"I think the program has increased the idea among parents and teachers that Treehouse Museum
is not just a place to come and play, that it's more than that.
It's an educational resource to supplement what children are learning."
—Spencer Cobabe, Early Childhood Coordinator
A Knight at the Museum Encourages Family Reading through Learning Quest Adventures
The mission of Treehouse Museum in Ogden, Utah is to encourage reading and literacy by letting children and families "step into a story." The museum is a special place filled with storybook and fairy tale themed exhibits. Finding common cause during a chance meeting; local school principals and Treehouse Museum executive director, Lynne Goodwin started to explore a new idea. How could they use the museum as a venue to engage families in literacy activities?
"We know how important it is to involve the parents, demonstrate and celebrate reading and progress for students and parents, but we just couldn't find the right combination. Our teachers hated and dreaded family literacy nights at school," said one educator at West Haven Elementary. Working with school representatives, the Head Start program at Weber State University and a reading specialist, the museum staff created "A Knight at the Museum" family literacy program.
Supporting Family Involvement with a Variety of Activities for Children and Parents
The program is simple and effective. Children and their families visit the museum's exhibits, attend readings and book signings with children's authors, and are knighted by King Arthur (sometimes their school principal in medieval armor) as "Readers of the Roundtable".
Thanks to funding by an IMLS Museums for America Engaging Communities grant, the Treehouse Museum updated its exhibits for the program, offered the event at reduced cost to area schools, developed activity brochures and booklists to inspire families to read at home, and provided each participating school with seven free family museum memberships to present to low-income families. The program was also adapted as a kick-off event to encourage early-childhood learning and literacy among 300 local low-income families who had received free memberships to the museum from Head Start. The program continued during the summer months with the recruitment and training of 13 young teens as "Special Participating Youth" who served as volunteer mentors and storytellers in the knight-related exhibit area at Treehouse and as assistants for the "Readers of the Round Table" reading quest for families.
Partnering with Schools to Create a Customized and Unique Learning Experience
In meetings with schools prior to the event, Spencer Cobabe, Early Childhood Coordinator and Goodwin work to keep the program simple and relevant for the schools. "I think one of the strengths of the project has been that it's so customizable," explains Goodwin, "Every Knight at the Museum is unique." Schools are able to select the kinds of activities they want to participate in and how they frame the event as part of the larger year-long reading program. One particularly enthusiastic principal has worked with Treehouse to create a different theme each year—including Three Musketeers and the Vikings—building off of the original Knight at the Museum structure.
Thank you notes from educators provide glowing reviews of the experience. "Having the authors from daytime presentations at the school present at the Treehouse to sign books, meet parents, and talk one-on-one with students contributes so much to our reading efforts. We couldn't keep their books in the library which is great," wrote Majestic Elementary. West Haven Elementary said that it was the "best attended family literacy night in [our school's] six year history."
This enthusiasm has helped the program continue beyond the end of the grant period. All seven schools from the funded year, plus several new schools, participated the following year even without the discounted price offered by grant funding.
"At the beginning of the year, I had a hard time getting appointments with this family. They had many things come up that made it difficult to meet with them. During our early visits, the mother was involved, but the father was not. We did a visit at the Treehouse Museum with the entire family. I followed the family throughout the museum and took pictures of them. The father was so involved and had a great time chasing his children around with a puppet. It felt incredible to watch them laugh and play together. The family has returned to the museum many times since. We had a great time making a book out of the photos. Since our visit to the Treehouse Museum the father has been involved with our visits. He reads and plays games with Abbygail. He is great at making activities fun for her." —About a Head Start program family, from the Weber State University Family Literacy Project 2009-2010 Annual Report.
The Museum is an Important and Respected Education Resource for the Community
The program's impact is more than anecdotal. Formal evaluation of the program's effect on the Head Start families by Weber State University found "major improvements in the parents' daily literacy activities with their children, such as engaging with children in dialogic reading strategies, storytelling, rhyming activities, and letter and word identification. A Knight at the Museum positively impacted parenting behaviors in the establishment of routines, contributing to creating a special time for reading each day."
The Museum's close working relationship with schools and Head Start has increased awareness about the role of Treehouse Museum as an educational resource in the Ogden community. "It solidified our reputation among the schools as being not just a provider of field trips, but as a partner with them in other ways," says Goodwin. The increase in visibility created a greater interest in the museum from families and donors. Program impacts have made it easier to convince local donors to support museum memberships for Head Start families. Membership revenue increased 27% over the grant period in comparison to the previous year and membership attendance went up 11%.
Advice for Interested Museums
For interested museums, the Treehouse staff recommends running a pilot program to smooth out the kinks. "The biggest challenge was the overwhelming response we got to the pilot program—we estimated 700 people would come and we ended up with twice that."
"Coping with everything from parking to where to put your coats, dealing with that number of people in the museum at one time, we learned how to staff for that and how many volunteers we needed. The pilot helped us decide specifically what we need to provide," Goodwin explains. For Cobabe, the pilot program was important for teaching that "simple is better." "Trying to get around to all the activities was difficult, so if schools simplified them, parents were able to get around to all stations. It lowers the stress level if they aren't rushing around to get to every single activity."
Treehouse Museum staff view the program as a potential model for other museums looking to become important community education resources. "Any museum that really wanted to partner with the schools could offer the chance to have an evening event with the families. It's a wonderful thing to open your facility to children who come on field trips, but whose parents don't always come with them," says Goodwin.