Sunday, November 16, 2014

What Do We Want of Parents?

This past summer’s blog post by Marianna Adams during her summer residency at the Gardner Museum provided just the right additional thoughts to some threading through my mind. In writing about what museums convey to adults when they engage families in programs, she wrote about how we sometimes keep doing the same thing over and over, neither questioning the underlying assumptions nor paying attention to what’s actually happening.  Soon after that, a query on CHILDMUS (9/26/14) asked if any museums have figured out how to discourage parents from using their cell phones excessively while at the museum. It went on to say, "We get a lot of complaints about parents not supervising their children and typically it's because parents are on their phones.” A few weeks later, the agenda for an IMLS project advisors’ meeting I attended included engaging adults. The nature of the comments shared about parents and caregivers was all that was needed for me to wonder: What do we want of parents in museums? 

Comments and complaints about parents and caregivers are surprisingly consistent across museums: parents sit, talk on the phone, ignore their child, and take over their child’s project. Staff members are preoccupied with keeping parents off their cell phones and not wanting them to take over their child’s activity which Susan McKay at The Opal School at Portland Children’s Museum aptly characterizes  as a bipolar preoccupation with parents: too involved and not involved enough with their children in museums. There’s a whole lot of territory in between. What do we want parents to do?

Adults often comprise 50% of a museum’s visitors. It follows that museums have every reason to think that, if  these adults have chosen this museum as a place that provides an experience they value for their child, then what can the museum do to ensure a great experience for them. 

When museums have expectations that contradict one another about an audience group, are so vague they aren’t actionable, or are not shared among front-line staff, security, educators, and designers, it's a problem. The fact is, museums need parents and caregivers to meet their audience goals, goals for families, and goals for children. And while every museum does not want the same thing for parents and caregivers who visit (nor should they), every museum should have a shared framework for understanding parents and caregivers and how to serve and engage them.

True: Not all parents appear ready to be engaged
Serving an audience group well starts with understanding who they are. In this case, they are parents, step-parents, foster parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts; teachers, daycare providers, baby sitters, and nannies; group leaders and day camp counselors. First time and frequent visitors, they may range in age from 20 to 50 or 60 to 90, when grandparents and great grandparents are included. They may accompany a child ranging in age from newborn to 12 or 15 years; operate solo with one or multiple children; or be in a clutch of three relatives hovering over a new grandchild.
Parents and caregivers serve as chauffeur, chaperone, pocket book, navigator, coat holder, stroller pusher, diaper bag holder, referee, and occasional tie-breaker. They are readers, navigators, coaches, role models, and timekeepers. Museum goers in their own right, they are likely to be a learner, a co-learner, or a player. They may be tired, charged with energy, craving coffee or distracted by a problem on the home or work front. Clearly one definition cannot possibly stretch to cover parents and caregivers nor will a single strategy for engaging them serve all.

While every museum intends to serve parents and caregivers well, being prepared to do so goes far beyond good intentions. To offer a positive, supportive, engaging experience for parents, a museum needs a planned and organizational approach, developed over time, actively supported and valued, and renewed and refreshed. An ongoing process, a museum may begin by fielding a series of discussions among staff across the museum around four questions.  
  • How Do We View Parents?
  • Are We Building on Parents’ Strengths?
  • What Do Parents Want?
  • How Do We Support Parents? 
How Do We View Parents?

How a museum views the parents and caregivers it wants to serve influences how it shapes experiences and engagement strategies for them and their children. A museum may see them as friends and allies or as foes and obstacles in serving children. In some cases, parents are more or less invisible or incidental to the experiences museum offer. Parents and caregivers are both individuals with interests and preferences as well as adults engaged in a life-long relationship with their children. Is the museum prepared to both engage them as adults as well as in their parent role? Does it intend for them to be active participants in museum experiences or bystanders? 

To address the underlying assumptions about parents and caregivers that are inevitably diverse and complex, a museum needs to make explicit its view of parents and caregivers for its staff. Does the museum see them as learners, co-learners, facilitators, playmates, or tour guides? Perhaps an invented name for the role best captures the image and fits the museum’s experience style and brand: co-creator, play-and-learning partner, or explorer. Or museums may ask parents to name the roles they feel they are playing. A name for the role or cluster of roles brings into focus other attributes of parents and caregivers a museum wants to encourage and engage.

