Research Summary

Defining the Chaperone’s Role as Escort, Educator or Parent

Chaperones Play a Variety of Roles on Field Trips

Visitor Studies

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis works to facilitate learning that occurs as adults (principally parents) and children interact in the exhibits. Although the focus is on families, the staff wondered to what extent students visiting in small groups with a chaperone act like a family. In other words, do field trip chaperones act like parents?

Past research has indicated that students learn more on field trips when they are accompanied by a knowledgeable adult who shares information, reads aloud, and asks questions. But this potential to serve as an educator is balanced against another role for chaperones, namely the logistical escort who monitors behavior, counts heads, and keeps students on schedule. The researcher in this study sees a third option—playing the role of parent—situated in the center of a continuum of chaperone roles: “The chaperone maintaining the parent role falls somewhere in between escort and educator and will likely engage in a variety of behaviors, across the continuum. They will be interested in playing and interacting with children, they will monitor behavior, they will count students.”

This study aimed to better understand how chaperones behave during school visits to the museum and to what extent the types of exhibits support interactions between chaperones and students that are more “family-like.”

First, the research team mapped the exhibits to identify potential areas for adult-child interactions. They used a family learning framework developed by the Institute for Learning Innovation (ILI) to assess the museum exhibits. The researchers focused on three exhibits: World Cultures, a traditional exhibit with large numbers of artifacts and labels and relatively few interactive components; Science, an activity-oriented exhibit with minimal text; and Dinosaurs, an immersive exhibit created with family learning in mind. When evaluated with the ILI framework for family learning, the Dinosaurs exhibit scored highest, suggesting that this exhibit should elicit more family-learning behaviors among both families and school groups with chaperones.

The research team also observed chaperones as they accompanied students in the exhibits. They noted when chaperones interacted with the text (for example, reading or summarizing labels for students); interacted with an exhibit component (for example, helping students use an exhibit component or discussing an exhibit component with students); performed logistical tasks (such as addressing behavior, managing time, or taking what the researcher refers to as a “guard stance,” which they defined as standing watchfully, typically with arms folded, often positioned near an exit); or exhibited non-interactive behaviors (such as walking by components without stopping or talking on a cell phone). The researchers also observed parent behaviors in the same exhibits. In total, they observed 179 chaperones and 91 families and recorded nearly 500 individual behaviors of chaperones while in the exhibit spaces.

The “guard stance” was the most common behavior observed in chaperones (36% of all behaviors observed). The next most common behavior (31%) was walking past exhibit elements. About a quarter of the behaviors observed were the positive behaviors of encouraging student participation (25%), participating with students (26%), and discussing with students (29%). Addressing time management and behavior issues were among the least-frequently observed behaviors (4% and 2% respectively). Statistical analysis of the behaviors and the exhibit spaces suggests that the chaperones did not alter their behavior in the different exhibit types. The Dinosaur exhibit, which scored highest for family learning potential, did not elicit more interactive behaviors among the chaperones.

The comparisons of family and chaperone behaviors were mixed. In many cases, there were not significant differences between the behaviors of parents and chaperones, suggesting that chaperones did function much like a parent in some situations. And in the case of the Science exhibit, the chaperones were more likely than parents to take on educational roles related to collaboration and problem solving. But, the researcher notes that “overall, the ideal interactions along a family learning framework were limited for both parents and chaperones.” The researcher concludes, “Based on the observations, the chaperones did appear to carry out all three roles of escort (logistics), educator (directing experiences), and parent (enhancing and participating).”

This study did have major limitations. First, the study did not include an analysis of the motivations or interests of the chaperones, and second, the researchers did not collect data on the kinds of instructions the chaperones received from the students’ teachers or the museum staff. Further research in those areas could help educators in informal settings better leverage chaperones as educators, as this research indicates that “parents as chaperones do have the potential to provide meaningful interaction with students.”

The Bottom Line

Chaperones can play a variety of roles during school visits to informal learning centers, including roles as an escort, educator, and parent. This research suggests that chaperones can engage in positive educational behaviors with students, but, in this case, the frequency of those behaviors was low. Instead, they were more likely to serve as a guardian and escort. Future research can help uncover how a chaperone’s personal motivations and their preparation by staff and teachers might affect the kinds of roles they take on with students.