THE BLOG
03/28/2016 08:01 pm ET Updated Mar 29, 2017

Visit a Children's Museum!

Summer is in sight. This matters to families following a traditional school calendar because children who take an educational break over the summer experience learning losses. Your school probably has suggestions for addressing this, as do organizations like Reading is Fundamental. But if you'd like something more playful, read on.

As an expert on children, I hear a lot of opinions about children's learning. I do research on language development, and I meet many children's adults through that work. Some of them suspect that learning shouldn't be too fun. I've met parents who think that children have fun but don't learn outside of school, and ones who think that children learn but don't have fun inside of school. Some parents are themselves over-scheduled. They make itineraries for their children that are a strange combination of rigid and hectic. If you lean to such views or find yourself a prisoner of play dates, a children's museum might set you free.

Here's why: Psychologists Jamie Jirout (Rhodes College) and David Klahr (Carnegie Mellon University) define children's curiosity in terms of uncertainty and ambiguity. Situations that go beyond an individual child's past experience or current knowledge inspire exploration and then learning. Children's museums get this. They are, as the Association of Children's Museums puts it, "places where children learn through play and exploration in environments designed just for them."

At Children's Museum Tucson, where I'm privileged to have colleagues, one room hosts hands-on puzzles that invite children to engineer many different solutions (ambiguity). Unlike in most classrooms, those who explore these solutions do so very noisily. Which children apparently find fun. Another room has gesture recognition technology in its floor. At first, children hop around on the floor, randomly and briefly uncovering moving images of insects from our desert environment (uncertainty). Those who are curious start varying their gestures systematically, soon discovering how to control which insects go where. Watching children play in these rooms, it's easy to see that they're having fun.

But they're also learning. It turns out that play matters to brains and one of the best things that brains do - learning. Children need room in their lives for curiosity to become play and for exploration to become learning. If I've convinced you to take your child to a museum, try what might be a new approach for you.

Let your children choose which exhibits to explore, wandering around without obvious direction or staying in one place for a loooong time. Observe your children in this special environment. What excites them? What frustrates them? Which activities hold their attention and for how long? Days later, what do they remember from the museum? Ask your children directly what they learned from the museum. Listen for new words in their vocabulary. Even if you end up somewhere other than a museum designed especially for children (example list for D.C.), you can learn from standing back and observing children's choices and from asking them to say what they learned.

If you're a parent wondering how to identify and amplify curiosity in your children, what can you do? If your children seem glued to TVs and computers and phones, how can you spark their interest in more active pursuits? I recommend visiting a museum together. You'll both learn from it.