The Role of Children’s Museums

Children’s museums play a critical role in child development, fostering growth, learning, and well­ being. Let’s delve into this topic, drawing insights from the works of Dr. John H. Falk and fellow researchers.

Dr. John Falk

Dr. John H. Falk is Founder and Principal Researcher of the Institute for Learning Innovation and Emeritus Sea Grant Professor of Free-Choice Learning at Oregon State University. He is internationally recognized as a leading expert on free-choice learning; the learning that occurs while visiting museums, zoos, aquariums, libraries and other cultural destinations, watching educational television or surfing the Internet for information.

Dr. Falk has authored over 250 articles and chapters in the areas of learning, ecology and education, more than two-dozen books, and helped to create several nationally important out-of-school educational curricula. His book The Museum Experience (1992; 2014, Routledge, with Lynn Dierking) is considered a classic in the museum field. His most recent book is The Value of Museums: Enhancing Societal Well-Being (2021, Rowman & Littlefield). Prominent in all of his books is a focus on visitors and how the visitor’s well-being, motivations, needs and interests drive both visits themselves as well as the value visitors derive from their visit experiences.

His current research focuses on this latter issue, assessing the well-being-related value generated – both to users and to institutions – by the public’s leisure-time use of museums and other similar settings. Falk earned a joint doctorate in Ecology and Science Education from the University of California, Berkeley.

Free Choice Learning

Children’s museums provide a unique environment for free-choice Unlike formal educational settings, where learning is structured and directed, children’s museums allow kids to exercise choice and control over what they explore and experiment with, and to discover what piques their curiosity and interest.

Dr. Falk’s research emphasizes that learning isn’t confined to classrooms. Instead, it occurs naturally through curiosity and need-driven exploration. Children’s museums offer rich, interactive exhibits that encourage this type of learning.

Holistic Development

Child development encompasses cognitive, social, emotional, and physical aspects. Children’s museums address all these dimensions.

Cognitive Development: Exhibits stimulate problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity. Kids engage with science, art, and technology, enhancing their cognitive abilities.

Social Development: Interacting with peers and adults in a museum setting fosters social skills, empathy, and cooperation.

Emotional Development: Museums evoke wonder, curiosity, and joy. Experiencing these as well as other types of emotions are fundamental to all aspects of a child’s growth and development.

Physical Development: Hands-on activities promote fine and gross motor skills.


Identity Formation

Falk’s concept of self/identity is crucial. Museums help children construct their identities by connecting with experiences that resonate with and reinforce their interests and growing understanding of the world. For example, a child who loves dinosaurs may develop a sense of identity as a budding paleontologist.

Museums are settings where children can engage in in “identity-work”; places where they can, risk-free, validate their passions and express their individuality.


Enhanced Well-Being

Falk proposes that the ultimate value of museums lies in enhanced well-being. But what does this mean?

Evolutionary Perspective: Well-being isn’t mere happiness; it’s an adaptive mechanism. It helps us assess the “fitness” of our actions.

Museums contribute to well-being by nurturing curiosity, providing positive emotions, supporting identity formation, and fostering social relationships – all in a physically, socially and intellectually safe environment.

The Power of Play

Children’s museums embrace play as a powerful learning tool. Play allows kids to experiment, make choices, and learn through trial and error.

Playful experiences in museums contribute to a child’s overall development, including resilience and adaptability.

Benefits for Both Children and Parents

Museums offer a shared space for parents and children. Exploring exhibits together strengthens family bonds and builds family memories.

Conversations sparked by museum visits enhance language development and emotional connections.

Children’s museums provide one of the best settings for parents to learn about their children – what their child is curious about, what they are good at, and how they learn.


In summary, children’s museums aren’t just places for entertainment; they are crucial hubs for holistic child development. Dr. Falk’s work underscores their impact on well-being, identity, and lifelong learning. So, next time you visit a children’s museum, remember that you’re nurturing more than curiosity – you’re shaping a child’s future (and supporting your own development as a good parent)!