When Museums Design Experiences for How Teens Learn and Develop

Building on the science of adolescence makes the experiences and exhibits museums design for teens more connective, wellness-supporting, and resonant.

By iThrive Games
March 2, 2023

The COVID-19 pandemic affected all spaces where gathering happens—museums included.

In the face of unprecedented shifts and challenges, museums innovated and devised new ways to engage with young people safely. iThrive Sim: Lives in Balance, for example, is a tech-powered simulation game we created with the masterminds behind the Situation Room Experience at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum to bring forth new digital spaces for teen collaborative learning and play at their museum. The in-person and virtual classroom-optimized experience won a gold American Alliance of Museums (AAM) MUSE Award and a bronze MuseWeb GLAMi Award in 2021. 

As museums work to recover pre-pandemic visitation numbers, the opportunity to lean into innovation presents itself once again. Building appeal to teens, who are already deepening their social awareness in informal spaces and are actively engaged in civic discourse, offers a promising pathway for increasing visitation and cultivating a pipeline of lifelong museum supporters and allies in the missions of museums too. Data from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study shows that over 60% of adult museum visitors first attended them as adolescents, building the case and design directive for more experiences meaningfully showcasing history to young people. The science of adolescence lends valuable insight that can support the design of exhibits and experiences that are engaging, relevant, and accessible to teens—ones that prepare them for the world they are already asking questions about and are eager to inherit. Centering how teens learn supports museum design teams in building on these entry points meaningfully and fostering transformative learning in each of their youth visitors.


Curiosity has always been the emotional engine behind discovery. When young people visit museums, they exercise curiosity as they engage with history, art, cultures, science and more. The social awareness they build is vital in a world where empathy inspires and steers co-creation. "Museums offer critical spaces, beyond the walls of the classroom, where effective learning can, or rather needs to take place," says Dr. Fernande Raine, founder of History Co:Lab. "Museums are a chance for young people to see what is possible, what dreams have been held, what fights have been fought, what pitfalls must be avoided, and which horizons we might steer towards. When museums really invite young people in, they have the chance to activate them as changemakers."


Museums hold cultural knowledge and are a celebration of our collective heritage. Highlighting the genius and experiences that have existed throughout human history, museums support youth visitors in exploring stories different from their own, deepening their understanding of other cultures and perspectives, naming our connective threads, and developing an appreciation of them. The Music HerStory: Women and Music of Social Change exhibit at the National Museum of American History: Kenneth E. Behring Center, for example, expertly weaves and displays media collections from the Smithsonian Libraries and Archive and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage to highlight the central role women changemakers, groundbreakers, and tradition-bearers have played in shaping America's musical landscape and steward social progress. Experiences like this deepen social awareness in young people of our connectedness and catalyze wonder and curiosity into how the past connects with our present.

Museums also cultivate togetherness by creating a communal space where all attendees, young and old, seek and engage with novelty at the same time. This shared activity brings forth a sense of coherence that museum educators have used as a springboard to enhance community and enrich young people's understanding of the world and their place in it. For instance, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, DC hosts artifacts like Harriet Tubman's hymnal and Nat Turner's Bible and highlights the richness of the African-American experience and the profound influence of African-Americans. Striving to ignite critical thinking and stimulate thinking that supports community-building, NMAAHC provides educational resources that foster discussions and reflections on race and identity that helps youth attendees arrive at the understanding reflected in James Baldwin's words displayed on its atrium wall: "...history is literally present in all that we do."

Reflected in each of these museums is a desire to empower visitors to take the learning they acquire to the world. Creating compelling experiences and exhibits at museums that engage young people in their genius ensures this happens at scale, as teens, now and always, have always been the disruptors of norms and devisers of change. "We need our museums to choose to intentionally design their spaces for young people so that the social awareness they build while there effectively prepares them to lead social change," shares Dr. Raine. "When we connect young people to experiences that prompt their curiosity and sharpen their capacity to fully engage in it, we're prepping them for the world they'll inherit."


When exhibits and experiences are designed to evoke curiosity in young people, museums enable them to deepen their grasp of the past, present, and future, and engage in empathy and perspective-taking while doing so. This work falls in the realm of social and emotional learning—a process defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) as one where young people "acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions."

