You are here

Hands-on, Play-Based Learning at the Marbles Kids Museum Helps Kids and Parents Get Ready for School

August 13, 2015
A visually-impaired patron plays Scrabble with library staff

Recipient: Marbles Kids Museum

Program: Museums for America – Engaging Communities

Contact: Hardin Engelhardt, Education and Evaluation Specialist


Pictured above: Family member and young boy peering through painting glass

We knew that we needed to reach kids before they start kindergarten to help set them up for success in the school system. Our “Ready, Set, School” exhibit provides young children and their parents an environment full of interactive learning experiences they can enjoy together. Exhibit activities give parents ideas for activities they can recreate at home, motivating them to spend more time learning and playing with their kids. Parental involvement is a huge factor, especially with low-income families, in determining whether or not a child will succeed in school.

 - Hardin Engelhardt, Education and Evaluation Specialist

Since opening its doors in the fall of 2007, Marbles Kids Museum has become known as a vibrant destination for interactive learning designed for children 10-and-under and their families. Marbles serves a diverse population of families, school groups, and community organizations with dozens of themed hands-on exhibits, daily programs, summer camps, IMAX educational and feature films, and special events year-round.

In July 2012, the museum used an IMLS grant to develop and implement “Ready, Set, School,” an initiative that connects with children and families in the community to show the importance of school readiness. Educators know that major predictors of early school success are familiarity with routines, materials, practices, and expectations of the classroom and parental involvement in education. The museum offers opportunities for hands-on play in a new “Ready, Set, School” exhibit space and participation in play-based, school-like activities so children and families can be prepared for school by building familiarity and educating parents about school readiness, child development, and supporting academic success.

Parents Learn to Engage with their Kids through Play

Children are not the only ones who need to be prepared for school.  Because the parent-child relationship is a critical foundation for lifelong learning, it was important that the exhibit engage both children and parents. The “Ready, Set, School” exhibit provides a platform for parents to engage with their children in play, to share experiences with them, and to connect through learning together. Parent messaging and resources throughout the exhibit space educate parents about their important role in preparation for school.

In addition to engaging with their kids through play, parents who visited the exhibit made new discoveries about their children and their children’s interests and skills.  Parents were encouraged to use this knowledge to support their child’s interests and skills at home, something they might not have discovered outside the museum and its resources. After playing a letter activity with her son, one parent said, “I didn’t know how many letters my son knew. I knew he knew the ones in his name and a few others, but not as many as he named at the sorting table.”

Staff also found that many parents left the museum exhibit experience with their child and then worked to recreate the same experience at home with similar or different materials. Another adult participant said, “We saw her playing with alphabet letters and rocks [here] and thought about getting more things like that for her at home.”  When parents began mentioning replicating learning activities from their museum experience at home, project staff knew the program was having a positive impact.

Becoming a Leader in School Readiness

The museum has been extremely successful in bringing children and parents together through the “Ready, Set, School” exhibit and activities. Ninety-two percent of adults who visited the museum indicated that the exhibit provided an opportunity for children to practice and build a wide range of school readiness skills. Sixty-nine percent of parents found their children gained familiarity with school space, materials, language, routines, and activities through time in “Ready, Set, School.” Of adults surveyed, sixty-seven percent had gained ideas for school readiness play at home from the exhibit.

Marbles successfully launched three new parent-child classes focused on fostering school readiness through play and building adult awareness of how to support school readiness. In year one, a total of 583 adult-child pairs participated in 14 four-class sessions. In year two, 521 adult-child pairs participated in 47 four-class sessions. Over the course of two years, 1,115 child-adult pairs participated in the classes.  Due to the program’s success, the museum has since launched additional programming and added weekend and evening classes to accommodate more participants.

The museum has also developed and implemented eight school readiness events for rising kindergartners and their families with targeted outreach to low-income participants. Since the program’s launch, almost 9,000 students and parents have participated. Many had never visited the museum, but after participating in these particular events, they were much more inclined to make a trip.

The Marbles “Ready, Set, School” initiative also established a community of practice for children’s museums across the country.  The community includes six museums that participated in the school readiness initiative by collaborating online through a “Ready, Set, School” Google group.  Museum staff attended collaborative meetings and each made a site visit to the Marbles Kids Museum. This community of practice presented a session focused on school readiness at the Association of Children’s Museums 2014 Interactivity conference in Phoenix in May.

The project has also strengthened the museum’s existing and new partnerships with community organizations to better address the needs of the local community and to provide a replicable model to help other institutions implement school readiness programs. Now, the school system and other community partners turn to the museum to identify strategies to address concerns and to learn from the museum’s model.

Expanding Impact

Marbles Kids Museum has solidified its role in the community as a valuable partner and resource for school readiness. The museum is committed to ensuring that even the most at-risk children and families have access to the programs and resources provided by “Ready, Set, School.” Marbles hopes to expand its impact especially with low-income families with preschool-aged children in need of school readiness services and who, without access to quality preschool programming, are at risk of falling behind before they even start kindergarten. As a result of this project, the museum now has many more partners and resources and more information to identify ways to bring their school readiness experiences to vulnerable populations. 

The Wake County Public Schools is one of the partner organizations.  Dawn Dawson of the school system’s early learning office, praised the project, saying, “Play is a child’s work. Play is how children learn about the world and is their first true teacher. Any way we can promote the play experience and have it connected to learning is important. Play in the exhibit allows children to experience what kindergarten is like at their own speed and at their own point of readiness. [It] allows a better bridge for children who have not had preschool experience.”