour of social groups, and have neglected to research young children's interaction with the exhibit and understanding of the exhibit's intended message. A model was developed using fieldtested instruments to collect observational data of children's use and understanding of selected exhibits in Discoverland, a purposive exhibition for children 3-7 years at Scitech Discovery Centre. Centre staff were trained in data collection and analysis. They were able to document children's interactions as well as identify exhibits requiring remedial modification. A cost-effective model for researching the learning of young children has been developed and the findings provide insights into children's pattern of use of different exhibits.


Exhibitions which target young children of 3-7 years are not common at science museums and interactive science-technology centres (SMISTCs). The development of exhibits to suit this target audience has been difficult. Previous efforts to develop exhibits have been undertaken through the use of child developmental theories, such as the Piagetian approach at the Birla Science Museum (Bagchi, Yahya, & Cole, 1992) or Gardner's Multiple Intelligence Theory at the Children's Museum of Denver (Behr, 1992). Though SMISTCs have used these theories to develop exhibits, little research has been undertaken to determine whether the intended learning outcomes of exhibits have been achieved and few studies have been undertaken to analyse the children's interaction with the exhibit to determine actions, learning styles, social arrangements or exhibit designs which assist children's learning. Previous studies have measured children's engagement periods with exhibits or attendance numbers in galleries (Brookes & Vernon, 1956), gender preferences for different exhibits (Greenfield, 1995) or general behaviour of children or parents (for example, Birney, 1988; Brown, 1995).

The larger research program of which this paper reports part, aimed to understand how and why visitors interact with science exhibits and what kinds of match between visitor and exhibit characteristics promote interest in, and understanding of, the exhibit's message. This paper reports the early stages of an attempt to provide a generic approach to describing young children's interaction with exhibits at science centres or science museums. Further investigation will determine to what extent young children understand the intended message of the exhibit and how successful exhibits achieve their intended outcomes. In this paper, we report on the first stage of the research, that is, developing the instruments and the data collection strategies required to establish patterns of interaction of visitors with exhibits at Discoverland, a purposive exhibition for children aged 3-7 years at Scitech Discovery Centre.


The part of the study reported here relied on observation of visitor interaction with exhibits. Rennie and McClafferty (1996) developed, field-tested and implemented a method for the formative evaluation of prototype interactive science exhibits using a number of instruments. One of these instruments, the Visitor Behaviour Schedule, was an observational proforma designed to enable the researcher to record the nature of the visitor's attraction to, and use of, a prototype exhibit. It allowed recording of the exhibit's attractiveness and basic operation of an exhibit by the visitor. This instrument was modified slightly for the observation of young children who at least took notice of a particular exhibit.

The observation instrument was designed to record first, the nature of the child's interaction with the exhibit, second, whether the interaction was solitary or in a group, and third, what kind of interaction ensued. Interaction was classified at three levels: the visitor attended to (took notice of) the exhibit but did not engage with it, the visitor played with the exhibit but in a random way, or the visitor used the exhibit in a purposeful way. Each visitor was symbolised by a "g", "b", "M", "F", "E" and "T" for girl, boy, male adult, female adult, explainer, and teacher, respectively. Interaction with others was recorded by drawing links between the persons interacting, and the kind of interaction with the exhibit, or apparent pattern of use, was recorded in a comment box on the instrument.

Following field testing by the research team, the coding of subjects was refined (explainer and teacher were included at this stage, and an attempt was made to distinguish between parents and grandparents, but this proved too difficult and was abandoned) and the current version of the Rug Rat Rating (RRR) instrument was developed. Each copy of the RRR allows coding of 30 people and data are briefly summarised on the instrument. Even this small amount of data will give an overview of whether the exhibit is attractive to visitors and whether it is used purposefully. Further, design faults are quickly detected and can be listed for remedial action by exhibitory staff. Following field-testing of the final version of the RRR, volunteer staff of the science centre were trained in its use and deployed in the collection of data from a number of exhibits in Discoverland.