Over the last five years at iThrive Games, we have partnered with museums, libraries, nonprofits, and youth-serving programs to co-create games, tools, and experiences for and with teens that center what they want, need, and how they uniquely learn. Folding the brain science of adolescence into each of these has allowed us to turn them each into social and emotional skill-building experiences that are developmentally nourishing and memorable for young people.


With social awareness already in play, museums have a one-up in adding transformative, social and emotional learning-rich experiences and exhibits to their museums that are appealing to teens, invite them to meaningfully exercise their curiosity, and add to a resonant showcasing of history. Here are five expert-informed tips and recommendations for museums looking to build their appeal to young visitors and create resonant experiences for youth groups:


In adolescence, teens reach a cognitive peak and get wiser about the world. They easily see through attempts to manipulate or preach to them and don't respond well to hypocrisy, unfairness, or imposition. The most supportive and engaging form of learning for young people at this stage of development are experiences that invite meaning-making

Meaning-making experiences effectively account for what teens already know and the questions they are asking themselves while empowering them to be active in their learning. "The best museum exhibitions and interpretive programs ask visitors to make meaning for themselves," shares Sarah Jencks, History Co: Lab's Deputy Director of Museum Learning. "They establish dialogic frameworks, asking visitors to connect their personal experiences and the current world to their collections and places and the stories and people that bring them to life. The work of museum educators is to cultivate curiosity and empathy in visitors, setting up conditions that allow the visitors to make their own meaning and then, in the right circumstances, to share them with one another."

When meaning-making experiences happen at museums, they become settings for young people to construct valuable knowledge and learn lifelong understandings.


As white matter increases in the brain's command center during adolescence, teens' brains form new connections, optimizing how they communicate information and how quickly they process it. Uniquely wired to learn, teens have an expanded ability to troubleshoot, problem-solve, multitask, and turn what they think, feel, see, hear, taste, and experience into wisdom. Embodied activities that enlist the body in teens' discovery and construction of new knowledge can be offered at museums to fully engage and build on this magnificence. At iThrive Games, we advocate for play and often enlist it in the tools and experiences we co-create with our partners as a lever for meaningful learning. "Play, both solo and interactive, invites new ways to be creative," shares Dr. Susan Rivers, iThrive Games' Executive Director and Chief Scientist. "It forces a novelty on all involved, often evoking emotions and compelling full-body engagement—two parts that make games uniquely nourishing spaces for young people to learn."


A 2022 survey developed by CIRCLE at Tufts University reported that 32 percent of youth have signed a petition or joined a boycott, and 1 in 7 have participated in a march or demonstration. The Tufts survey also revealed that 76% of respondents believe they have the power to change the country. Creating experiences at museums that sharpen teens' social and emotional skills, especially relational ones, help teens take on the 'wicked' challenges of the world they are already curious about. iThrive Sim games, for example, invited digital youth visitors of the Reagan Museum to strengthen their capacity to make responsible decisions, disagree constructively, analyze problems, and solve complex issues through collaborative play. Experiences that prepare young people for the problems of today and tomorrow empowers them with the wisdom and cognitive tools to co-create the world they are yearning for.


When museums account for the diverse ways young learners gain access to, interact with, or benefit from the information in the experiences and exhibits they offer, they become all the more impactful. The best accessibility practices, like the ones outlined in Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles, affirm that multiple means of engagement, representation, and action/expression optimize relevance, value, and authenticity for learners and promote deeper understandings. When these practices are paired with robust testing across different groups of young people, the end results are transformative museum experiences and exhibits that make an impact on how teens view themselves, each other, and the world.

"There is an opportunity," shares Dr. Gabrielle Rappolt-Schlichtmann, Executive Director and Chief Scientist at Ed Together and long-time iThrive collaborator, "for museums to affirm young people's identities, respond to their diverse learning styles, and also present more productive and generative ways of gathering to the world." Dr. Rappolt-Schlichtmann says, "How we invite young people into the work of learning is how museums facilitate transformative impact."

By designing experiences and exhibits that account for how young people learn and what they want to learn, museums can create compelling and accessible invitations for teens to work in their genius and be curious about the past and present while developing the skills and wisdom essential to building the future they're eager for. iThrive and its network of collaborators are excited to take on this design challenge with museums and steer this innovation together.


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