Saturday, March 14, 2015

Rewind: Planting for Play

A few days of sunshine and temperatures reaching 70 F in early March can get even a seasoned Midwesterner to think about planting for play. Knowing how many museums have been inspired to create outdoor areas or to make existing ones wilder, brought to mind this post from 2012 . 

I spent last week in Savannah and Charleston, delighting in the dense vegetation and exuberant growth in the squares, courtyards, parks, and gardens. As I sat back and watched children scoot, dodge, and duck among the plantings and duel with fern fronds, I wondered how yards, parks, playgrounds, gardens, empty lots, and nature centers, might be better planted as places for play.

For most adults, it is impossible to imagine playing outside as children without the hospitality of trees, shrubs, vines, grasses, and flowers for play. My friend Phillip played in a leafy room shaped by the boxwood where he grew up in Maryland. When they were little, the Nissle sisters used the spaces between the foundation shrubs as stalls for their imaginary horses. Recently I came across a list of childhood play places remembered by early childhood educators. One from A Little Learning for Two especially caught my attention.
We grew up on a farm, and we had a daisy bush as a big as a small car, and if we crawled inside, it was hollow, like a giant igloo.  We played there so often we wore a deep crater in the dirt underneath, and I loved lying there in the shade looking up through the flowers or reading books.
Under the boxwood, between the lilacs, and around the mounds of miscanthus grasses are the play spaces remembered from childhood, described in environmental autobiographies, and inspirations for books like Roxaboxen. Places planted for play can be found in the small corners of yards, along the fence, at the border of the schoolyard, under the bay window, at the edge of the porch, along the crick or drainage ditch. These might be places in gardens already well planted that wholeheartedly welcome children’s explorations. They may be wild places overgrown with plants that we carefully edit for play. Or perhaps these are now empty places we plant for children’s play and exploration across the seasons.

Towering trees, spreading branches, and a sweep of shrubs provide the highs, lows, edges, and insides defining space and creating a distinct sense of place for play. Children move low, slow, wide, side-to-side, and high as they crawl between, hide under, and climb up into trees and shrubs. Crouching, they explore leafy tunnels and how far they go. They duck into low enclosures created by sweeping branches where they hide, peek out, relish the feeling of being away from others; here they can see others and (think) others can’t see them. In pairs and small groups, children act out favorite stories and weave together new ones; they play games, and form friendships inside leafy huts.
The same branches that droop and provide cover become the rungs of a ladder. Carefully balancing on branches, children discover look-outs with new views of familiar place; and it's a bit unpredictable. Then sitting astride low arching branches, they feel the branch’s movements and work hard to achieve greater bounce. Straddling the boughs and crouching low, children might be racing ponies or riding out a storm on a boat.

Growing places change with the day, the weather, the season, and from year-to-year, always suggesting possibilities for children’s play. Bare branches leaf-out into tiny yellow-spring-green slivers, creating the fort along the fence; when the leaves turn bronze or gold and drop, the fort disappears. The sun-shade mix shifts from morning to evening; the morning cool disappears and children take their play deeper into the thicket. New smells come in after a rain and suggest an adventure. Leaves continue to sprinkle water even after the rain ends and inspire an expedition for finding rain-hat leaves. In piling leaves, peeling bark, and dragging sticks, children get nature under their fingernails as well as dirt.
Places planted for play are a virtual studio of natural materials to explore and create with. Where else are children able to explore the wide variety of textures offered by smooth, prickly, and fuzzy leaves? Watch hard, new berries ripen into squishy soft berries? Discover which pine cones are sticky and why? Cover rocks with wet leaves? Experiment with sticks that bend, snap, or float? Examine lichen and moss up close? Find out what it feels like to be buried in leaves? 

Children use their discoveries to transform spaces, put their mark on them, and take ownership. In their place-making, children sweep dirt floors with branches, make beds of leaves, arrange tree cookie furniture, and gather leafy decorations. They alter places they find with their own designs, gathering fallen branches, stacking logs, or propping sticks against one another to reconfigure space. Openings created among trees or shrubs become rooms to live or hide in, and some times to defend. Children often allocate ownership of branches, shrubby hollows, or leafy rooms. Places may be named to affirm solidarity, show ownership of spaces, and refer to shared and favorite stories.

Children’s play in planted areas becomes a dialogue with that place. Moving among plants, children experience the precise geography and climate of a particular spot, its deep or dappled shade, how water seeps and pools, the freshness deep into the dark growth, the dry carpet of pine needles. Under the magnolia, they find the cool of the thick and enduring shade; they excavate beneath the soft, constant carpeted surface of big leathery leaves. Even gnarly roots radiating from the trunk animate a place and suggest possibilities for play.

