Research - DuPage Children's Museum

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The Science of Play

DuPage Children’s Museum is an advocate for early childhood education and the importance of play in healthy childhood development. Research projects have been developed collaboratively over the years to examine the impacts of DuPage Children’s Museum on various stakeholders. All of the studies listed below have been conducted with the support of students from North Central College. Findings have been shared through internal reports and conference presentations.


Current Study

Talking with Children about Play and Learning (2017-2018)
As an extension of the studies that examined parent and caregivers’ beliefs around play and learning, the research team is currently in the process of examining how young children talk about play and learning. The team conducted a focus group and will complete 100 individual interviews with children ages 4 – 10 years at the Museum.


Past Studies

Parent and Caregivers’ Perceptions of Play and Learning (2017)
The goal of the current study was to explore perceptions of play and learning among a wider group of parents and caregivers through the Museum. A survey tool was developed to explore 1) the types of play activities children engage in, 2) the value of play, 3) impacts or barriers to play, 4) adult roles in play, and 5) definitions of play and learning. Survey items were adapted from previous research completed by developmental psychologists and museum professionals. 202 parents and caregivers completed the survey.

Results indicated that caregivers strongly value play to support their children’s development and learning. The participants reported on their children’s play preferences and point to physical play, books, art materials, blocks, and going with parents to community spaces as frequent activities. Across this larger sample, distraction from technology, busy family schedules, the availability of same-age peers, and concerns for safety present potential barriers to play. While caregivers strongly identify with a variety of roles, they demonstrated less identification with facilitating play, playing alongside their children and learning alongside their children. Open ended responses indicate a strong connection between play and learning. When asked about the benefits for DuPage Children’s Museum, caregivers cited the opportunities to socialize within a safe space, an environment that offers their children opportunities they cannot receive at home. This demonstrates the value of the Museum to counter perceived barriers to play such as the availability of same-age peers and concerns about safety.


Parents’ Perceptions of Play and Learning (2016)
The goal of this study was to explore perceptions of play and learning with parents of young children. Three focus groups were held at DuPage Children’s Museum. Participants included six mothers and two fathers and represented children ages 2 months to 9 years. Focus group data demonstrated that parents value play as an important part of their children’s learning. Parents identified a range of play behaviors and developed benefits for their children’s engagement in playful behaviors. The data also revealed tensions that parents experience in terms of their own roles in play and the pressures their children face in terms of academic learning.


Using Experience Sampling Method (ESM) to Assess Cognitive and Affective Engagement of Youth Volunteers at a Children’s Museum (2014)
This study expanded on the previous study of youth volunteers by examining how youth volunteers at DuPage Children’s Museum express cognitive and affective dimensions of their volunteer experiences. This study utilized Experience Sampling Method (ESM) to explore patterns of self-determined behavior. 14 youth volunteers completed event contingent ESM surveys after completing volunteer sessions. Results indicated predominantly positive volunteering experiences as expressed through high survey ratings on autonomy, competency, and relatedness indicators. Further, potential interactions were noted between incoming expectations and motivations of volunteers.


Exploring the Impact of Youth Volunteer’s Autobiographical Memories of Early Visits on Contemporary Volunteer Experiences and Identity (2013)
Autobiographical memories which are formed through early experiences within a sociocultural context shape an individual’s sense of self. This study examined the experience of youth (middle and high school) volunteers at a children’s museum who indicated that they had visited the children’s museum when they were young. Ten youth volunteers participated in semi-structured interviews. Falk and Dierking’s (2013), Contextual Model of Learning was used to analyze the autobiographical memories in terms of the personal, sociocultural, and physical contexts associated with the museum visits. Results showed that the youth volunteer’s memories were associated with their sense of self-determined behaviors through a perception of competency, autonomy, and relatedness.


Exploring the Practices of Frequent Visitors to a Children’s Museum (2012)
Children’s museums provide families with many opportunities for learning and interaction. This study examined the experience of adult caregivers who visited a children’s museum at least twenty times per year with their child(ren). A sample of mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and a daycare provider participated in semi-structured interviews to explore their use of the museum and perceptions of the child(ren)’s experience of the museum. Contextual models were used to analyze the interview data in terms of social, physical and psychological perspectives. The participants valued the museum as an institution for learning, described extension of learning to the home environment, and were strategic about planning their visits to the museum. Further, caregivers described intentional engagement with the museum to promote learning and social experiences for the children as well as new discoveries about the child(ren)’s capabilities.

