How to help parents support pre-schoolers’ exploratory behavior

By Suzanne Perin - October 2011


Van Schijndel, T. J. P., Franse, R. K., & Raijmakers, M. E. J. (2010). The Exploratory Behavior Scale: Assessing young visitors’ hands-on behavior in science museums. Science Education, 94, 794–809.

The authors of this paper were interested in knowing how parents can support exploratory behaviors of their preschool-aged children at museum exhibits. They developed a quantitative instrument based on psychological literature on exploration and play in order to describe and quantify young children's increasing levels of exploration of their environment. They then tested the measurement tool with parents and their preschool-aged children to investigate what types of adult coaching would achieve high-level exploratory behavior at various exhibits.

To develop and test the measurement tool, they conducted two experiments with parents and their preschool-aged children. The first explored what adult coaching style resulted in higher levels of exploratory behavior at two exhibits and the second investigated whether informing parents of effective coaching influenced the behavior of their children.

The authors note that in the field of science museum evaluation and research, authors rely on visitor behavior, amount and type of talk, holding time, and percentages of visitors who stop as a stand-in for quantifying learning. However, the authors argue that time comparisons do not work well for pre-school-aged children in particular, as this group tends to manipulate the same materials for long periods of time. Descriptive studies that analyze talk and gesture are exhibit specific in nature, and do not allow for comparison across museum settings. Recognizing these as weaknesses, the authors developed their Exploratory Behavior Scale (EBS) based on psychological literature on exploration and play.

Three levels of increasingly extensive exploration of the physical environment are included as analytical dimensions in the EBS (p. 799) as detailed below: 1. Passive contact: A child walks, stands, sits, or leans on something and may hold or transport an object; however, the child does not manipulate the object in an active or attentive manner. 2. Active manipulation: A child manipulates an object in an active and attentive manner. This implies that the child pays attention to his or her action(s) and outcomes. 3. Exploratory behavior: A child manipulates an object in an active and attentive manner (as in active manipulation). Repetition and variation are characteristics of his or her actions.

In the first experiment reported in the paper, the authors investigated what types of adult coaching would achieve high-level exploratory behavior at two exhibits. In this experiment, during closed hours, trained staff accompanied a child (there were a total of 71 children, 4–6 years old) to the two exhibits and interacted with the child using one of three different styles of coaching (scaffolding, explaining, or minimal). Because the two exhibits were found to elicit different levels on the EBS scale, the authors found that different coaching styles were required at each one to achieve high-level exploratory behavior.

Using these results, a second experiment was planned to determine if coaching the parent helped them to encourage the child’s exploratory behavior. During regular museum hours, parents in the informed condition were shown a 7-minute video that explained the two exhibits, advised on stimulating their child to engage in exploratory behavior using three steps (getting to know the material, investigating, and drawing conclusions), and described elements of the three coaching styles that were used in the previous experiment. Results of this experiment showed that children guided by parents who had seen the video showed more of the high-level exploratory behavior than the children whose parents had not seen it.

The authors conclude that the EBS is a useful instrument for the observation and quantification of behavior of young children, and that providing guidance to parents has a positive influence on their interactions with their children, with little time investment. However, one challenge of the method is the physical dissimilarities between exhibits, and determining the length of time intervals for the scoring of behavior, specifically in the EBS, especially since reaching the Level 3 exploratory behavior depends on the individual exhibit. The authors note that advantages of the EBS scale for pre-schoolers is that it is observational which avoids influencing the behavior of the children; and that it does not include verbal measures, since the authors state that “pre-schoolers’ utterances cannot be considered an accurate reflection of their level of reasoning” (p. 806).