Children come first in places planted for play. They might snap a branch, or stomp down the grass; they might leave a blanket or a bowl (that should never have left the house in the first place one might think) outside. This is not the time to scold, protest, remind them that you have reminded them before, or shake an angry finger at them. Maybe if we provide more places planted for play–places that are easy to get to, familiar and changing, and sense-filling–children will joyfully play there throughout their childhood and carry the memories, discoveries, and possibilities into their futures.
Related Museum Notes Posts

Thursday, March 5, 2015

More Than Fun and Cute


Engineering and play are more alike than we might think. Both have a significant PR problem. When I recently wrote about engineering and the confusion of many about what it is, I was struck by a similar confusion related to play. We assume we know what engineering is and what play is and often make snap judgments about them. Engineering is train operators, not problem solving and design. Play is fun; children are cute when they play.

Play’s PR problem comes through clearly in a question I was asked at InterActivity 2014, “How can we talk about the value of play without mentioning play?” I am not sure I was able to conceal my utter disbelief at this question posed at a conference for children’s museums that have a strong, if not fundamental, grounding in the value of play. More surprising, this was not the first time I’d heard something like this. A few years ago, a children’s museum executive director told me her board had instructed her not to educate funders and policy makers about play. I still wonder about that knowing that play was one of five words in her museum’s mission statement.

The message is clear. Play’s OK until it’s time to get serious, deal with what’s important, and talk with others who may not value it. And when we do own up to play, we are inclined to emphasize the fun. This is hardly an endorsement of what the American Academy of Pediatrics considers critical to the optimal development of all children. What does this say about play, and for that matter, about babies and children–including their play, drawings, language, questions, and movements? What does it say about our courage and commitment?

Scholars have looked seriously at play over the last century and recent research in neuroscience has amply demonstrated the rapid brain growth that occurs during the early years. Nevertheless we persist in not taking young children or their play seriously.

Cute, So Cute, Insanely Cute
When I scroll through Facebook, I love seeing photos of children I know or the children I know fill the lives of friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors. Mason has fallen asleep among his toys; Henry’s has just discovered the joy of licking the frosting off the big wooden spoon. Sara’s at the starting line for a ski race. Clara’s getting a soft wet kiss from Coco. And 3-year old Sadie is posing proudly in a very large Girl Scout badge sash ready to sell cookies with big sister Lucy. Invariably, at least one comment from friends (and family) is “cute.” There is also “fun,” “darling,” “angelic,” “so cute,” and recently, “insanely cute.”

“Cute” not only does not capture what is present, but also sorely underestimates the rich range of durable experiences and the enormous potential they are activating. How could one word–and the same word used again and again–cover so many children doing so many different things as well as describe piñata cookies or a brightly frosted cupcake caterpillar?

More Than Fun
Imagine if we labeled every painting in an art museum beautiful or every sculpture provocative. Using the same few words to sum up something erases the need to think more about what else is present. Limited words restrict what we see and notice and how we might respond and engage. The moments we see as simple and sweet on those Facebook page photos are filled with children making connections, feeling confident, meeting a challenge, discovering a new perspective, or delighting in a sense of agency.

While we often praise individuality, we all but ignore the individual present before us with a one-word caption of what’s going on. We gloss over what is specific, remarkable, and worth noting, in effect, diminishing the child’s capabilities and thinking–contributions the world needs. Watching a child’s play, we don’t take time and think about or imagine where the story of a runaway frog came from, how the idea of a pet palace grew, or what the child might be thinking about that space rocket.

At the gym, I watch a 2-1/2 year old walk backwards down a long hallway, a little wobbly but delighted. (Cute, right?) This seems to be an exploration of a new way of moving, feeling movement, and noticing how surroundings change as he moves. Rather than walking towards the door, he’s walking away from it; does he notice it is getting smaller? Most likely, more–much more–of life-long significance is occurring in a child’s everyday moments and during play captured in images of children at play in museums, in the library, at family gatherings, at a holiday. Seeing children crouch under a bush, notice how chalk crumbles, meet a cardboard challenge, create duct tape armor, or try to balance a plate on one hand communicates volumes about that child’s curiosity, interests, control, agency, capabilities, and sense of accomplishment. 