Are We Building on Parents’ Strengths? 
Our contradictory and sometimes negative ideas about parents and caregivers can overshadow the assets and strengths they bring to the museum with their children. Their love and commitment to exposing their child to varied and engaging experiences walks through the doors with every one of them. They bring an invaluable understanding of their child’s interests, skills, and previous experiences that is integral to children benefiting from the rich exhibit and program experiences. 

An essential question is whether the museum is recognizing parents’ competence and valuing that they want to do their best on behalf of their children? Sometimes, a change from a negative to a positive image is necessary. Recently General Mills produced a You Tube video, How To Dad. In this video the awesome dad image replaces the stereotype of the dumb, inept dad familiar in commercials and TV shows. A museum doesn’t have to produce its own video, but it may want start looking about and noticing what parents already do well; and where, for instance, the museum unwittingly gets in the way of parents playing their best role. Museum staff may want to learn what, for instance, parents are doing with their cell phones. Perhaps they are photographing or making a video of their children’s or families' experiences to revisit later, something many museums would encourage.

What Do Parents Want? 
Increasingly museums work to engage their visitors in dialogue through focus groups and visitor panels to learn what they want. The studies and plans I am familiar with, however, ask parents about family visits, overlooking the opportunity for critical information about what parents and caregivers want for themselves in a visit. While parents do consider the needs and interests of their children, they are not unaware of their own needs and interests at the museum.

If parents and caregivers pay more attention to their cell phones than their children, museums might ask if what they are offering is more interesting than  cell phones. Listening to what they want will help attune the museum to parent concerns. Do we know what parents want to get out of a museum visit? What they want for themselves? What signals to them that their participation is encouraged? What does support and encouragement look like to them? Where might a parent want to be during a demonstration or a story? What works for parents as her child climbs through a tree house or ant tunnel? In developing a new exhibit, does the museum ask what interests them about the topic, materials, design, or objects?
How Do We Support Parents?

A shared view of parents and caregivers, built on strengths and shaped by their input requires support in many forms: the physical environment, staff interactions, materials and design. Every museum engages in practices in all of these areas, but they are not necessarily aligned. A shared view can guide museum staff in assessing and tweaking existing practices and cultivating new ones that reinforce a guiding image of the parent and caregiver. How, for instance, does this view and what parents and caregivers say they want translate into:

·       Staff prepared to greet, support, and respond to parents and caregivers as they arrive, get involved, make choices, and, eventually, prepare to leave. Besides a museum’s own customer service training, a program like Wakanheza can prepare staff to support parents handling a difficult moment with their child in public. How does staff scaffolding experiences for children draw parents in? What, as Mariana Adams ask, does having parents stand at the back of the room with their children seated in front tell them about participation in a family program?

·       Environments, exhibits, and programs that take into account what parents and caregivers are concerned about like safety and security, comfort, easy visual access into and across spaces. How does the high climbing structure that invites children up and away from their adults assure adults of safety and offer them a way to interact?

·       Tools like the Adult Child Interaction Inventory serve as a tool for exhibit development and evaluation and are related to the adult's role in exhibits.

·       A consistent message delivered in a positive, respectful tone across multiple platforms: greetings, text panels, announcements, publications, wayfinding, and program activities. Parents, like the rest of us can tell when they are being talked down to or are not included.

·       An approach to cell phone use and devices that is informed, realistic, and in the spirit of what the museum hopes happens for the parents and caregivers it serves, for their children, and for staff.  

Related Museum Notes Posts

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Completing the Experience

Imagine a museum that has as its purpose: To serve, produce, and co-produce…people, food, art, and ideas. Visitors to this museum find not only a maker faire, but also an annual mending party where they fix, repair, and upgrade valued possessions, their own and others’. Families build and share their stories. Self-forming groups create their own pop-up exhibits to take out into neighborhoods. What if visitors not only loved the mosaics like those in the City Museum in St. Louis, but were able to contribute to those environments and add details? Everywhere in this museum could be experiences with choices that bring people one-step closer to being the authors of their own experience, not just consumers of others’ creativity. These ideas are not just mine. They come from museum thinkers and linkers like Kathy McLean, Nina Simon, and Reggio thinker, Lani Shapiro.

