everyday SCIENCE A Conversation at the Museum

When parents take their children to museums, they generally try to make the experience as meaningful as possible for them. They point out key features, read the labels, and engage their child in a conversation about what they are learning. Often, too, parents take children to exhibits in subject areas in which they have expressed an interest.

Crowley and Jacobs’s study, which comprised 28 families with children ages 4 to 12, focused on the nature of conversation between parents and children. This case study highlights one pair—a mother and her 4-year-old son.

In her first session with the researchers, the mother told them her family enjoys exploring science in a range of informal settings. The family had visited the natural history museum more than five times in the past year, as well as the local children’s museum, the science center, and the zoo. The family also watches science-oriented television programs, reads books about science, and looks for science websites on the Internet.

The mom and her son began their museum visit at a fossil exhibit, which included a table of two sets of dinosaur fossils. One set had authentic fossils; the second, replicas. Each fossil had a card with information about the identity and age of the fossil and where it was discovered.

As the pair set out to explore the fossils, they were sitting in front of the fossil replicas. Laid out on the table were a dinosaur (Oviraptor) egg, footprint, tooth, claw, and coprolite (fossilized feces). The fossil that caught the boy’s eye was the Oviraptor egg. The following conversation is a vivid illustration of a mom working hard to help her son enjoy an exhibit and learn from it.

Boy: This looks like this is an egg. [He turns it over a few times in his hands.]

Mom: OK, well this … [picks up the card and glances at the label. She is using a “teachy” tone, which suggests that the boy is probably wrong and she is going to correct him and inform him what the object actually is.]

Mom: That’s exactly what it is! [She appears surprised, speaking quickly in a more natural and rising tone of voice while turning to the child and patting him on the arm.] How did you know?

Boy: Because it looks like it. [He is smiling and appears pleased.]

Mom: That’s what it says, see look, egg, egg … [pointing to the word “egg” on the card each time she says it and enunciating the way parents do when they are teaching children to read]

Replica of a dinosaur egg. From the Oviraptor.

Mom: [Turns gaze away from the card toward her child, putting her hand on his shoulder and dipping her head so that their faces are closer.]

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