Use Your Words
We might each revisit a memory or a snapshot of a cherished moment from our childhood. Examine the image closely. Yes, there’s a crooked smile, an untamed cowlick, the shirt worn backwards, and an apple bulging from the pants pocket. As the beaming child, the spelling bee winner, would cute reveal the sense of accomplishment you felt or the relief still remembered? Others might have seen this moment as funny or sweet. But for you it was a discovery about words, the triumph of persistence, and pride in winning for your school.    

This is not a plea to banish cute or fun. Play is fun and more; children are cute and far more than cute. 
Rather, it is an invitation to look, wonder, and reflect on what is happening as five-year old Sonja gives a long explanation of how we smell things and Delroy learns to use a needle and thread sitting next to his grandmother. Surely, when Cyrus and Harper sing and dance their 90 year old great grandfather’s favorite song, it is more than fun and cute.

Related Museum Notes Posts

Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Couple of Ideas for the Taking

Chicago Public Library Oak Park Branch

“Hey! I got an idea!” I get a kick hearing someone, usually a child, say that. As a child, I loved the feeling of getting an idea. And I still do.

Having ideas is a wonderful feeling of possibility and adventure. Ideas can take us many places, connecting with people, developing new interests, learning more, and doing something helpful. Recently several ideas have popped up in my reading and have stuck around a bit longer than ideas sometimes do. Without a museum that I work with on a long-term basis, I am not able to act on them directly. But I can put them out there for the taking. The three emergent ideas that follow, described in a preliminary way, will hopefully spark someone else’s sense of possibility and move them to take them further.

Local Inventors and Innovators
In late December the business section of our local paper, The Star Tribune, featured the story of two University of Minnesota graduate students who developed a mobile app that is helping to increase the productivity of small farmers in an arid province in India. The story of these young innovators and their thinking that is now doubling the fruit and vegetable yields while decreasing water and fertilizer use tucked itself somewhere in my mind. Recently it reappeared as a question: how could this, or other similar innovations, find its way into science center and museum experiences, programs, and partnerships?

The application of science principles to a current need with tangible, beneficial outcomes is a compelling, timely story–the kind that engages museum visitors and strengthens the museum experience. This story involves young inventors and entrepreneurs, has local-global connections, is located at the nexus of water and food production, and offers potential partnerships with businesses, colleges, and universities. Other innovations are likely to have similar entry points and connections related to local inventors, a problem to solve and its context, the thinking involved, risk taking, and STEM content.
School Program Experiments
In a guest post on Museum Questions, Jackie Delamatre, educator at the RISD Museum (Providence, RI) wondered what if… the museum visit for school groups was less like the school classroom and, instead, imagined ways to encourage learners to direct their learning, explore their interests and questions, and make their thinking visible.

That made me wonder, what if… museum educators could truly rethink the school visit by, for instance, optimizing the opportunities museums’ informal learning environments offer. Together multiple small experiments with school programs in many museums could break the mold of current museum school tours. Is it possible to create a shift so schools would learn from museums and borrow their informal learning strategies?

This week on Museum Questions Rebecca Herz identified three field trip related experiments she intends to try at the new Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum where she's executive director. A number of interesting ideas are embedded in these experiments. This is hopefully just one of many experiments that are–and could be happening–at all kinds of museums, ones that start with the learner; plan using the museum’s remarkable resources; and focus on thinking or looking skills. Or, develop experiments that go somewhere completely different. Sharing ideas and making connections among museums can happen in many ways, including here on Museum Notes.

Design + Children’s Play + Research
I was sorely disappointed when I wasn’t able to see either exhibition on design for children. The best I could do was to check-out the 2013 Design for the Modern Child at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the 2012 Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900 – 2000 at MoMA on-line. With somewhat different emphases, these exhibits featured furniture, toys, tableware, wallpaper, and textiles designed for children. The MoMA exhibit considered modernist thinking about children and design for them.

As engaging as these exhibits appear to have been, I am eagerly looking forward to an exhibition that focuses on designing for children’s play and the research behind it with children playing at the heart of the experience. This exhibition brings together aspects of the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Wonder Years exhibition; Paige Johnson’s Playscapes blog on design of play structures; and The Strong’s American Journal of Play.

Incorporating the perspectives of an art museum, children’s museum and university research lab, it might explore an object’s play value, the learning associated with imaginative play, and design-play connections. Rich with images of children at play, it could also serve as a play lab for conducting research. Above all, this would be an exhibition brimming with play, not just about play. I really hope this exhibition can travel so I can be sure to see it.