In her recent post Press Here, Nina Simon describes two ingenious children’s books, Press Here and This is a Book Without Pictures. Reflecting on how the authors cleverly use the basic elements of the page and words to break the fourth wall of book reading, she wonders, How do we use the essential tools of museum-ness to disrupt, surprise, and delight people?”

Trying to answer this question by analyzing it too thoroughly becomes problematic. Too many rules and qualities constrain the potential seismic shift the question invites. Breaking the fourth wall of museums by using museum-ness comes, perhaps, when users complete the experience museums offer, by filling in with their imaginations, questions, creativity, experiments, and previous experiences.

Museums are inclined to plan a little too thoroughly to assure they serve their visitors well. Consequently, the user fits into a designed experience others have determined for them. To be fair, users implicitly agree to experiences that others have planned for them by virtue of visiting the museum. But would visitors like something that they might direct or control more? Why not give them the opportunity? Do we have the confidence and courage to let users struggle, wrestle, spin, and delight in their accomplishments? Do we have the restraint to step back and give the visitor a greater hand in an experience intended for them? 

How do museums create experiences that allow visitors to complete the experience by directing it and changing it? Below are four shifts in constructing museum experiences I have been chewing on that might significantly rechannel museum thinking and energies to disrupt the current museum experience paradigm.

One big, bold idea, solid and true. An idea capable of creating a major shift in a museum wholeheartedly takes the visitor into account. Starting with a strong image and high regard for the visitor, the museum values and plans around possibilities meaningful to the end user–the visitor. A roomy and compelling idea is one that resonates intensely with the user. It is a generous host for the curiosity of many and diverse visitors and connects with their interests and passions rather than through our subject matter areas. Meaningful and relevant but not necessarily serious, a bold idea actually becomes bigger through engagement, capturing the visitor’s imagination, leading to new questions, and opening up possibilities. The museum certainly has a critical role to fulfill in this new dynamic. Its focus, however, shifts to locating and understanding an idea worthy of visitors investing in it.

An experience that can’t be completed without the user. More goals, outcomes, square footage, objects, components, design, and graphics can't substitute for what is essential that each person brings to the exhibit experience. Even expansive, interactive, immersive, dramatic spaces are static without the visitor’s curiosity, imagination, engagement, conversation, meaning making and physicality. When experiences are too complete, the visitor becomes irrelevant; there is no room for their voice, choice, or control. Central to completing the experience is the visitor easily seeing herself as a competent agent that can impact the course of the experience in a significant and relevant way. Physical or metaphorical, there must be ways to leave behind a physical trace or expression; make an imprint for others to engage with; or carry a mark of the experience worth forward.

Play with form. The stage and the book Press Here express a kind of play with their forms that allow the user to bring something significant to the experience. By removing the imaginary front wall of the stage, the audience enters the world of a play. In Press Here, the reader shakes the book. This gesture, unusual in the page turning conventions of reading, seemingly moves the dots on the next page. In museums, maker-based experiences may be compelling because the museum visitor becomes the maker of objects in a setting where they typically observe objects others have made. By selectively applying rules and sidestepping expectations, a museum may create an experience that, not only surprises and delights, but also extends unexpected invitations, provokes novel responses, or just stops visitors in their tracks.

Curating Opportunities. Shifts beget shifts. When a museum focuses on creating experiences the visitor completes, its thinking and energy is redirected. The roles of curator, exhibit developer, and designer, for instance, shift from helping visitors understand to curating opportunities. By exploring the big bold idea; making room for the user; and playing with form, exhibit planners are on a course to make very different decisions about what goes in and, more important, what is left out of exhibitions to allow users to step into the role of creator and change agent. Rubbing away rough edges of a design might eliminate what is essential to an unscripted but valued exploration. More opportunities do not require more space, more objects, more activities, or more money, but do mean more openings to possible directions an experience might lead; more ways to see, assign meaning, and unlayer layers.

