Sunday, November 22, 2015

Executive Function: Completing the Connection

Executive function is getting a lot of attention these days particularly in schools, museums, and libraries. Located in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, an area that keeps track of goals, engages in abstract problem-solving, and moderates appropriate behavior, executive functions weave, mediate, and integrate both cognitive and social capacities.

While developing early in life and rapidly during the preschool years, executive brain functions are not important just for children. Throughout life, we need to regulate emotions, delay gratification, and make plans. During adolescence some executive functions improve, becoming more efficient and effective with increased mastery over thinking, emotions, and behavior. During the 20’s, executive function skills are at their peak and begin to decline in later adulthood.

Models for executive function break down and describe them with some variation. The executive functions explored in Ellen Galinsky’s book Mind In the Making: The Seven Essential Skills Every Children Needs are: focus and self-control, perspective taking, communicating, making connections, critical thinking, taking on challenges, and self-directed and engaged learning.

Evidence of executive function is apparent in the focus and inhibitory control displayed in persistence in following an activity to its natural conclusion or sticking with something after a setback. Taking another perspective and putting oneself in another’s shoes involves cognitive flexibility. Making connections is critical to making sense of a situation and relies on recognizing similarities and differences, using rules and applying and recombining elements in various and inventive ways.

Involved in language, play, learning, and social interactions, executive functions have a definite place in museums. Recently, IMLS released Brain-Building Powerhouses: How Museums and Libraries Can Strengthen Executive Function Life Skills with Mind in the Making and Families and Work Institute. A study on executive function skills in museums and libraries, it explores what they are, why they are important, how children develop them, and how museums and libraries promote them.

The report identifies 6 assets museums and libraries can leverage to support executive function skills from Family Engagement to Community Partnerships. Museums are incorporating information on executive function skills into programs for parents, programming where children practice science skills, and kits. Portland Children’s Museum has developed a handbook summarizing 7 skills.

These and other efforts to deliberately incorporate executive function skills cluster into two general areas. First, handbooks, webinars, text, and handouts focus on and summarize the content of executive function skills. Print materials in text panels and handouts provide explanation, tips, and prompts for parents and caregivers. Materials cover recent research, developmental information, and examples about how activities and experiences can support development of specific life skills.

The second cluster of museum efforts to incorporate executive function skills is around programmatic tools and strategies. Kits, programs, research-based exhibits weave executive function skills into museum experiences. Some museums offer informal play-and-learn groups and formal parent training to develop parent and caregiver awareness and skills.

Both areas of activities are good and necessary for encouraging executive function skills in museums. They serve as groundwork in bringing the content into the museum, building awareness of how and why these skills are important, and supporting parents and caregivers in valuing and encouraging these skills in children as they explore and play. Both help in building a case for support around a museum's intention and potential to make a difference in the lives of visitors and the community.

Most museum efforts to encourage development of executive function skills, however, overlook the enormous and indispensible asset of prepared and engaged staff. In fact, in Brain-building Powerhouses, staff are not identified as one of the 6 assets that museums and libraries can use to promote executive function life skills.

Gallery guides, museum educators, on-floor educators, docents, and volunteers who interact with children and adults–daily and hourly, from arrival to departure–have the potential to make connections to these life skills that even the best signs, tools, and media cannot. Informed, practiced, and on the spot, staff are able to customize a response, gesture, or comment to a child or adult and the situation. Moreover they can model and scaffold for parents and caregivers, augmenting and making visible what is in the text and what it looks like in reality.

Because experiences are often planned to be self-guided, museums may not recognize the steady stream of  opportunities for knowledgeable and well-trained staff to support and advance development of executive function life skills. Virtually every visitor encounter is an opening to model or respond in helpful, focused ways. Children wait in line at admissions, use a new tool in the maker space, scale the climber, or monopolize the green screen. Getting separated from a parent or jumping the line at the crane may be a self-guided experience; it can also use informed guidance.   

Clearly parents and caregivers play a critical role in fostering a child’s focus, self control, persistence, and keeping information in mind during a task or activity. Is it realistic, however, to expect adults to read text, absorb relatively complex content, and respond accordingly as their child abandons an activity? Grabs a tool from someone else? Faces a meltdown? What about when their hands are full with 2 or 3 children?

Well-prepared staff who are familiar with the research on executive function and the related life skills serve a function nothing else is able to. Not supervising a child, they can observe and notice related behaviors, identify opportune moments for engagement, and scaffold these skills. They can reflect on the interactions and discuss later with other staff. Modeling and scaffolding for parents and caregivers is a powerful way for them to understand what self-regulation or working memory looks like and what they might do in situations when prompts aren’t present. Even brief follow-up conversations with parents and caregivers can help make these connections.