Please Take These Ideas
Let them inspire you and make them into what you can. Share them with colleagues; develop them further. You may find them more helpful by splitting and combining them and connecting them with other project ideas, plans, or practices already in the works. Set them in motion, folding them into an experiment. Let me know what comes of them and your thinking.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Cultivating an Experimental Mindset

In kicking off a planning process with a museum team, I often point out that we are engaged in a discovery process. Eyes widen, sometimes with fear and sometimes with excitement. I add that, while a discovery process, it is a disciplined discovery process, based on relevant organizational documents and information, following well-tested planning steps, informed by internal staff and board knowledge, and guided by clear outcomes and deliverables. We won’t, I assure them, just go off on any old trajectory. But honestly, we really don’t know quite where we’ll end up.

Often, however, I wish the process could accommodate more wandering and experimenting. While clearly not a precise definition of experimenting, this situation points to how museum work may be more of an experiment than we think it is.

Museums fortunately have a tradition of experimenting. Some like Shelburne Farms have their roots in earlier experiments. Others, like the Museum of Modern Art, was viewed 75 years ago by its first director, Alfred Barr Jr. as “a laboratory in its experiments the public is entitled to participate.” Museum experiments continue at many scales. An experiment that has transformed museums the Exploratorium continues to take experimenting seriously. More recent experiments have included maker spaces, satellite museums, and free admission.Word of a museum’s experimentation travels and can be documented by following replication, from Exploratorium exhibits to maker spaces to tapescapes. Images of a tape structure in an architecture magazine inspired a Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota board member to construct TapeScape in 2011. Introduced in the start up museum’s Play Lab setting, the structure merged an immersive exhibit, art installation, and re-purposed material. Tapescapes followed in Pittsburgh in 2013 and Manitoba in 2014. A fresh contribution, it has attracted followers and expanded the museum repertoire.

While museums have a tradition of experimenting, they aren’t necessarily impelled by an experimental mindset. Imitating and improving ideas from one museum to another is a valuable strategy for introducing change and increasing variety in experiences, but alone doesn’t reflect an experimental mindset. Prototyping, evaluation, and research are among museum practices that encourage experimenting. They can challenge assumptions and push boundaries, but may also be established practices that become routine.

A Typical and Frequent Response to Challenges
An experimental mindset is a proclivity to question, rethink options, and make changes. An attitude and outlook, it is a readiness to wonder, question, challenge, test-and-retest, and reinvest lessons learned into new efforts. More than an ability to ask questions and run small studies, it is a typical and frequent response to challenges, obstacles, and opportunities. With questions of “what might happen if…?” and confidence that there are more options than the most obvious course or what was done previously, a disposition to try and test supports evidence-based decision making, challenges perspectives, and delivers new possibilities.

An experimental mindset helps museums deal with complexity and uncertainty, realities inherent in their own organizational context and the dynamic communities they serve. This outlook tempers an understandable push for certainty. We may want assurances about what we will accomplish, how long something will take, its cost, and if others will approve. However, shadowing a process with “Will it get funded?” stifles risk taking, fresh thinking, and a search for better solutions.

Knowing what will and won’t work ahead of time is impossible, but small experiments in fact can reduce uncertainty. More iterative than definitive, an experimental mindset shared across a museum anticipates that the group will arrive at a collective understanding, valuable insights, or a satisfying resting point but not a certain destination. The twists and turns in finding out what works better and what’s expendable inevitably challenge comfortable, well-established practices. Perhaps more important, an institutional commitment to questioning and research also invigorates work, delivers unanticipated outcomes, and offers shared learning.

The Sweep of an Experimental Mindset 
Karina Mangu-Ward, EMCArts Director of Activating Innovation explores the potential of shifting from models to a mindset in her guest blog post, We Don’t Need New Models, We Need a New Mindset. While she does not speak directly about an experimental mindset, her construct assumes complexity rather than relying a distilled and fixed set of assumptions. She suggests that a mindset sidesteps set priorities, simple solutions, and easy-to-count metrics. Whereas models encourage replication, a mindset revises understandings in response to information, changes and challenges.

Cultivating an experimental mindset assists a museum in living its core values. A museum with creativity or innovation as institutional values needs an organizational culture that expresses them and translates them into major decisions and daily actions. While celebrating failure for visitors, museums do not seem as eager to make new mistakes themselves. If critical thinking, experimenting, and tinkering with ides are valuable for visitors, a museum needs these same qualities as part of its own DNA. Becoming an organizational learner is as important as supporting life-long learners. When it has internalized its values, a museum hires staff and recruits trustees with a tolerance for ambiguity, an appetite for risk taking, and a metabolism change.