Related Museum Notes Posts

Monday, October 27, 2014

Personal, Portable, Pop-up Museum Exhibits

I once imagined fixing up a simple outbuilding, no bigger than 15’x15’, where I could bring together small, personal exhibits simply for the enjoyment of gathering and organizing lovely, unusual, treasured, or found objects. I could sense the pleasure of being absorbed in finding ideas from objects collected on walks over years and years, bringing out old fabric buried in family trunks, revisiting my childhood rock collection, or showcasing friends’ artwork.

In my mind’s eye, I could picture exhibits I put together, ones co-curated with my sisters or my book group, or something friends guest curated. Exhibits might be inspired by beach glass from Lake Michigan beaches, pottery from the coast of Wales, or polished marble chips from the Cinque Terra; 25 years of books read by our book group; or the Vergeront sisters’ childhood. Collections sitting on shelves and in cupboards might inspire exhibits: hand-carved horses, miniature tops, boxes, buttons, marbles, keys, snow globes, tiny books, or old Valentines and the rubber stamps that made them. All of these could find their way into an exhibit for an admittedly small audience of family, neighbors, friends, friends-of-friends, or new friends walking through the alley or driving a country road.  

It doesn’t matter that that I never found the outbuilding and never will create these imagined exhibits. The homes and studios I enjoy the most are made more interesting with imaginative exhibit-like arrangements. Family members have arranged collected teacups, dolls, stamps, license plates, buttons, antique tools, and photos according to their worldview and very likely change it to reflect a new outlook. In her hillside house, a textile artist has created small shrines everywhere among the towers of stacked books. The amateur naturalist has combined her most cherished finds from city walks and lake paths in a delicate altar-like arrangement on a shelf where it catches the first light. A friend told me that on every family vacation, each member selected a significant object from the family’s time together. Year after year, vacation after vacation, objects were collected in a large, lovely box. These objects invited the family to revisit, reflect, and remember together. Domestic versions of cabinets of curiosities enjoy pride of place on shelves, walls, windowsills, and in corners of our homes, reminding us of interests, travels, places, loved ones, and times past.

Evolving Cabinets of Curiosity
The penchant like the one that inspired my dream of a simple space for presenting exhibits is not so different from Cabinets of Curiosity of the past, museums of the present, and hundreds of museum and exhibit experiments in between. Fueled by shared human and individual curiosity as well as a tendency to collect, these inclinations are carried forward by memory, a dialogue with objects, an interest in engaging and delighting others, and the possibility of discovering something ourselves.

Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History Pop-up Museum
Removing objects and exhibits from the large-scale, familiar, and more formal museum context enables new perspectives and opportunities for exhibits (and museums). A dance of personal and public engagement is possible; expectations of what might happen shift; new energy is released. The Pop-up Museum concept described by Michelle DelCarlo on her blog and carried further by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History and other museums plays with possibilities of community engagement, conversation, development of ideas, format, and sense of place. A mobile museum may be a strategy for a start-up museum without walls, for outreach to underserved audiences and locations, or for a temporary set-up during a museum renovation. Speakers at the recent ASTC 2014 Pecha Kucha responded to, “What if There Wasn’t a Building?” exploring the challenges, assets, and limitations of museum buildings in serving new communities, welcoming diverse audiences, creating experiences, experimenting with exhibit formats, and increasing participation.

Experimental Zibits
Small, portable, temporary exhibits–zibits–encountered in unlikely places are an intriguing variation in the range of exhibits. Neither mobile versions of museums nor temporary art installations, they bend towards the personal. Whether these objects or collections are truly rare, valuable, or historically significant matters less. Their meaning or personal value, however, does matter. A zibit installation might be powered by a playful, inventive, offbeat, or random idea; an enduring question; a fragment of a story; or an obsessive devotion.