Admittedly, the investment in preparing staff well is considerable. Furthermore, not all staff may have the capacity to engage with visitors around brain development and executive function skills. In fact, only half the museum respondents to the IMLS study felt staff has the capacity to converse with families and children about brain development. 

If this is where museums hope to have a positive impact on their visitors and, ultimately, on their communities, they need to take action on multiple fronts. Text, handouts, posting information, and weaving experiences into exhibits to support these important skills are only part of an approach that can be considered comprehensive and potentially effective. Without staff prepared to engage, respond to, and support executive function life skills, the approach remains a well-intentioned museum interest. Fortunately, some training in this area beyond introductory is occurring in museums. Mind in the Making and Boston Children’s Museum are developing training for museum staff. Museums can also conduct small-scale experiments with trained on-floor educators in a particular exhibit to interpret messages and model interactions. These results would provide informed guidance in expanded staff engagement.

A wholehearted approach is what I think is intended by one of the action steps in Brain-building Powerhouses: Embed a priority to develop executive function life skills into all aspects of the operations: planning, facilities, staff training, communications, guest services, etc.

In my mind, that's the top action step if museums are serious about delivering results for executive brain skills and–in fact for any area museums consider important such as creativity, the importance of play, science learning, early development, literacy, etc. 

Related Museum Notes Posts

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Now Playing … At the Store

“Look! This is a hiding place,” a 6 year old says pointing to a narrow opening. Two small barefoot boys climb on top of a scale model of a tent and slide down. Four girls join hands, move in a circle, sing and kick their feet. Two girls flop down on the wavy chair and pretend to swim along its curves. A boy drags benches into an alcove and starts telling jokes.

Where is this? The Backyard? The playroom or playground? The museum? No, these children are playing in stores: a fabric store, an outdoor recreation gear store, a clothing store, and a bookstore.

Perhaps as a child, you remember standing inside the hinged mirrors and closing them around you to create your very own infinity box. Did you cruise the shoe department looking for high-heels? Then sling a purse over your shoulder and clomp around? In bookstores did you gallop up and down the long aisles between towering bookshelves? Did you bounce on mattresses? Were the nuts and bolts coins and treasure?

Adults typically view stores as places to do errands and attend daily tasks. They buy groceries, pick-up gardening supplies, take screens for repair, purchase books, and look at furniture. For store owners, managers, and cashiers the store is a commercial setting, designed to display and sell merchandise, answer customer questions, and move them through check-out.

For children, however, stores are natural places to play. Yes, there are some stores like LEGO, Kapla blocks, and American Girl dolls designed for children to play with and hopefully buy toys. On the other hand, as multi-sensory environments full of props and intriguing spaces, stores offer attractive possibilities for play. The spatial cues, fixtures, lighting, and objects that entice adult shoppers are often interpreted differently by children. Furthermore, children are taken along on innumerable shopping trips that involve lots of waiting. Children sit in grocery carts while pushed up and down aisles; they hang around as a parent compares products; and they wait some more while items are scanned and bagged. It’s not surprising that children find play opportunities in stores.

What does this tell us about children’s play?
While found play experiences in stores are, admittedly, short play episodes, they nevertheless possess key qualities of rich, authentic play. We see children claim the space, fixtures, and props and direct their play in stores. With shelves and racks of clothing, these settings surpass the box for costumes and dress-up. Networks of pathways meander and intersect hinting of maps, roadways, rivers, or escape routes. Aisles lead to racks loaded with multi-colored clothing, bins are chock full of giant sponges, and low platforms are stacked with rugs. Enclosed and semi-enclosed spaces are perfect for ducking into and hiding in a quick game of hide-and-seek. Relatively movable fixtures like benches can be dragged and arranged to serve as a stage or an obstacle course. Mirrors punctuating the walls add special effects. Distinctive lighting spotlights the action.

Children play where they find themselves. While stores afford many opportunities to play, they have few, if any, rules about play. Adults are otherwise engaged or have simply not given thought to children playing in the store. Left on their own and inspired by displays, clothing racks, aisles, enclosures, and accumulations of merchandise, children enter new worlds, invent games, escape from imagined bandits, and fashion adventures. Imaginative possibilities open as coiled hoses become snakes, bolts of cloth become mummies, pillows are icebergs, and tents are slides.

The play flows and shifts. A fine game of monster may pick up a story thread suggested by shopping routines, a piece of merchandise, or a chance phrase heard from a shopper. Is this pretend play? Building play? Exploratory play? A musical game? Like much of the best play, it is a mix, quickly shifting from pretending, to making up rules, to large motor exploration that involves crawling under sales tables.

