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How to Engage with Teens in the Museum

Engaging with teens in the museum

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What words come to mind when you hear the word ‘teenager’? Or the word ‘adolescence’?

Do you love working with teens or feel a little apprehensive?

I’ve recently been facilitating some team trainings in museums about how to engage with teenagers and so I’ve been thinking a lot about the best ways to work with teens. It’s also a subject I get asked about a lot.

Here are some tips and ideas for better ways to engage with teenagers in the museum on your guided tours and programmes.

I’m exploring:

  • Why our thoughts shape our attitude towards teens
  • Seeing teenage behaviour through a developmental lens
  • Positive reasons for working with teens
  • Creating an inclusive, warm and friendly atmosphere
  • The importance of shared ownership
  • The role of open-ended questions and careful listening
  • Reading the group and avoiding false clues
  • Why less is more
  • And why teens like to discuss themes of global significance

Read on to find out more!


Here’s a question for you to get started: what words come to mind when you hear the word ‘teenager’? Or the word ‘adolescence’

Have a think about what your first thoughts are. Just sit and mull it over quietly. You don’t need to share these with anyone, just think. If you’re able to, maybe jot down some words that come up. 

Recent research has pointed out that many people have negative connotations for the word ‘teenager’ and ‘teens’. There are lots of misconceptions and stereotypes out there about what teens are (and aren’t) and how they might behave. 

So what did you think when I asked that question? Because according to an article in Big Think

Our thoughts shape our attitude towards young people. 

In turn, our attitude impacts the way we act toward teens. And our actions influence how teens respond to us” 

So, it’s worth taking some time first to think about what assumptions you might be holding about working with teens, especially if you’re not hanging out regularly with teens or, even if, like me, you have teens at home. 

Because teens are often viewed as a challenging audience.

Some educators may feel apprehensive or even actively avoid working with teens for this reason.

We make assumptions about what certain kinds of teen behaviour means – disengagement, disinterest and even disrespect.

You may also think that perhaps you don’t have the skillset to engage with this particular group. 

And it’s worth understanding that, yes, some of the behaviours we associate with teens do exist, BUT we need to see their behaviour in a developmental context.

For example, the structure of the teenage brain is different to that of adults. Teens are also a work in progress – they are literally undergoing a transformation, a huge amount of brain development is taking place during these years. 

So, it might be worth thinking about how we can change our mindset to embrace the opportunities instead in working with teens – the ability to engage in complex and deep discussions, hearing fresh perspectives, voices and new ideas about the collections you work with, asking deeper questions, improvising, co-creating and experimenting

And so in this positive spirit of opportunity, let’s think about some ways we might engage better with teens in the museum…


Try to imagine yourself in the shoes of a group of teens as they enter the museum.

How at home do they feel? Do they feel that this is a place for them? Or perhaps they feel a bit intimidated?

There are many reasons why a group may be silent or defensive as they arrive – a bad morning, an argument with a friend or it could be that they just don’t feel comfortable in the museum.

Whether we like it or not, there are a huge number of people who are not comfortable visiting museums, who feel ‘it’s not for me’.

So how can we make our visitors in general and specifically, teens, feel more welcome in a museum? 


This is where your introduction plays an important role. In Episode 44 I talked about the 4 elements of a great introduction.

  1. Personal Introduction: Take the time to connect yourself to your group with a great personal introduction. But whatever you do, do be yourself, it needs to come across as authentic and friendly. Be your usual enthusiastic self – share your love for what you do and why you do it. Enthusiasm by the way is contagious. 
  2. Share your role in the programme: Mention your role for the time you are together and in doing so, don’t position yourself as an expert.Tell them that you’re their guide-on-the-side, helping them to discover and find out things, tell them that you are a connector between them and the art and that you’ll go on a shared learning experience together. Or use the words that suit you. With this, you’re setting the tone for the programme and telling your group that they are along for the journey with you, they are involved and needed
  3. Ask them questions: Take the time to ask your group questions too. Establish a rapport at the start. Find out who they are, what they already know and what they expect or want to see. You can use this information to personalise their programme. These sorts of questions (ie closed questions) are quick and easy to answer, give you information straight away and get the group warmed up a little for the main body of the programme. You will want to find out who the group is, what they know about art, this museum or what they expect to see.
  4. Remember the rule: connection before content: connect the group with you and each other, the museum, the programme and why they are there.
    And this will help to create create a warm and friendly space at the start. You want the group to feel that this is an inclusive space and everyone is encouraged to participate.
  5. Share positive guidelines: These guidelines will be different to those you might share with younger children. You may want to share a few guidelines about the museum and some around expectations for how the group will be together. You may even want to co-create some guidelines with your group. These could be, for example:Listening fully and respectfully to each other, not making assumptions about what others think or mean, making spaces for everyone to be heard, all questions are good ones, etcShare 2 or 3 guidelines – enough to make an impression, but not so many so that you can’t remember them. You may want to refer back to these guidelines as necessary throughout the programme.