As such they tend to be a somewhat of personal experiment carried out on a small scale with a hint of intimacy. The person fashioning a small exhibit extends a personal invitation to others, drawing them in to create moments of engagement. At the same time it is intimate, a small exhibit becomes a larger gesture intended to enliven a public space, spark conversations, or forge connections among strangers. On the street; at the farmers’ market, the beach, or park; in a school, garage, bike shop, or cargo container, a small exhibit is an unlikely encounter with objects that dislodges an everyday moment from the routine. Out-of-context, expectations shift and senses go on high alert. Idiosyncratic, rich in local color, and often spontaneous, this just-for now, fleeting experience presented in a compressed time frame for enjoyment rejiggers daily routines whether it is getting to the library, making the walk light, or completing a transaction.

Exhibits On the Street
Personal, portable, pop-up exhibits in unexpected places are likely to offer something idiosyncratic in an Airstream Tradewind trailer; a mural on the wall at the State Fair; or in repurposed street furniture such as a street kiosk or fire hose box. Often both charming and provocative, small exhibits like those below hint at  possibilities for local color, audience participation, and an experimental twist on engagement for "proper" museum exhibits. 

• In downtown San Francisco a pair of vacant newspaper kiosks were repurposed as miniature street museums. Recognizable as permanent fixtures on the sidewalk, the kiosks can be flexibly programmed hosting exhibits on relevant topics with a twist. "A World View of Puppets" highlights puppets as natural street performers. With built-in lights and corresponding QR codes, the kiosks function as 24-hour museums.

• Visitors to Barnington in County Durham (UK) will find the smallest World War I museum in a converted green British Telecom phone box. A retired villager was inspired to create the compact exhibit to honor his grandfather and the 15 men from the small village who fought and died in World War I. Renamed the Listening Post, the villager and his wife collected and installed historic items, newspaper articles, maps, and replicas.

• The Mobile Museum of Material Culture pulled by a tandem bicycle took to the streets of Madison (WI). Inspired by medicine men, street performers and traveling peddlers of the past, the collaborative project offered passersby the chance to experience objects rich in history and laced with mystery. They were invited to explore activities developed with repurposed vintage finds including an old medical instrument kit, small wooden drawers with now-unknown objects and mysterious written clues that prompted questions and fired conversations among friends and strangers. 

 Puppet Bike has been a familiar sight in Chicago including in Andersonville, an old Swedish neighborhood, where I saw it. A gallery and a show mounted on a bike-puppet stage construction, it may push the concept of exhibit somewhat but is definitely idiosyncratic and animates the street corners throughout Chicago.  

A Mile in Our Shoes: Stories About Transportation and Equity, is a participatory installation in a storefront window to encourage passersby to consider the experiences of others in their neighborhood. Works Progress, an artist-led Minneapolis collaborative, invited people who live and work near the Lake Street - Chicago Avenue intersection to contribute a pair of shoes and their story of what it is like to walk in those shoes. Pairs of shoes and excerpts from the stories were displayed in a window at Robert's Shoe Store.

• In the town of Tavira, Portugal, an old water tower has been converted into a Camara Obscura with a 100-year old lens and a rotating mirror. The Torre de Tavira projects a 360º "tour" of Tavira onto a large horizontal screen. On a clear day the "camera" can see up to 30 miles away for a full tour of the town and surrounding area.

A mini-exhibition in a vintage fire hose box is scheduled to open in early 2015 at University and Raymond Avenues in. St Paul (MN). Undoubtedly the Smallest Museum in St. Paul, the 3’ x 2-1/2’ box is on an outside wall of the WORKHORSE COFFEE BAR. Intended to engage the commuting pubic along a new light rail line, the WORKHORSE plans to curate monthly mini-exhibitions using suggestions by artists, architects, historians and others from the neighborhood.