In store play, children come together with other children similarly expected to wait. Playmates are siblings, friends, and, often, new acquaintances. Even in short play episodes, issues about who can play, roles, and rules arise, are hashed out, and resolved. Play is reconfigured with the departure of a child called by a caregiver.

While perhaps not obvious, learning as well as fun is part of these found play experiences in stores. In negotiating play rules and spaces, children use social skills, solve physical problems, interpret spatial cues, and test memory. They incorporate categories of things displayed together into their play. They use vocabulary to name and describe objects; they listen and speak in discussing rules, and are they likely to read an occasional label and price tag.

What does children’s play in stores suggest about places for play in museums?
Unwittingly hospitable to play, store settings offer clues about appealing spaces for play and exploration in museums. It’s not that museums should create more store-like environments or more store exhibits. Rather, museums may do well to look at stores (and other settings) where children play spontaneously to identify qualities that are often missing in spaces planned for play. Features and qualities that are present–and absent–in store settings are needed to support children in directing play, using their imaginations, engaging in open-ended activities, and problem solving. 

Children take charge. A largely unscripted environment is a powerful companion for fashioning worlds and concocting adventures. As children shape experiences by and for themselves, their ideas, motivation, and competence are apparent. They are masterful at taking advantage of features such as height, movability, form, texture, and color to advance and extend their play.

Too much adult-driven design interferes with children discovering ways to rearrange, recombine, and repurpose elements for their exploration and amusement. The flexibility and movability of shelves, rolling racks, carts, and benches that facilitate changing displays also allow children to experiment with forms and modify spaces in meaningful ways–sometimes working together to manage bigger and bulkier items.

Imaginations at play. When a rack of clothes becomes a spaceship and the narrow space between two hanging jackets becomes an arrow slit in a castle, we know children’s imaginations are alive and lively. Simple, suggestive forms invite multiple interpretations and reflect many opportunities in contrast to the overly-defined forms typical of many designed play environments. Literal forms like trees, castles, and houses dictate the meaning of a form, substituting a dominant idea for yet-to-be-discovered possibilities.

Novelty unleashes imaginations as does juxtaposition and complexity. Children’s imaginations are inspired by unfamiliar objects and materials, enormous quantities, and unusual combinations of objects typical of stores. Hundreds of light fixtures, towering racks of jewelry, yards of chain, and an ocean of mattresses spark fresh ideas compared to several of one thing or almost anything at home.

Engaging in open-ended activities. In play, children are unlikely to give themselves a defined outcome, seek rules from adults, or give themselves a test. Right answers are virtually irrelevant in most types of play. Children have ideas that they are interested in exploring and play suits their purposes. Play confers a kind of freedom to experiment. In a setting like a store that is unconcerned with (and unintended for) children’s play, children follow and negotiate their interests and ideas.

The “what if” possibilities of store shelves bursting with books, pegboards loaded with whisks, a wall of paint samples, and tables with bolts of fabric are unlimited. And so are any spaces that are rich with information about the world, open to changing and modifying through play, and limited by few rules.

Perhaps this reflection suggests an opportunity beyond observing play and play environments. Less than obvious settings and everyday places are sources of useful information, lessons, and insights on delivering services, experiences, environments, and interactions to museum visitors and communities. What places are truly welcoming? Where do people feel in control? Where is customer service excellent? Where does inclusion and access feel authentic? Where are barriers to participation low? In what settings are processes efficient, warm, and personal? How can we extend our curiosity and awareness about what we care about that is done well and differently by others?

Related Museum Notes Posts

Friday, October 30, 2015

Filling Museums With Words and Language

The Heart's Map at Minnesota Children's Museum

Everyday words and language pour, spill, fly, flow, fill, infuse, inhabit, and animate museums. They are spoken, written, thought, imagined, gestured, recorded, remembered, and signed in interactions and on-line in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic and the countless other languages of our communities.

Text Rain (Utterback)
Words name and describe objects, paintings, and phenomena. They help express how artwork makes us feel and forge connections with past experiences we remember. Narratives are often embedded in exhibits, sometimes explicitly as a part of framing the experience and sometimes loosely connecting experiences and ideas. Visitors read and hear the voices of inventors, settlers, writers, farmers, soldiers, immigrants, artists, and neighbors in famous speeches, newspaper headlines, founding documents, and letters. Museum professionals write texts and labels, catalogs, and scripts for films. Text Rain falls and memorable quotes punctuate museum walls. Using words and images, museums tell their stories to supporters, friends, funders, and their communities.