In order to determine whether the exhibits were being used as the designers intended, a second proforma, initially developed for use in formative evaluation (Rennie & McClafferty, 1996), was modified in consultation with the Education Team at Scitech Discovery Centre enabling the purpose of the exhibit to be described, and the cognitive, affective and psychomotor outcomes identified. Thus, all exhibits involved in the research have a description written by the Education Team which lists the physical manipulation/operation for successful use of the exhibit by the child and the cognitive and/or affective intended message of the exhibit. The use of the exhibit as recorded on the RRR is compared to the intended use, and thus the effectiveness of the exhibit can be evaluated. Figure 1 gives an example of such a completed proforma.

The first set of data recorded the behaviour of at least 150 visitors to each of five selected exhibits. Visitors were selected at random, simply those who chose to move towards the exhibit. Observations were made on weekdays, some were made during school visits, others were made during the school holidays.


The overall findings for the first data collection are recorded in Table 1. It is important to note that these overall data include both children and adults, and do not indicate the level of social interaction between them. Nevertheless, these overall results show at once that Hand Sculptures was a very successful exhibit, in that almost all visitors used it successfully, Periscope, Big Cogs and Trains were successfully used by about 70% of visitors and that Magnetic Maze was less successful.

Table 1: Overview of visitor use of five exhibits in Discoverland

Nature of interaction
Exhibit name Take noticeInteractUse purposefullyTotal No.

Periscope 13%18%69%399
Big cogs 16%12%73%193
Magnetic maze 15%38%47%150
Hand sculptures 4%4%92%186
Trains 19%8%73%163

The data in Table 1 do not explain why exhibits are successful or not, but the qualitative observations and comments made on the RRR about the exhibits are more informative. Using Magnetic Maze as a focus exhibit, we can explore what kind of information is available from the RRR. Magnetic Maze is an exhibit set out as a diorama on a low table, the top of which simulates a park, with paths marked and trees mounted on it. There are small plastic dogs, each containing a magnet, and by moving a second magnet (mounted in a wand and attached to the table by a string) underneath the table, the dog can be "taken for a walk" along the path and through the trees. The exhibit designers expected that for successful use of the exhibit, the visitor would be able to position the magnetic wand correctly under the table and coordinate the movement of the dog along a planned path. The cognitive, affective and psychomotor outcomes are described in the Exhibit Objectives sheet in Figure 1.

Exhibit Title: Magnetic Maze

Successful Use

What would the visitor need to do to use this exhibit successfully?

  • Position the magnetic wand correctly (under the table)

  • Coordinate planned movement of the dog

  • Follow a path
Exhibit Message What do we want the visitor(s) to take away from this exhibit?

Cognitive Message (Head - understanding the concept(s) demonstrated by exhibit)

  • Magnetic force can pass through some materials

  • Magnets can attract from a distance

  • Magnets can attract some objects
Affective Message (Heart - attitude to the information/experience offered by exhibit)
  • Social - role play and interaction

  • Relevance of the scenario

  • Enjoyment in successful manipulation of wand magnet

  • Mystery of how it works
Psychomotor Message (Hands - physical movement/manipulation needed to use exhibit)
  • Hand-eye coordination to manipulate wand out of line of sight, to move dog in a controlled manner

Figure 1: Exhibit objectives for the magnetic maze

Table 2 reports a further breakdown of the RRR data for the Magnetic Maze exhibit. Of the 150 people reported in Table 1 to have used the Maze, 109 were children. Table 2 shows that about two-thirds of these children interacted with the Maze by themselves, and the others were in small groups, either adult(s) with child(ren), or children together. The possible nature of these groups is listed in the first column of Table 2, where the sex of the people is also considered. The data are tentative, because the sample is small, but three conclusions might be investigated with further data. First, more female than male adults visit the exhibition; second, children are more successful in using the exhibit if they are with adults than by themselves; and third, girls are more successful when alone than are boys.

Table 2: Young children's use of the magnetic maze exhibit

Nature of interaction
Nature of group Take noticeInteractUse purposefullyTotal No.