• Sometimes what begins as a small, personal collection finds its way into a museum. Michael Horvich began collecting as a young child, collecting miniatures, trinkets, artifacts, toys, jewelry, dollhouse furniture and more. For a time his collections were housed on shelves in the guest room in his house. Now his collection of 105 Curious Collections of Tiny Treasures is part of a permanent exhibit at Chicago Children’s Museum inspiring children to collect.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Making Makers

Years ago in Minnesota Children’s Museum exhibits department, we found ourselves hiring fabricators who had grown up on farms. They could weld, wire, and work with wood. They could take things a part and put them back together in the same, or different, ways. They found that interesting and engaging. They might have also had an MFA or mechanical engineering degree and sometimes they were a furniture maker or had picked up graphic design skills along the way. At heart, however, they were farm kids and makers and that’s what we cared about. 
There was a time, when many people were makers. They did hand work and crafts with their hands. Dads and older brothers fixed their own cars, built go-karts and ham radios, and wired the house. Women knitted, sewed, did needle work, baked bread, pickled and canned. Children built forts, made doll furniture, fashioned small weapons like slingshots, and watched their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and neighbors make things.

If our inclination to be makers is activated by our parents, it is to my mother I owe my making predilections. My mother has always loved working with her hands and figuring things out. She sewed, laid sod, hung wallpaper, and laid floors. For 50 years she took woodworking classes and made furniture. She only quite when she figured her woodworking teachers were born after she’d started taking classes. Over the decades she has built a tree house, a half-dozen doll beds, several trellises, a picnic table, a chest of drawers for 5 grandchildren, and a new fireplace mantle from her own designs, often with my father’s congenial assistance. At 89 years she laid a brick sidewalk and at 90 she allowed my brother and sister help her build a fence. With our mother as an example, it’s not surprising that all seven of us children would be considered makers. And the best of them went off to work on a ranch; he would have made a very fine fabricator.

Becoming Makers Again
Now, it seems, we are hoping to become makers again. My copy of fresh look at making just arrived. Making Makers is by AnnMarie Thomas, a maker herself as well as an engineer, educator, and parent. An engineering professor at St. Thomas University in St Paul (MN), Thomas brings an important, but often-overlooked, perspective on how to encourage active, creative life-long learners, in this case, makers. Interviewing 39 adults accomplished in many areas about what they were like as children, it is clear they were all makers as children.

The makers she interviewed are writers, technologists, artists, designers, engineers, inventors, professors, and researchers. Leaders, founders, and entrepreneurs, they work in business, academia, community programs, restaurants, arts, and museums. Their creativity and making is expressed as clothing, robots, pipe organs, furniture, and medical devices. Many, if not most, straddle interdisciplinary areas and multiple contexts. All are introduced in the book.

Childhood as a formative time for makers threads throughout the book. The interviewees remember learning from books, magazines, and catalogues as children. They had access to real and varied materials, working tools, and projects of their choosing. They were intent on doing, making, and figuring things out: building, programming, repurposing, or drawing. Few dreams were too big for these children who worked to build a submarine, an airplane from a fallen log, a rocket, or a miniature golf course. We know these makers from photos of them as children, just as we know their childhood creations­: a plane, map, diorama, and home-made Tesla coil from photos, descriptions, and memories. They testify undeniably to the formative and durable nature of childhood in making makers, thinkers, and problem solvers.

Maker Mindset
We are often careful to balance the importance of a finished hands-on product with the value of the process. Less often, however, do we consider the traits and dispositions that support engagement with both process and product. Thomas does this, in fact, focusing on these traits in children. She distills and expands on a set of eight maker-relevant attributes that recur throughout the interviews.

Organizing anecdotes from childhood, Thomas connects the youthful spirit and enthusiasm that powered early maker projects with life-long dispositions and interests. No small coincidence, her list maps onto the non-cognitive skills critical to success in school, work, and life. Equally significant, several qualities–curiosity and playfulness, risk and persistence–are synonymous with children’s joyful, active engagement with their world.