Words and language are ubiquitous. They welcome, guide, invite, instruct, and inspire children, youth, and adults in museum exhibits, programs, performances, tours, demonstrations, events, catalogs, services, and initiatives. Often, however, they do so incidentally rather than intentionally. But well beyond just getting visitors to read more text (or better written text) or listen to stories, museums can deliberately and actively engage visitors in acts of reading and writing, in thinking and making connections, and in deepening enjoyment.

Is encouraging museums to explore and develop opportunities that emphasize words and language inviting them to go off mission? Adding more to their plates? Becoming more like schools? I think not. In fact, words and language provide an impressive and promising set of opportunities, activities, and experiences capable of assisting museums in accomplishing their missions and goals.

The world of words and language is vast and largely underexplored in museums. This world encompasses basic tools for communication and expression; it is the driver of meaning and understanding; and it provides pleasure. Words and language can also be understood in broader, more flexible concepts and as metaphor. In Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language, elements (“Light on two sides”) can be combined to shape spaces to support routines, provide comfort, and bring people together. The 100 Languages of Children grounded in the Reggio pedagogy represents symbolic systems for expression, exploring relations, inventing, and learning.

Words and language help illuminate ideas, deepen a visitor’s understanding, broaden a view of the world, and increase a museum’s impact in many ways and scales.

Placing words and language at the heart of the museum. Some museums like historic homes of authors or The Newseum have words and language at their core as do museums of language.
• Treehouse Museum, Ogden UT focuses on family literacy, children’s literature and the arts and humanities. The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art is dedicated to inspiring a love of art and reading through picture books. At Bookworm Gardens stories remembered and imagined are found on 8 acres of woods, fields, and sunny glades. 

Growing 21st century learners. Three of the 7 IMLS Learning and Innovation Skills, Communication, Visual Literacy, and Basic Literacy, deal directly with words and language. Many museum incorporate these skills in their exhibits and programs. 
• Pre-literacy and early literacy skills are the focus of Minnesota Children’s Museum’s Storyland, Mississippi Children’s Museum’s Literacy Garden, and Louisiana Children’s Museum’s Talk & Play Center. In these settings, parents and caregivers are encouraged to talk with and think about the language they use with their children and its role in cultivating literacy. 
• Stepping Stones Museum for Children’s ELLI Lab School is a comprehensive, high quality language and literacy development preschool program for all children and their families
• Creative writing is part of Mia’s Creativity Academy.

Theodore Roosevelt 2 by Carrie Roy
Layering and thickening experiences with the power of words and language to intrigue, engage, and provoke thinking. Pairing words and images in unusual and beautiful ways can tap into visitor’s curiosity and interests as well as make complex information accessible.  
• Data artist Carrie Roy’s work distills literary works, letters, and other groupings of texts down to key concepts or vocabulary and explores them through art. Her Theodore Roosevelt 2 layers words and images based on a textual analysis of Roosevelt’s book to reveal regionally-related word choices.
• In her blog, Marianna Adams describes how the concept of collaborative writing inspired by Japanese renga poetry served as both an activity and embedded performance assessment. Exploring the Gardner Museum galleries, a group substituted verses for objects, spaces, or views using a set of words–rising, distant, enclosed, fold, release. The experience produced beautiful versions that evoked the spirit of Mrs. Gardner and data sources helpful in understanding the connections visitors make with the museum.

Deepening understanding of art, artifacts, current issues. Language used in unexpected ways and places can capture and concentrate visitor’s attention.
• The Getty invited visitors to write a Haiku poem about a selected drawing that used negative space. With multiple examples from the curator who had used Haiku, an un-rhymed three-line poem, for label copy, visitors composed Haiku of 17 syllables in lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables each.
• The Language of Conservation introduced poetry into the Audubon Zoo landscape in New Orleans (as well as in zoos in Milwaukee, Chicago, Little Rock, and Jacksonville) through a partnership of Poets House and the New Orleans Public Library. Lines like, “There is pleasure in these pathless woods” help deepen public awareness and appreciation of environmental issues through poetry.
• Prompts like “listen to an object speak" can generate attention, focus, and surprise while “Describe the place in which this diorama is set” can focus observation. Both are an opportunity to write.

Finding the museum’s voice. Language in its many forms is the voice of the museum about its mission, its audience, and with its community.
• Years ago a poet and a paper artist worked with children at Minnesota Children’s Museum to create The Heart’s Map. “I Am from Love” greets visitors as they enter the museum’s lobby and speaks powerfully to and about the children the museum serves and celebrates.
“I am from leaving someone. I am from coming to America and knowing nothing, everything. I am from Hmong and German and Senegalese.

