Museums and Libraries: Community Resources for Developing Executive Function Life Skills

Executive functions are the foundations for young children’s academic and later employment success, and museums and libraries are uniquely positioned to help children and families develop those skills. This is the message of Brain-Building Powerhouses: How Museums and Libraries Can Strengthen Executive Function Life Skills, a report by the Family and Work Institute (FWI) in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services and School Readiness Consulting.

Brain-Building Powerhouses identifies seven executive function life skills that young children need to develop their ability to engage in goal-oriented problem-solving. These skills include:

  1. Focus and Self-Control
  2. Perspective Taking
  3. Communicating
  4. Making Connections
  5. Critical Thinking
  6. Taking on Challenges
  7. Self-Directed, Engaged Learning

These seven skills, taken together, strengthen children’s cognitive and social skills, thus enabling them to focus their attention; learn new information and then use it in new contexts to solve problems; and work well with others. They are the foundations for lifelong success.

Museums and libraries are community-based institutions of learning that are open to children and their families, and as such, their exhibits and activities provide opportunities to develop children’s executive function life skills. To better understand these opportunities, Mind in the Making (MITM)—a program of the Family and Work Institute—sent an online survey to members of national library and museum associations to explore what museums and libraries are currently doing to develop executive function life skills among their younger patrons.

MITM received responses from over 230 libraries and museums of all sizes, in rural and urban communities alike. The responses catalogued the institutions’ programs, offerings and outreach efforts, and showed that “museums and libraries are unique in having the raw materials for developing a robust and targeted approach to promoting the development of executive function life skills.” Specifically, the assets that museums and libraries bring include:

  1. proven success and capacity to engage, inform families and support them as their children’s first teachers;
  2. programmatic focus on early literacy and school readiness;
  3. use of play and inquiry-based approaches supported by rich collections and materials;
  4. leadership in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (including the Arts) STEM/STEAM field;
  5. innovation and universal access to digital technology and tools; and
  6. capacity and mission-driven development of diverse community partnerships.

The report is filled with real-life examples of these assets in action, such as

  • At the Sciencenter (Ithaca, NY), the Science Together program for parents and caregivers provides information on how children learn as scientists. After a song and a story, adults and children are given materials and tools to explore together. Researchers from the Early Childhood Cognition Lab at Cornell University assist with the program, modeling and sharing developmental research with parents, which enables parents to see behaviors in real time in their own children.
  • At the Lawrence Hall of Science (Berkley, CA), a “Design Thinking through Play” project for children from ages four to seven offers hands-on learning activities to promote innovation, design thinking and 21st Century Skills. Outcomes include a framework for developing play- based design experiences for young children in museums, a set of engineering design activi- ties and a facilitator’s guide.
  • In a partnership between The Franklin Institute and The Free Library of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, PA), LEAP into Science engages children and families in science and literacy by integrating hands-on science activities with children’s literature. These parent-child workshops include take-home bookmarks and exploration cards with suggestions for extending science and literacy learning at home. Since 2011, this program has expanded to 10 additional cities nationwide, consisting of partnerships between museums, libraries, community centers, after-school programs, public television stations and nonprofit organizations.

The various programs can be tied explicitly to the development of the seven executive function skills. For example, the Boston Children’s Museum responded to the survey that

In our “early childhood corridor,” we use three exhibits in particular (although these happen all over the museum) to teach these skills. In PlaySpace, babies and toddlers learn Focus and Self Control. There are so many things that are new in the space that most children under three can’t go on automatic. They are paying attention and focused and learning Self Control as they play at the train table. Sharing in the museum helps kids learn Perspective Taking. I’ve seen many children comfort one another when they are upset. This happens in our Climb which is a challenging three-story maze. Children help each other when they realize someone may not un- derstand where to go next or how to get down. They learn to “read” emotional faces and body language. Communicating — the museum is a language-rich environment with many opportunities for children to talk to their own family and new friends. Making Connections and Critical Thinking happen in our Art Studio, during special programs that require attention and focus and making new knowledge connections. Taking on Challenges happens often when children have brand new experiences. Maybe this is in the Climb, in the Art Studio or in a new Gallery. We work very hard to create safe, trusting spaces so that children can bring all their skills and open hearts to the experiences they are having while visiting. Children recognize here what they have a passion for and what they want to do over and over and over. That happens in the Japanese House, blowing bubbles and participating in our little theatre.

The next step, says the FWI, is for museums and libraries to go even further to “intentionally [leverage] their unique assets to embed resources and approaches that illustrate and encourage the development of the seven executive function life skills. They can systematically align what research and science tells us about the development of executive function life skills and how children learn with program planning and resource development.”  As one survey respondent put it,

How to incorporate executive brain functions into planning visitor and learning experiences may not be immediately obvious. Nevertheless, museums [and libraries] currently use many strategies to develop experiences that encourage self-regulation. Museums prepare the environment; engage visitors; prepare staff and volunteers to give cues and hints; encourage social interactions among visitors; and invite extensive physical and cognitive interactions with objects and phenomena. These approaches, and more, point toward the abundant and varied opportunities museums [and libraries] have to act on their missions, benefit their audience and serve their communities by deliberately taking advantage of the capacities executive brain functions offer.

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