The message is clear: To give children the best chance to be innovative thinkers, playful doers, persistent dreamers, responsible collaborators, make it easy for them to pursue their maker predilections.
Curiosity. All children are curious but they are not all curious about the same things. Particular curiosities and interests fuel children’s desire to know, to try, to question, to find out, and to follow possibilities.
Playfulness. Freely following their interests and ideas, children delight in manipulating sound, numbers, circuits, stories, clothing, and expressing possibilities that they joyfully pursue in many directions.
Risk. Trusted with tools, free to set their own challenges, learning their limits from small injuries and unexpected results, children gain new skills and competencies from near misses, respect danger, and learn safety procedures.
Responsibility. Entrusted to take on a meaningful role in making something bigger happen, helping others accomplish their goals, and accepting consequences build confidence, a sense of accomplishment, and pride.
Persistence. Guided by a belief that they can figure out how to make just about anything, maker children keep trying in the face of setbacks, use multiple approaches to work around challenges, and iterate to get it right.
Resourcefulness. Inspired by bits and bobs, undaunted by scarcity, improvising with what’s available, and developing a fluency with materials and tools children recognize and access the potential in what–and who–is available to move ideas forward.
Generosity. Excited to try something new or hard, children often need and enjoy help from a more, older, or differently experienced maker. Exchange and connection, however, often go in many directions with children proudly sharing their skills, knowledge, tools, plans, and time.
Optimism. Through making children leave a visible mark on the world, their mark. This act of making represents a delight in the possibility of change, a belief in making a difference, and concern for what comes next. 


Raising Makers
Children may be natural-born makers, but the adults in their lives are key partners in encouraging, supporting, extending, and inspiring children to become life-long makers, learners, tinkerers, and thinkers. Thomas provides a brief set of suggestions for adults who want to raise children who are makers. Parents, friends, teachers, neighbors, museum developers, designers, and educators need to be around and supportive, but don’t need to do the work of maker children. Sometimes adults may need to remove an obstacle a child could not; for instance, let Luc keep a 50-gallon oil drum in his bedroom. But, generally, adult support is indirect through:
• Sharing their passions
• Letting children follow their own interests
• Stepping back
• Teaching the importance of safety and responsibility
• Letting children get messy
• Not knowing all the answers
• Making something

Making Makers carries several messages. The one I find strong, clear, and compelling is that the maker experience for children is the stuff of childhood. It is the raw material for building life-long skills and the source of the directory for future makers, doers, thinkers, and problem solvers.

Related Museum Notes Posts

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Childhood Autobiographies: Community

For a long time I have been fascinated by the responses and insights when people reflect on places they remember playing as children. In environmental autobiographies, people, typically adults, think of a place they spent time when they were young that they liked or went to frequently. Calling this place to mind and walking through it mentally, they revisit it unearthing memories and sensations about places they loved to play as children. Cherished friends, forgotten, are now remembered. Memories of smells of dry wood, damp dirt, and crushed leaves return. Stripes on a shirt, patterns on a quilt, details on a leaf are suddenly clear again.  

I shouldn’t be surprised that something comparably remarkable happens upon asking people to reflect on other experiences from their childhood: a friendship, feeling welcome and safe, an important adult, helping someone, taking a risk.

I have come to think of these as childhood autobiographies. Guided exercises, they are able to surface long ago moments and meaningful childhood memories in ways that delight adults remembering childhood and awaken them to the children they know, work with, and care for today.

Seeing Everyday Places
A childhood autobiography about community was a productive starting place for a recent half-day workshop, “Seeing Everyday Places: Connecting Children and their Communities” sponsored by the Reggio-inspired Network of Minnesota.  A group of 36 early childhood teachers, museum educators, school administrators, and university early childhood specialists gathered to review and reflect on the documentation of 4 projects facilitated by parent and teacher researchers who explored community settings with their children. The research project, “Seeing Everyday Places” is a collaboration between the Network and Minnesota Children’s Museum related to the Museum’s extensive renovation of its galleries.

Launched in January 2014, the project invited teachers and parents and their children to visit everyday community settings such as the post office, fire department, market, or hardware store to explore children's ideas about community. The Museum intends to incorporate children’s ideas and insights about community and places in its redesigned Our World gallery. These explorations of community began with questions about how people, places, work, and play interconnect and support neighborhoods, towns, and communities. Each group followed the interests and questions of the children about a setting, capturing their words and images to bring greater visibility to their thinking and understanding of community.

We Were All Children Once
Childhood autobiographies work because we were all children once. A very personal connection with children prepares us in thinking about and following children’s explorations. When we ask ourselves what we remember about community from when we were children, we are softening that barrier between our very adult perspective of today and a perspective that connects with children’s experiences, questions and ideas.