• NEMA’s 2015 conference theme, The Language of Museums also points to the importance of recognizing the power of words and language in all aspects of a museum’s work.

Related Museum Notes Posts 
Learning + Literacy
Literacy At Play
Playing with...Words

Friday, October 16, 2015

Exploration & Play ... Play & Exploration

A rework of a previous Museum Notes post, Not Just About Play, the following revisits connections between play and learning. We may know that learning occurs through play, but keeping the nature of this connection in mind in planning experiences is challenging. Play like learning is rarely present in an isolated pure form. Learning and play often blend and blur in the messing around, testing, trying, and fun at exhibit activities of all kinds across virtually all museums. While this might not meet the fine print of the exhibit objectives that have been set, the objectives can’t be met at all without some playful meanders that occur. 

"They're all triplets."
“How do we make a window for the giraffe?” a 4-year old girl asked her 8-year old friend as she held up a small stuffed animal. This was part of an extended building sequence and conversation between 2 girls at Scaling Shapes in Math Moves! at the Museum of Science, Boston. Scaling Shapes is about doubling the size of an object in three dimensions, height, length, and width. The exhibit has a large work surface with a one-inch grid, loose one-inch cubes, and several block structures of assembled cubes. A monitor shows a structure being enlarged by doubling all three dimensions.
Their exploration began with one girl asking the other, “Do you want to build a house?” They then swept all the cubes to one side and started building a house for their three stuffed animals, a giraffe, a puppy, and a bear. As they built, they talked about what they were building, and who their animals were. “They’re all triplets,” one said. “They’re watching TV,” added the other. “Where should we put him?” the older girl asked holding up the giraffe. “Let me deal with that!” the younger one replied, grabbing the animal from her. The activity continued, sometimes with more building and problem solving and some times with more conversation and wondering, “How do we make a window for the giraffe?”

Similar activity sequences occur frequently in children’s museums, science centers and museums and probably in every type of museum. Content specialists, advisors, exhibit developers and designers may find this disappointing and feel exhibits are being misused. And for good reason. They have created exhibit experiences to carry particular exhibit messages and concepts and have selected materials, media, and objects to support visitors in making these discoveries. As the activity above suggests, it may not happen, happen right away, or happen in the way the exhibit team has imagined or intended.

That moment of wondering, “How do we make a window for the giraffe?” reveals something about what is happening and might happen at an exhibit. The question involves working with the height and length of the wall; the relationship between the giraffe’s height and the window opening; spanning the window opening; and considering alternative scenarios for the house. This is where the focused exploration exhibit developers hope will occur is most likely to kick in: when exploration has yielded information about objects and what they can or can’t do.

Exploration and Play. Play and Exploration.
Planned for or not, play and exploration are an active, present, and inevitable part of the museum experience for children as well as adults. The problem solving, critical thinking, and planned discovery intended in exhibits require time and opportunity to explore, interact with, develop a familiarity with, and work with an understanding of the materials, objects, tools, topic, and even the social and physical context of the museum.

"What can this do?"
We can look to play for some insights about what often happens at exhibits and, for that matter, in many other settings. What we think of broadly as children’s play with objects and materials has two distinct aspects proposed by Corinne Hutt in 1970. In her play taxonomy, also referred to by Rennie and McClafferty (2002), she identifies epistemic behavior, or exploration, and ludic behavior, or self-amusement, along with games with rules.  

In exploration, a child picks up a ball, block, stick, piece of string, sock, or stone, and begins to investigate it. In eyeing, touching, lifting, squeezing, shaking, pounding, throwing, banging, dropping, rolling, squeezing, stepping on, and for the youngest, mouthing and gumming, the child gathers information about the object’s basic properties. Implicit in the child’s mind during this investigation appears to be: "What can this object do?" Hutt also suggests that exploratory–epistemic–behavior may be further divided into three kinds of activities. In investigation a child uses her senses to gather information. In problem solving she focuses on finding a solution or doing a puzzle. In productive activity she is intent on making changes to the material and–or–acquiring skills.  
"What can I do with this object?"

Play, or ludic behavior, relies on the child having sufficient information about the object to make it familiar and to be comfortable in shifting to amusement, or ludic behavior. Here the implicit question is, “What can I do with this object?” In this realm, Hutt says, children draw on the knowledge gathered about the object and skills acquired in using it to play symbolically with it. A rope becomes a snake; a stick is light sword; a stone is a magic egg; a sock fits over the hand and is a cat puppet; and a pile of blocks are stacked to be a house with a window for a giraffe. A story unfolds. Pretense is often involved.

