Blocks, Books, and Benches

Alli Leake
May 4, 2016
a woman and child sit reading a book together in a corner near a low bookshelf

Hello! I’m new here, so I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Alli, the new Director of Early Childhood Education here at The Discovery Museums. This past Fall the Museums were very sad to say goodbye to Lucas, the previous Early Childhood Education Director, but we are also incredibly happy for him as he takes the next step in his career. I feel very fortunate to be able to build on the great work that Lucas and his team of colleagues and advisors have been doing here at the Museums.

In my new role, one of my projects is to lead the development of The Discovery Museums’ brand new exhibit for parents and caregivers with children aged 0-3. I am thrilled that we will have a dedicated space in our expanded building to nurture and stimulate our youngest visitors and to provide a comfortable, welcoming, and supportive place for the adults in their lives. Although we are a “children’s” museum, we understand that adults are essential partners in our mission of inspiring curiosity and a love of learning. Our new early childhood exhibit will be unique in that it will place just as much emphasis on serving its adult visitors as it does on its child visitors, and I am supremely excited to be taking the lead on this exhibit design process.

I have long been fascinated by how museum environments affect the way families interact and learn. So much so that I wrote my Master’s thesis on how parents and caregivers use museum exhibits designed for children and families. I wanted to know how adults think about the family exhibits they visit with their children and what they take away from their experience. We expect children to have fun and learn from the toys and interactives in these exhibits, but do the adults who bring them benefit from the experience as well?

In the process of creating my thesis, I gathered lots of data about adults’ reasons for visiting family exhibits, what they did when they got there, and how they felt about their experience. I drew many conclusions and developed even more questions based on my findings. One aspect of a man and his son and daughter build with wooden blocks together at a tablemy research was particularly interesting; I found that certain areas of the exhibition engaged adults significantly more than others. These adult-attracting areas were the “three Bs”: Blocks, Books, and Benches.

In the Block areas adults played with their children—building structures, problem-solving, and making suggestions for improvements. Sometimes they took the lead, and other times they followed their children’s directions. They used their advanced knowledge of block-building physics and their superior height to support and extend their children’s abilities, but they also put their own creativity and engineering skills to work creating complex and interesting structures.

The Book Nook seemed to provide a clear call to action for adults. In this area, there was no need for adults to stop and wonder, “what am I supposed to do here?” The vast majority of children in the exhibit were pre-literate, so many adults immediately took the role of The Reader. On several occasions, I even caught adults reading the children’s books silently to themselves.

Finally, the Benches that lined the center of the space were another logical place for adults to spend time. They were the only adult-sized furniture available and provided clear sightlines across most of the exhibition. From their seat on the benches, I noticed many adults spending time observing their children. Surveys also showed that being able to watch their children having fun was a valued and appreciated part of their time spent in the exhibition.

In thinking about the “three Bs”—Blocks, Books, and Benches—it made sense that adults were attracted to areas of the exhibit that interested them intellectually (block building), allowed them to help their children be successful (books), and made them comfortable (benches). In the new early childhood exhibit, I hope to incorporate all of these ideas to provide the best possible experience for adults and their infants and toddlers.

So, what do you think? Let us know in the comments:

  • As an adult, what’s your favorite part of The Discovery Museums?
  • What should we be sure to include in our new exhibit for adults with children aged 0-3?
Alli Leake photo
Alli Leake

The early years are truly a special time. Not only do brain researchers tell us that an enormous amount of learning happens in the first five years of life, but I love how you can actually see this learning happening in the faces of young children. Giggles, wonderment, and puzzled expressions are all part of our early learning philosophy at the museum. As the Director of Early Childhood Education, I work to create new exhibit spaces, family programs, and community collaborations that inspire playful learning for our youngest visitors and their caregivers. We are here to learn and grow alongside visitors of all abilities and backgrounds, and it gives me great joy to help create an inclusive museum experience for all.


We firmly believe in the fundamental value of play for children—and families—to support emotional, developmental, and social health and well-being. This blog will explore why play matters, and touch on all aspects of our work to encourage play and support early STEAM learning.