The 20-30 minute exercise invites each person to reenter their childhood, thinking back to ages 4, 5, or 6 years old. Relaxing, eyes closed, participants are invited to revisit childhood and scan memories and images from those years that connect somehow with community. Community may be related to a place, a building, or a natural area. It may connect with a person or group of people; or be associated with an event, image, words, or a feeling. Connections may be positive–or not–but they should be strong and worth unpacking.

When participants find something that resonates with from their childhood, they are invited to sit with it, turn it around, and re-familiarize themselves with it. They might consider some questions such as: What did you think your community was? What was important about it? What did it look or feel like? What fascinated you about it? Why? What did you wonder about? What or who encouraged you to wonder more about community?

If more than one moment or experience floats by, following both is helpful. Not only is community a rich, complex idea, but sometimes one recollection leads to another or adds meaning. Equally important, considering more than one perspective on community can open up listening to children’s varied ideas of community. Participants are invited to capture or record their thoughts by taking notes, creating and labeling a simple drawing, or writing a brief narrative. After about 5-10 minutes of reflecting, participants are asked to share recollections on one or two childhood experiences with someone sitting near them.

Recollections of Community from Childhood
Revisiting childhood experiences pulls distant moments forward into the present, making them accessible for further exploration. Returning to memories can place a person in the situation. Emotions, images, and sometimes sounds and smells float by to be examined and appreciated. Some people are inclined to visit longer than others. Yet, as members of the group begin to share reflections, everyone is drawn in. Heads around the room nod; people find and share connections.

Seven threads seemed to run through the childhood recollections about community within this group with some recollections pulling on more than one thread. An initial sort, these threads could be revised or refined with the addition of more childhood autobiographies.  

Community: places and people connected by relationships
• The neighborhood was the people I grew up with
• We were in the woods, in our own world. We had the freedom of space and time. That clearing in the woods, I can visit it today
• The first time I was making real connections to other people outside of my family.
• Children with children

Multiple and overlapping communities   
• My parents were divorced so I had three neighborhoods. My mom’s neighborhood in Minneapolis; my dad’s in St. Paul; and my grandmother’s neighborhood, for childcare
• There was my immediate neighborhood and the “mercantile” neighborhood within walking distance
I didn’t think about my community as a child, but I was in a community. I was in a couple of communities. My main community was 28 square blocks. I knew people in all those places.

Children figure out community rules
• My community was where I felt welcome and safe. Would I be welcome? Were people glad to see me at the corner store? Would they share resources? Safe was risks and hazards, expectations, and social rules. What are the expectations and social rules in this neighborhood store or that neighborhood store? What were the resources that were available to me? At an early age, resource was the freedom to get something wonderful...touch something wonderful and have access to public restroom and water. And a grown up that could rescue you if something horrible happened.

Community connections change with age
• Playing sports was the first time of making real connections to other people outside my family
• Freedom to go explore community neighborhood space encouraged more independence to go out and explore

Children as agents in creating community
• We lived in a rural area where all the houses were summer homes except ours and one other family with 4 kids. We created our own community, made library cards...checked out books from our library. Isolated, we sought community around ourselves

Life lessons in everyday moments around the community
• We were just dragged around and included in things. Mom said, I gotta do this and I gotta be here...gotta mail a package...let's go
• You were just included; it wasn’t a huge intentional lesson, you were a part of things...that's just how it went
• Freedom to go explore community neighborhood space

Full of possibilities
• Children with children gave us a sense of empowerment. We were on our own, running from house to house, in our own world and creating it on our own
• Boundless possibilities
• Secret space

Following the Thread of Community
Childhood autobiographies prepare adults, whether they are parents, teachers, museum educators, exhibit developers or designers, to follow children’s questions and interests on a concept or an idea. Recollecting a community place and person from childhood or recalling a moment of understanding a feeling of connection personalizes our perspective and attunes our sensibilities to what children might find meaningful. New–or renewed–insights open doors to possible ways we might build on children's interests and extend their explorations of their community through exhibits, programs, and projects.  

Thinking back to your childhood, What did you think your community was? What was important about it? What did it look or feel like?

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