Through play–informed by the initial exploration–a child gathers and consolidates additional information to develop greater familiarity, knowledge, and understanding about the object, gadget, or material and to acquire greater skill in using it. This is not a predictable, linear process, however. In fact, exploratory behaviors can alternate quickly or blend with play. Occasionally, the accidental discovery of a novel feature discovered through play can generate new data and prompt a new round of exploration. This, however, is incidental rather than a learner’s goal for an activity.

A new feature calls for another round of exploration
The need to explore to develop familiarity with something does not disappear with childhood. Furthermore, it is not limited to toys, loose parts, found objects, or play. While adults bring more information to each encounter, the material (and even social) world is not static enough to remain familiar for very long. When a new gadget or piece of equipment enters our life or we walk up to the rocket launcher at a science center, we are like children. We take time to investigate it. We adjust our grip, test how much effort is needed, look and listen for cues about how this operates, and try different movements before wholeheartedly committing to its use. In fact, Rennie and McClafferty suggest a paraphrase of Hutt’s two questions: “What can this exhibit do?” and “What can I do with this exhibit?”

Museums, Exhibits and Time
In developing and designing museum experiences, most of us, most of the time, do so as if exploration, play, and planned discovery are one and the same for accomplishing our objectives. They are not. In fact, the distinctions among them are both important and often relevant to the objectives museums have for learners in an exhibit or program.

When a learner encounters objects, gadgets, or materials at a maker table, math exhibit, harmonograph, or building platform, exploration usually begins. It is likely to be relatively brief if there is some previous experience and familiarity with what is being explored. With new objects or novel combinations of materials, however, investigation is likely to be both longer and more necessary for gathering information. Perhaps then, the learner can start finding solutions to a problem, make changes to a material, and develop skills.

But other factors are also operating. Museums are not the highly familiar, everyday environments of the kitchen, car, grocery store, or coffee shop. They are, in fact, an intentionally constructed mix of familiar, unfamiliar, and often rare objects, materials, and mechanisms, presented in engaging, intriguing, and often surprising ways. Because variety, novelty, and something out of the ordinary typify museums and their exhibits, it’s reasonable to expect that many visitors will need time to become oriented to, inspect, get to know, and take in a museum and its exhibits. A certain level of exploration, or epistemic behavior, is likely for children and adults to become familiar or reacquainted with an exhibit.

A tendency to play, amuse, or imagine may also arrive unexpectedly. Three small stuffed animals may show up at the Scaling Shapes exhibit in the pockets of 2 girls. The face of a clown may be playfully imagined as the target of the rocket launcher. Adding a silly spin or a playful punch to the floating ball on the Bernoulli Blower may produce new effects, launching another round of testing.
At many exhibits, exploration is likely to focus on what Hutt calls productive activity that is concerned with changing the material, mechanism, or gadget or the user’s skill in using them. Changing a material may involve altering it by tearing, folding, cutting, applying pressure, or dissolving; changing another material by cutting, pounding, piercing, or illuminating it; or making something with it by attaching, assembling, connecting, or sewing it. Combinations of these processes are likely to expand, interrupt, or redirect the investigation.

Another aspect of productive activity is developing a skill in using or working with a material, object, or tool, or becoming more precise in using that skill. Through extended use, multiple tries at one’s own pace, and increased familiarity, the explorer acquires skills and develops competence. With time and opportunity, she will engage in behaviors, actions, and sequences that lead to what exhibit planners (teachers, educators, parents) hope she and others will learn, for instance, solving specific problems like doubling the size of an object in three dimensions in the Scaling Shapes activity.  

Lessons and Starting Points
Exploration, play, and productive behavior contain many of the very elements an exhibit intentionally brings together in order to meet its specific objectives, offering useful insights and strategies for planning exhibit experiences for children and adults. While related to one another, they serve distinct purposes for the learner. Through exploration that often informs–and is informed by–play, children and adults develop a familiarity with the materials, objects, tools, topics, and context. As exploration and play alternate, merge, and combine, they nevertheless provide the learner with skill in using the materials and a degree of preparation and confidence that is valuable in pursuing and accomplishing objectives.