A disposition to act on questions is not limited to a single department or division. It engages every organizational level and brings greater clarity about where and how to strive to achieve impact. Each new program or initiative; every new exhibition, interactive component, or acquisition; a revised membership incentive; or a community collaborative is an opportunity to experiment with how a museum might invite participation, build loyalty, engage visitors more fully, extend engagement, or increase impact.
Columbus Museum of Art

Engaged in reimagining itself over the past 6+ years, the Columbus Museum of Art (CMA) has fielded a suite of projects covering the entire museum. Reframing creativity, rethinking art education, reimagining the drop-in visitor experience, and remaking space has engaged trustees, volunteer docents, and staff across the museum. CMA’s sustained experiment, or set of experiments, clearly demonstrates the critical role museum leadership plays in asking bold questions; reframing and responding to opportunities; and supporting a journey to someplace with new possibilities. It is also illustrates how leadership becomes distributed across the museum, helping to advance an organization-wide commitment to reflect, question, and act. Leaders with hearty appetites for disciplined discovery often view the museum’s approach as an opportunity to grow support for roomy questions rather than small certainties.

A museum supports an experimental mindset by making room for experimentation. Time is given to what is valued; it is critical for getting beyond easy answers, finding out what works. On the other hand, a compressed time frame for a team might actually support experimentation by concentrating creative energies on strengthening ideas rather than searching for hopefully better ones. Writing about innovative exhibition design on ExhibitTricks, exhibit designer Axel Hüttinger believes “the exhibition must become a laboratory, in which there virtually are no prefabricated results which the visitors are served.” Teams or groups operating with an experimental mindset are alert to fortuitous accidents and unintended consequences–and make good use of both. Museum Camp at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History tries out a new and original camp format for engaging museum professionals in creatively investigating a novel theme such as “space.”

The questioning and reflective frame of mind supported by leadership and nourished by available time informs how museum staff navigate everyday activities and responsibilities. By asking questions of their own practice and searching for answers, staff examine the impact of museum experiences on visitors who come through the door, visit regularly, participate in programs, explore exhibits, or participate on-line. Recently, Michelle Grohe, Director of School & Teacher Programs at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston, MA) shared a regular practice Gardner Museum educators engage in as they reflect on and assess student tours.The practice draws on both big picture ideas and specific questions that museum educators ask of themselves, partner teachers, and students. As answers to these questions accumulate, the museum has data to anchor plans for developing new programs, revising and improving programs, and understanding the impact of programs on students. 

Everyday Studies
Strategic experiments can be a solvent for an organizational culture that is stuck or for navigating areas of persistent frustration. Even a quick study lasting 30 minutes or 30 days can be a cost-effective experiment yielding significant insights.

Many museums would like to reach more youth before they age out. A move from wanting to grow this part of the audience to understanding what’s working, the relevant conditions, and which ideas are more likely to work ahead of time requires both motivation and mindset. A museum might start with a set of questions: What has staff noticed about where the 9-12 year olds who do visit spend the most time? What do these children find most engaging about those experiences? How do they talk about what they like doing? How can these qualities be adapted to and incorporated into other exhibits? Staff might observe, interview, and conduct focus groups. Small studies harvest staff’s informal knowledge about the museum and its visitors, where they spend time, use patterns, noise levels, etc. It brings cross-departmental knowledge and strengths together–marketing, visitor services, education, and exhibits–and is likely to extend to other museums with a similar interest. Building internal capacity as well as better serving the museum’s audience are likely results of following through on persistent questions.

Experiments help progress towards larger goals. After completing its strategic plan, Grand Rapids Art Museum (MI) staff began a set of small experiments to improve the visitor experience. One experiment responded to visitor feedback on being told not to touch the art. Using gallery observations, staff logs, and guard interviews, staff developed a concept to try: turn the message from, “Don’t touch the art” to “Why can’t we touch the art?” Framed mirrors installed in the galleries were paired with text encouraging visitors to touch the mirrors and notice the oils left behind. In the three months following installation, guard reminders to visitors declined to one.

Every museum possesses some valuable assets for cultivating an experimental mindset. A board member keen to questions; an organizational value on innovation; an eager, boundary-pushing floor staff person; teams passionate about their projects; a membership director who wants to try something new; visitors asking, “why?” Each staff member, trustee, and volunteer in every museum also shares one great advantage in advancing an experimental mindset. Learning by experiment has worked since the earliest days of life when we engage a parent with a smile, or pump small legs and move the mobile. If a museum can encourage, align, and harness individual dispositions to wonder, question, and push boundaries, imagine the potential institutional force for significant internal and external change.

Related Museum Notes Posts