Shared ownership: 

  • As mentioned in your introduction, you want your group to be co-conspirators, co-contributors on your programme. You want them to feel involved and included and allow them to explore their ideas. 
  • Create a feeling of ‘shared ownership’ as this helps to acknowledge your group of teens as individuals in their own right with thoughts, ideas and opinions. Make statements to this effect such as ‘We’re going to explore this artwork together’ and make it understood that their input is valued and significant. 
  • Get them involved from the start to signal this clearly and start with a low-level observation activity so that the group can ‘warm-up’ – essentially getting used to you, the environment and sharing what they see.  
  • This feeling of shared ownership may extend to you giving the group some choices and agency throughout the programme – asking what they would like to look at, asking them to find an artwork to connect with one you’ve just discussed in the same gallery and sharing why they chose it. Allow choice or different options to play a role in your programme. This will ask you to be flexible too – so bear in mind that although you may have a plan for your programme, it’s OK to deviate from the plan at times too. 

Ask open-ended questions

  • As with any museum programme, you want to be making sure that you ask plenty of open-ended questions that invite lots of different answers. You want to support the group to make meaningful connections and interpretations based on their own thoughts, feeling, experiences and ideas. Open-ended questions allow space for everyone to contribute. 
  • Limit your closed questions to your intro as mentioned or to checking in with your group once or twice only. 
  • Avoid recall questions that ‘test’ whether the group has heard an earlier mentioned fact or has been listening to you. Museums offer learning opportunities in an informal and flexible way, it’s less like school and as such, you won’t want to be ’testing’ their knowledge in this way. 

Listen and acknowledge

  • You want to ensure that you are listening carefully and acknowledging responses. Make sure that you have not only heard, but have understood what is being said. 
  • If someone has taken the time and effort to respond to one of your questions, acknowledge it. This can take the form of paraphrasing (repeating what the person has said in your own words), restating (repeating what they have said in their own words) or summarising the points that have been made. 
  • If you haven’t understood, get clarification – ask if ‘”Could you clarify that last comment, I am not sure that I understood what you were saying?” or check for understanding. 
  • And then you can follow-up “Could you say a little more about that?” “What do you see that makes you say that?” “Could you give us an example?” “How did you come to this view?” 

Share brief and clear information

  • If you are sharing information, make it brief and clear. Do a mini-share and don’t be tempted to start lecturing or monologuing. 
  • Choose an appropriate moment to share – ie if the discussion dries up, or if the group can’t get any further with observation or in answer to a question. 
  • Don’t (over)use jargon or technical terms. Use clear, simple language. Over-complicated language is intimidating, exclusionary and can close down a discussion. If you must share technical terms, find a way to explain the term using something that the group can relate or connect to. 

Read the group

  • As you would with any group, scan and observe the group for signs. Careful and consistent observation will give you information and this information will help you to navigate the group. 
  • Don’t make assumptions about body language. It may not mean what you think. Someone with their arms crossed may not be fed up. Someone who never says anything may not be disengaged. Just because someone looks as if someone has tuned out, doesn’t mean they are. You don’t know what is going on beneath the surface. Do regular check-ins with the group to see how they are feeling

Employ a multimodal approach 

  • Don’t be predictable or always default to asking the whole group questions.
  • Try working in pairs or small groups. Use drawing as an observation exercise. Or writing – writing on their own so that they can get their thoughts down on paper. 

Make time and space for slow looking 

  • As I said here, slow looking is a great way to get the group to focus, build participation and fire up curiosity. 
  • Using slow looking as a way to create more interaction works really well with teen groups and doesn’t make any one participant stand out more than the other. It creates a level playing field where everyone can participate and will hopefully warm the group up for more challenging and deeper questions further into the discussion. 
  • Don’t be afraid to spend a bit longer at each artwork or object either, less is more. It will allow for deeper discussions and more complex conversations to happen. You will also start to relax if you schedule less into your programme and focus on a few key objects. 

Explore and discuss themes of global significance 

  • If you feel comfortable and confident (as this does take more advanced facilitation skills), take the opportunity to explore themes of global importance with your teen groups.  
  • Museums are great spaces to have discussions about the pressing issues of our times – such as climate change, mass migration, the digital revolution and so on. Teens like to challenge adult’s views and to decide for themselves. Young people are also deeply concerned about global issues and want to have the space to discuss them and understand different perspectives. If you’d like to hear more about facilitating meaningful discussions around sensitive subjects listen to Episode 43


If you want to get more slow looking into your life and make it a regular practice, join us in the Slow Looking Club. We have weekly themes and monthly get togethers. It’s a place for conversation and discussion about engaging with art, objects and life slowly whether for personal enjoyment or for your practice as a cultural or museum educator.