Less mindful of an exhibit's objectives, the explorer-player-learner’s tendency to explore and play follows his own objectives. This too offers insights and opportunities into additional ways exhibits might accomplish their objectives by:  
  • Recognizing the learner as someone inclined to explore, play, and pursue her own objectives;
  • Providing for–even welcoming–the mix of exploration (investigation, productive activity and problem solving) and play that is inevitable;
  • Channeling, but not forcing, these activities towards the exhibit's objectives;
  • Providing for these activities in exhibit design, material selection, layout, and images;  
  • Incorporating strategies that prolong engagement to provide the time necessary to both explore and play. 
Related Museum Notes Posts

Monday, October 5, 2015

Curiosity Is at the Top of My List

(Borealis Press)

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”  – ALBERT EINSTEIN

I’m putting curiosity at the top of my list. What list? A list with critical aspects of learning, 21st century skills, models, standards, and threads for learning. Creativity, critical thinking, imagination, and problem solving often show up on these lists. It’s not that these skills and traits aren’t important, but I’m not sure creativity, for example, would have such a high profile if it weren’t for curiosity.

Considered both a trait and a disposition, curiosity is a natural, active interest in the world that we see everyday in children and adults. It is an attitude of wondering, an urge to find out more, a way of reducing uncertainty, and a means of getting at more complex or inaccessible aspects of the world. Expressed as watching, asking questions, predicting, taking things apart, and pointing, curiosity is a strength during childhood when it transforms a child’s world from new and unknown to familiar and predictable. According to Susan Engel, author of The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood, it is “…the lynch pin of intellectual achievement.” 

Curiosity unfolds when something in our surroundings sparks curiosity. A feeling of surprise or perplexity at some ambiguity captures our interest and sets in motion actions to find out more. We observe, explore through touch, smell, listening; we try to remember something that relates. This action leads to learning simple as well as more complex ideas and concepts.
Huntington Museum and Gardens (Pasadena, CA)
(Photo credit: Vergeront)

Curious From the Start
From birth, babies have an urge to understand what is happening in their immediate surroundings and the effect they can have on it. The world captures a baby’s attention with countless invitations to want to know and know more. Will someone come if I cry? What’s inside the box? How can I reach the ball? They watch people, objects, and events to try and explain what is not immediately apparent, what they can’t determine from interactions alone, or what explains the unexpected. Even before babies can talk or ask questions, they want to know what’s going on and enlist others in helping them find out. They point to indicate interest, curiosity, and invite others to wonder with them. Adults and older children respond with smiles, assistance, answers, or bringing the baby and object closer for better observation.

The nature of children’s curiosity and questions changes with age. Their earliest questions generally have to do with getting new information–What’s that? What does it do? In pointing to or asking about a strange object or the unusual behavior of a pet, a child tries to find out more about what is not immediately apparent. These questions seek clarification of what’s happening, fill out knowledge about a topic, and probe for deeper levels of understanding. They get at inaccessible information, like motives; at the unseeable, like germs; and the unknown, like God. Questions build on questions and answers connect with answers to construct a firmer foundation of knowledge.

At an early age, children are persistent about getting their questions answered. A child might ask a string of questions. Engel notes that children are capable of asking 10 questions in a row to satisfy their curiosity. She cites a study by Tizard and Hughes (1984) in which children 3 and 4- years of age asked an average of 26 questions per hour at home.

Young children are generally curious, but some are more curious than others. All 3-year olds ask more questions than 7-year olds, Engel notes. But all 3-year olds do not ask questions at the same rate and persistence. Individual differences may be apparent in a child’s general attitude of inquisitiveness or as a specific interest. Some children enjoy an intense interest in vehicles, sports teams, dinosaurs, or bugs. Cultural differences and family patterns also affect a child’s curiosity by encouraging or discouraging questions and exploration.

With age, curiosity becomes more social, shifting from a search for physical information to social-cultural knowledge. Interest is in the social layer of life, how people do something and what other people–family, classmates, neighbors–are like. No longer relying solely on adults for answers and information, children can satisfy their curiosity via one another. They explore and think together, pooling knowledge, scaffolding skills, and solving problems together.

Another remarkable change in curiosity occurs with age. Curiosity is alive and well early in life and peaks around 5 years of age when the urge to find out lessens.

Sparking Curiosity
City Museum (St Louis)
(Photo credit: Vergeront)
Children’s curiosity flourishes in intriguing environments with materials that attract steady attention and topics that engage interests. The setting that fascinates the 2 year old–the cupboard, a pile of dirt, the highchair–is unlikely to be equally fascinating to 5 or 10 year olds. But qualities that intrigue the toddler attract the older child and teen–novelty, ambiguity, complexity, surprise, and suspense. High places with extraordinary views, a leafy enclosure for hiding, a terrarium alive with critters, or something exotic engage and invite exploration and inquiry. Variations in patterns, unpredictable phenomena, hidden objects, or the suspense of what’s next mystify children and compel them to find answers. Drawn by complexity and ambiguity, children attend to novelty when something appeals to them.

