Designing for educational play in museums

By Joshua P. Gutwill - November 2015


Dancu, T., Gutwill, J. P., & Hido, N. (2011). Using iterative design and evaluation to develop playful learning experiences. Children, Youth and Environments, 21(2), 338–359.

Dancu, Gutwill, and Hido describe an evaluation-based process for designing science museum exhibits to create playful learning experiences, based on their own experience at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California. Their exhibit development process integrates design and formative evaluation: Exhibit and label developers create a draft version of an exhibit, called a prototype, and then evaluators systematically assess its effect on visitors’ experiences. The results of the evaluation inform the next iteration of the prototype. A key feature of the process, as in design-based research, is the repeated cycle of exhibit development and revision (Cobb, Confrey, diSessa, Lehrer, & Schauble, 2003; Medlock, Wixon, McGee, & Welsh, 2005).

The evaluation process involves four steps:

  1. Define exhibit goals. The evaluator discusses the exhibit prototype in depth with the exhibit and label developers. Together they articulate experiential goals for visitors and raise any specific questions for visitor testing.
  2. Identify evaluation questions. The evaluator translates the broad questions surfaced in discussion with developers into empirically answerable questions.
  3. Determine evaluation methods. The evaluator chooses a method for studying the prototype. In some cases, the evaluator also designs an experiment to compare different versions of particular exhibit elements. The Exploratorium evaluation group mostly conducts formative evaluations using interviews, real-time observations, and video observations. Nearly all studies of exhibit prototypes are implemented in the natural context of the museum floor to ensure that the results are valid and applicable.
  4. Integrate results and repeat (if necessary). After completion of the formative study, evaluators and developers meet to discuss results and consider emerging problems. The development team creatively finds solutions, implements changes, and, if necessary, starts a new cycle.

Theoretical Basis 

Rathunde and Csikszentmihalyi’s (2006) psychological theory of play posits that “the essential benefits of play lie in the manipulation of information in a pressure free context that is informed by external and internal determinants, but not controlled by either” (p.508). This theory arises from cognitive science: Thinking and learning are open to empirical study and are viewed as taking place within individuals’ minds in concert with others’ minds.

Dancu and colleagues base their own view of play on Peter Gray’s (2008) slight reformulation of this theory. According to Gray, play has five key aspects:

  1. Play has structure, or rules, generated or agreed upon by the players.
  2. Players are active and alert but have a non-stressed frame of mind.
  3. Play is focused on the process, not the outcome.
  4. Play is self-chosen and self-directed, continuing only as long as the player wishes.
  5. Play is imaginative and removed from real-life consequences.

These aspects combine to create joyful experiences that hold players’ attention for prolonged periods of time.

For each of Gray’s five aspects of play, the authors offer an example of iterative museum exhibit design that involves formative evaluation.

Implications for Practice

The paper articulates the importance of creating playful museum experiences and offers specific examples of exhibits that promote playful learning. Play is often devalued in our society, pitted against the “serious” business of learning. However, the article argues that playful experiences attract a broad range of learners, engage them deeply for prolonged periods of time, and support them in self-directed learning. Play engenders enjoyment and satisfaction, both of which are documented sources of self-efficacy, the belief in one’s capacity to meet one’s goals.

The paper also describes how evaluation may be incorporated into an exhibit development process. Formative evaluation may be used to improve final educational products in both formal and informal learning environments. This evaluative process is particularly useful in designing museum exhibits, which are typically intended to function without mediation from museum staff. Museum visitors must quickly apprehend the exhibit’s design in order to enjoy an interesting initial experience. By creating and testing prototypes with real visitors, evaluators and exhibit developers gain helpful evidence about the nature of learners’ interactions at the exhibit. The authors argue that this process yields marked improvements, producing a final exhibit that functions as intended.


Cobb, P., Confrey, J., diSessa, A., Lehrer, R., & Schauble, L. (2003). Design experiments in educational research. Educational Researcher, 32(1), 9–13. 

Gray, P. (2008). The value of play I: The definition of play provides clues to its purposes. Pyschology Today. Retrieved from 

Hutt, C. (1981). Toward a taxonomy and conceptual model of play. In H. I. Day (Ed.), Advances in intrinsic motivation and aesthetics (pp. xii, 503). New York, NY: Plenum Press. 

Medlock, M. C., Wixon, D., McGee, M., & Welsh, D. (2005). The rapid iterative test and evaluation method: Better products in less time. In G. Randolph, D. Bias, & J. Mayhew (Eds.), Cost-justifying usability: An update for an internet age (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA : Morgan Kaufman. 

Rathunde, K., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2006). The developing person: An experiential perspective. In W. Damon, R. M. Lerner & N. Eisenberg (Eds.), The handbook of child psychology (6th ed., Vol. 1). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Related Briefs:

  • Gutwill, J. P. (2014). Where do beliefs about our ability to do science originate? An ISE research brief discussing Chen & Usher, “Profiles of the sources of science self-efficacy.”