Adult-child groups
Male-boy(s) --11
Male-girl(s) --11
Female-boy(s) 261321
Female-girl(s) -31114
Child groups
boy with boy(s) ----
girl with girl(s) ----
boy with girl(s) --11
girl with boy(s) --11
boy 6211037
girl 3131733

While these data give much more information about the nature of the social interaction with the exhibit, they still do not reveal why, compared with other exhibits listed in Table 1, the exhibit was used less successfully. The problems with the exhibit were clearly evident to the observers and they were noted on the RRR in the comment space. One problem related to exhibit construction. The magne tic wands were on very short strings, and frequently fell under the table and sometimes were not noticed by the visitor. When noticed, the short string made them a little awkward to use.

The second problem related to the graphics for the exhibit, which usually contain some instructions. The label for the exhibit read as follows:

Walk the dog the easy way.

Walk with Digger through the park but take care he doesn't run off with someone else!

There was a small diagram in side section which was not very helpful and the wording did not make the purpose of the exhibit clear.

These shortcomings, which immediately became obvious once structured observation of the exhibit took place, had not been noticed previously. Children were more successful with adult help because adults were more likely than solitary children to recognise the purpose of the exhibit, interpret the diagram and find the magnet. The reason for the shortness of the string was explained by the exhibit staff. Originally a longer string had been used, but because the magnet in the wand had a hammer-like shape, very small children were using it as a hammer, damaging both the magnets and the plastic trees on the exhibit. Shorter string prevented this damage, but also rendered the exhibit much less effective.


The study detailed the patterns of use of different exhibits by young children and provided the exhibit design team with evaluative data on the use of exhibits identifying those exhibits requiring remedial modifications. The development and testing of the RRR provided considerable data about the ways in which young children interact with an exhibit, their success and the value of social interaction. Centre staff and volunteers developed deeper understanding of the learning objectives of exhibits and are skilled in observing children's interactions. In follow-up work, we will be working more closely with children in order to ascertain their understanding of the exhibits.

Of course any data collected about the success of exhibit use, and the reasons for it, also provide information for exhibit evaluation. In this case, the RRR was used easily by explainers, and it presented a structured way of observing visitor interaction which provided immediate feedback on exhibit effectiveness. Previously, exhibits tended to be modified on an ad hoc basis with little understanding of the reasons for doing so. The data from the RRR has resulted in recommendations for modifications, for example, for the Magnetic Maze exhibit, the length of the strings attached to the magnets can be increased and the graphics improved. Thus, the RRR proved a cost-effective model for the evaluation of exhibits. Identification of the pattern of use of different exhibits has provided insights into children's cognitive and affective understandings for the education team at Scitech Discovery Centre, and has resulted in more effective planning for school visits and future exhibits. This approach can be implemented by other science centres or museums very easily.


Bagchi, S. K., Yahya, I. and Cole, P. R. (1992). The Piagetian children's science gallery. Curator, 35(2), 95-104.

Birney, B. A. (1988). Criteria for successful museum and zoo visits: Children offer guidance. Curator, 31(4), 292-316.

Brooks, J. A. M. and Vernon, P. E. (1956). A study of children's interests and comprehension at a science museum. British Journal of Psychology, 47(3), 175-182.

Brown, C. (1995). Making the most of family visits: Some observations of parents with children in a museum science centre. Museum Management and Curatorship, 14(1), 65-71.

Greenfield, T. A. (1995). Girl's and boy's use of interactive science museums. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 32(9), 925-938.

Rennie, L. J. and McClafferty, T. P. (1996). Handbook for formative evaluation of interactive exhibits. Canberra: Questacon, The National Science and Technology Centre.

Please cite as: Speering, W., Rennie, L. J. and McClafferty, T. P. (1997). Discoverland: Exploring young children's interactions with science exhibits. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1997. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/1997/speering.html

[ Proceedings Contents ] [ Forum 1997 Abstracts ] [ WAIER Home Page ]
Last revision: 1 June 2006. This URL: http://www.waier.org.au/forums/1997/speering.html
Previous URL 30 July 2001 to 16 May 2006: http://education.curtin.edu.au/waier/forums/1997/speering.html
Previous URL from 11 Aug 1999 to 30 July 2001: http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/waier/forums/1997/speering.html
HTML: Roger Atkinson [rjatkinson@bigpond.com] and Clare McBeath [c.mcbeath@curtin.edu.au]