National Research

Children's Museum Research Network

DuPage Children’s Museum is was one of the ten original members of the Association of Children’s Museum Research Network (CMRN). The CMRN was developed in 2015 with support of a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services to develop field-wide research based on the Learning Value of Children’s Museum Research Agenda.

A detailed review of the studies completed by the CMRN including links to articles and other means of dissemination is available. Learn More.

On-site Evaluation

Exhibit Evaluation

Since the fall of 2013, Dr. Nicole Rivera’s Informal Learning Research Team has been completing exhibit evaluations. Evaluations combine multiple observation tools and exit interviews to determine how guests are interacting with exhibits. Feedback is provided to DuPage Children’s Museum staff to inform on-going practices.


Completed evaluations:


  • Awesome Water (Fall 2017)
  • Dream with DaVinci (Winter 2017)
  • The Big Lawn (Fall 2016)
  • Awesome Air (Spring 2016)
  • Creativity Connections (Winter 2016)
  • Monumental (Spring 2014)
  • Math Connections (Winter 2014)
  • Waterways (Winter 2014)
  • Make it Move (Fall 2013)

Presentations & Publications


  • Tonsgard, A. & Rivera, N., (August, 2017). Exploring the Value of Playful Learning: Children’s Museums, School and Home. Concordia Early Childhood Conference, River Forest, IL.
  • May, S., Rivera, N., Nelson, K., & Foutz, S. (July, 2017). Children’s Museum Research Network: A Case Study in Collaborative Research. Visitor Studies Association. Columbus, OH.
  • Crabbe, P., Moll, H., Mark-Hummel, C., & Rivera, N. (May, 2017). Where No Researcher Has Gone Before. Association of Children’s Museum’s Interactivity 2017, Pasadena, CA.
  • Foutz, S., Rivera, N., Tonsgard, A., & McCallum, C. (May, 2017). Creating a Learning Framework: How to Get Started. Association of Children’s Museum’s Interactivity 2017, Pasadena, CA.
  • Rivera, N. & Tonsgard, A. (January, 2017). Exploring the Value of Playful Learning: Children’s Museums, School, and Home. Opening Minds Conference, Chicago, IL.
  • Rivera, N. (June, 2016). Museums as Socially Facilitated Learning Environments for Children: Session Moderator, Jean Piaget Society, Chicago, IL.
  • Rivera, N. (May, 2014). Informal Learning Spaces as a Community Laboratory. Midwestern Psychological Association Conference, Society of Teaching Psychology Poster Presentation, Chicago, IL.
  • DeWelt, C., Shelly, R., Karlen, K., Rivera, N., Schacht, P., & Mark-Hummel, C. (July 2013). The Living Laboratory. Association of Midwest Museums, Madison, WI.
  • Rivera, N. (May, 2013). Children’s Museums as a Place of Student Learning. Chicago Cultural Organizations Research Network Meeting, Naperville, IL.


  • Rivera, N. Gallagher, E. (2015). Museums: Community spaces for inclusive learning Opportunities. Imagine, 6(1), 52-55.
  • Rivera, N. & Thoma Emmons, C. (2016). How learning frameworks reflect learning theory in the children’s museum field. Hand to Hand, 30(1), 4-7.
  • Luke, J., Letourneau, S., Rivera, N., Brahms, L, & May, S. (2017). Play and children’s museums: A path forward of a point of tension? Curator, 60(1), 37-46.
  • Letourneau, S. & Rivera, N. (2017). Research network update: Results from a nationwide survey of play in children’s museums. Hand to Hand, 31(1), 19-20.
  • Letourneau, S., Meisner, R., & Tonsgard, A. (2016). How do children’s museums talk about play? Where it fits in five learning frameworks. Hand to Hand 30(1), 10-12.


Conference Presence

    • Association of Children’s Museums (ACM)
    • Opening Minds
    • The Delaware Association for the Education of Young Children (DAEYC)
    • Golden Corridor Association for the Education of Young Children (GOAEYC)
    • Elgin Community College Ready to Learn Conference
    • Collaboration of Early Childhood Annual Symposium