The Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia is truly unlike any other museum in the city. First of all, it lives in a historic building created during the Nation’s centennial. Visitors walk up many stairs (fewer than the art museum) to reach the entrance and a breath-taking dome greets you in the main hall. Second, the Please Touch Museum caters to the needs, interests, and curiosities of children! It can be startling to suddenly tower over the majority of the museum’s visitors and have to search to find a chair that is adult size.
The Please Touch Museum is a place where children can engage in dramatic play and “collect” experiences. Dramatic play allows children to engage with roles and tools they associate with the real world in a play setting. They are able to put themselves in a situation and explore it through imagination and role-playing. There are exhibits imitating Philadelphia’s public transportation, a doctor’s office, a kitchen, and a grocery store. PTM’s grocery store is sponsored by ShopRite but is referred to by most visitors and staff as the Marketplace. For one of my other classes about audience evaluation, I am a part of a group investigating this area and the way that children and adults interact there. This has allowed me to observe how people use the Marketplace and interview visitors about their experiences there.
Upon entering the Marketplace, children can select a small-sized cart to wheel around the space. Aisles are stocked with play food that looks like what children might see in stores. There is a produce stand sorted by color and sections for bread, frozen food, and meat. These play areas allow children to select goods for their carts as well as encourages them to sort the items when putting them back. Finally, three interactive registers invite children to “check-out” their items. The registers make a sound when an item is moved over a sensor, imitating scanning. There are two registers with spaces for a cashier to sit – either child or adult – and one register that operates as a self-check-out station.
Many parents recognize the potential for dramatic play in the Marketplace and usually let children be the play leaders in the space. I have watched adults bend over to move the cart for their children as the child runs around the space collecting items. When they are done in the space, some adults encourage their children to put their items back on shelves or in bins but make a game out of the sorting. In this way even cleaning up is fun for groups. Adults also see value in lessons children can learn here that can be applied to the real-world. One parent told us that her child could learn about waiting in line in the Marketplace, a lesson I did not think parents would be thinking of here.
Currently in the Marketplace, there is very little signage. A few red circles contain basic information about putting food back where it was found. In the corner of the room near the staff door there are a few labels providing questions for adults and children to think about together, but they largely go ignored by those in the space. For the most part, adults and children in the space figure out how to interact and use the space by themselves. On the one hand this opens up the door for a variety of dramatic play and allows children to explore the space in a way that’s relevant to their own lives. But it can also alienate adults who do not feel confident or comfortable interacting in the space.
During my observations in the Marketplace, adults who did not interact with their children during play there hovered near the entrance in clusters but did not actually talk to other adults also hovering. Adding signage in that area providing action prompts for adults might change the way they interact in the space. When asked, the vast majority of adults said that they felt the Marketplace was an easy space for adults to interact in, but observations showed that many adults were not engaging with their children there. Adding prompts or play ideas might give adults the push they need to share in the play experience with the children in their groups.
Spending time in the Marketplace may be appealing to adults who bring their children to real-world grocery stores with them and want to teach children the “rules” of grocery shopping in a fun way. All of the interactives in the space are kid sized and children can finally feel like they share some authority in an experience they must usually only watch adults do. However, the Marketplace can be a foreign and unappealing place for anyone who does not shop in a traditionally American grocery store. All over the world grocery stores look different and Philadelphia is even home to a variety of markets like the Italian Market or Vietnamese Markets. With the Please Touch Museum striving to include diverse cultures in their programming, perhaps the Marketplace is one area in which visitors can learn about other cultures.
A visit to the Please Touch Museum is unlike any other museum experience in Philadelphia. If you have a little one who is itching to explore the world, the Please Touch Museum is the perfect place! Children can have fun here and learn about themselves, others, and the world around them. Plus, you might get to meet Squiggles!