Wondering, inquiring, and wanting to know more occur not simply because a child is intrinsically curious or the environment is fascinating. A child’s curiosity is strongly related to the adults surrounding her. Children look to them for clues about how to interact with the world, respond to objects and events, and interpret what they witness. When these adults display curiosity, smile and encourage the child, give informative answers, show interest, ask their own questions, and give permission to explore, children notice. Adult facial expressions and responses to children’s curiosity show them they think their ideas, experiments, questions–and they– are important.

These signals further fuel curiosity. When children ask questions and get them answered, they not only have answers, but they also develop a disposition to ask questions and actively seek answers from others. And they are likely to keep asking questions. Children care about the answers they get to their questions.

Curiosity Diminished
Just as curiosity fluctuates by age, it fluctuates from setting to setting. Intriguing environments, objects and materials, and responsive adults continue to spark curiosity after children start school, but they are present less. In the setting where children spend a significant amount of time–school–triggers for curiosity are sparse. The drop in children’s curiosity from the preschool years to kindergarten is sharp.

Paradoxically, the very place we dedicate to children’s learning does not cultivate it. Curiosity may accompany children to school, but it does not flourish there. Other responsibilities and objectives assume higher priority; mastery of a set of skills in the classroom is valued over expressions of curiosity; completing a worksheet about wasps trumps exploring a wasp’s nest.

Just as children notice when adults smile and encourage them to explore, they also notice when adults smile and encourage but do not invite them to explore–as Engel found among many teachers in her studies. Children are expressing curiosity in the classroom about phenomena, materials, activities, other students and the teacher. Teachers, however, deflect questions and curtail exploration in trying to keep everyone on task and accomplish curriculum objectives. In fact, in the classrooms Engel has studied, teachers rather than children ask the questions. Typically, students’ expressions of inquiry are channeled into a discussion of the topic at hand. And when children do pursue their curiosity in the classroom, these episodes are relatively short.

Extending Curiosity’s Range
Because curiosity triggers the best learning, it’s important to figure out how to extend it in age and across settings. Engel notes that at about 3 years children seem to either cultivate curiosity and a habit of finding out, or they don’t. She draws on research to provide examples of how schools can nurture open-ended curiosity. Teachers can be alert to children’s cues of what interests them, invite their questions, and encourage them to follow their ideas and questions. Curriculum, activities, and discussion can incorporate suspense and surprise, provide access to fascinating objects and materials, make room for extended lines of inquiry, and allow children to think together.

Kentucky Science Center (Louisville)
(Photo credit: Vergeront)
In this area, museums, libraries, and out-of-school programs have a prime opportunity, if not an actual responsibility. They burst with information, are unbound by curriculum and tests, and place learners at the center. In fact, museum collections are a great expression of curiosity.

With objects and through design, museums create fascinating environments and experiences that can prompt questions, provoke ideas, and spark explorations. In these settings a wider array of adults–museum educators, docents, play guides, and librarians–can model ways of finding out. This is especially important in influencing older children and children with less of a disposition to be curious who tend to be more susceptible to adult feedback. Extending episodes of curiosity also reinforces museums’ interest in increasing dwell time and prolonging active engagement. Museums’ professional development workshops for teachers can highlight practices that cultivate curiosity, stimulate investigation, model ways to find out, and make connections.

We think we value curiosity. Unintentionally, however, we undervalue it because it is obvious or so very basic and we are distracted by showier qualities such as intelligence and creativity. We use Leonardo da Vinci and physicist Richard Feynman as paragons of creative genius. Feeding their creativity, however, was relentless curiosity. There will not be as much creative thinking or remarkable imagination to celebrate or to change the world if we don’t assure curiosity has a robust and persistent presence throughout children’s and adults’ lives.

Curiosity–the "whys" that are inside of us–matters. A gateway to other skills, dispositions, and accomplishments, curiosity is critical across the lifespan because as we follow our curiosity, we encounter all sorts of valuable moments and connections. The pleasure of finding out and then wanting to find out more goes at the top of my list.

“Fall in love with some activity, and do it! Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. Don’t think about what you want to be, but what you want to do.”  – Richard Feynman

Related Resources 
• Engel, Susan. The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood. (2015). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
• Grazer, Brian and Fishman, C. A Curious Mind. (2015). New York: Simon & Shuster.
• Gower, Reid. (Uploaded 2011) The Feynman Series – Curiosity. 
Hollett, R. (6.2014). The Importance of Curiosity: Lessons from Richard Feynman 
• Perry, Deborah L. (2013). What Makes Learning Fun? Principles for the Design of Intrinsically Motivating Museum Exhibits. Lanham, MD: Alta Mira Press.