Wednesday, October 20, 2021

I Have a Problem with Failure

Jeanne Vergeront 
Vergeront Museum Planning 

I have a problem with failure. Let me be more specific about that. I have a problem with how we celebrate failure, especially for children. 

How many times have you heard, or said yourself: children learn from failure, failure is good for children. We say, fail forward with such certainty and confidence that we believe it. How do we know children learn from failure? Or that it’s good for them? 

Yes, failure is a part of life. Mistakes are inevitable. It’s valuable for children to be able to deal with setbacks. Distress or frustration tolerance is an important life skill to master. And fostering protective factors and resilience has life-long benefits. Is celebrating failure the way to accomplish all that? 

Children, as novices in this world, take on many new things every single day: forming words, riding a bike, making friends, learning to read, helping around the house, understanding the physical world. But block towers crash. Estimates are off. A cherished toy is left on the plane. It’s what happens. Children get hurt and they will experience disappointment. Some setbacks are difficult to observe. 

When there is so much to marvel at in children’s urge to play, their eagerness to try so many things, and their delight in their accomplishments, why are we so eager to celebrate their failures? Remarkably, we even ask them to enjoy their failures.  

Our assumptions about children and failure suggest that we underestimate them and their capabilities. When we see failure as a tool for teaching competence, we are not recognizing that even very young children are already competent learners. They are curious and resourceful. They are already exploring, experimenting, learning, and they are ready to move on to something new. We also underestimate children’s capabilities to follow their interests, assess their capabilities, meet challenges, and ask for help when we make their world too narrow, safe, and predictable. Celebrating failure is, unfortunately, becoming an antidote to relentless perfectionism in the lives of too many children. 

I am puzzled about why we are so certain that how we, as adults, view failure would be the same as a child’s experience of failure. I suspect our adult lens on children’s experiences is clouding our perspective. We confidently assume that we know what’s going on for the child when they climb a tree and can’t get down, spill milk, forget to do their homework, or hurt a friend’s feelings. 

We might consider what the possibility of trying something risky, stretching to meet a challenge, learning something new, or accomplishing a hard task feels like to a child. Fascination with what might happen is powerful; a child wonders what will happen if they try this, then what will happen, and then what will happen next? When things didn’t go as we think they should, we assume failure. The child, however, finds new information, a better idea, something else to try, and moves on. Where we see failure, a child finds an opportunity to figure out how a lid snaps closed, how to slow down a bike, how to make-up with a friend, or build a sturdier fort. 

Before labelling something as a failure, we should consider what’s happening for the child. For instance, what does a child experience as a setback? And what does that mean to them? Especially for young children, an adult idea of success or failure is irrelevant. Children don’t know about failure until we teach them about it, often with sharp words, a look of disappointment, or a rush to fix everything. In play, children often incorporate setbacks into a play narrative, a new construction, or the rules of a game. When a child plays, tinkers, or putters, they don’t have a checklist or time frame as adults do in many areas of child development and education. “Shares with a friend.” CHECK. “Carries a bucket of sand without spilling.” CHECK. 

Championing failure implies that we view life as a test. For children, especially younger children, life is practice, not a constant, on-going set of tasks and tests. By celebrating failure, we are judging all the time, placing everyday happenings on a game field of win-lose, success-failure, right-wrong. Is it really helpful to label an effort a failure and add a dose of shame or embarrassment to how a child understands what happened? Lost a mitten? Dropped something down the drain; knocked over the glass vase, didn’t make the team? 

What else are we saying by celebrating failure? There's a message that we value failure over persistence or having new ideas. That adults’ naming failure takes precedence over children understanding and incorporating what they’ve learned, or finding new ways to solve their problems. Ironically, by calling out failure we might just be stigmatizing rather than celebrating it. 

True failure does exist and should not be trivialized. We don’t, however, need to celebrate failure in order to accept that life and learning are seamless ways of wondering, exploring, finding out, and growing. Richard Feynman, 1965 Nobel Prize Winner in Physics reminds us: 

    Being wrong is not a bad thing like they teach you in school. 
It is an opportunity to learn something. 
There are no mistakes, only lessons. 
Growth is a process of trial and error. 

We might fail less and celebrate accomplishments more if we were to create physical and social-emotional environments and experiences for children in museums, classrooms, playgrounds, backyards, and homes that: 
  • Value persistence and having ideas 
  • Highlight open-ended materials and activities 
  • Encourage focus and absorption 
  • Make room for children to choose and follow their choices 
  • Manage expectations and patience 
  • Invite conversation about ideas and what’s happening 
  • Trust children to direct their play, exploration, and learning 
  • Celebrate accomplishments, small and large 
  • Let play happen; in play, outcomes are undefined, consequences are minimal 

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Seeing Ourselves as Learners

Jeanne Vergeront 
Vergeront Museum Planning 

Photo Credit: Anagram Bookshop

Fresh from a recent 2-hour Zoom with my Thursday morning thinking group, I wondered what I would do without them and, for that matter, without my Wednesday afternoon talk group. For years these lively, meandering conversations have excited my mind, introduced me to new ideas, and dislodged me from some brittle certainties. They have sharpened my thinking for some Museum Notes posts. To be honest, these rich collegial conversations (along with videos of babies and dogs) have recharged and delighted me over these pandemic years. 

So, when I watched Paul Orselli’s FAQ interview with Dr. Preeti Gupta and Dr. Lynn Tran on professional learning’s role in rebuilding the museum field, my mind took off to think about museum staff and volunteers as learners. 

Learning happens everywhere, all the time and over time. All of us, from all walks of life, throughout our lives, learn in everyday moments, casually, in virtually every setting we are in. We learn at home, work, school; on-line, in the garden and on walks; when we talk to neighbors over the fence or travel the world. We are constantly adding to, tinkering with, or revising our thinking and learning. That’s just the way it is in this world and it's just the way we are as humans. 

Photo: Portland Children's Museum
We are so wired to learn from birth that we almost have to try to not learn. Still, we do have to work to continue learning in meaningful, relevant ways to stay abreast with our dynamic world and changes in our jobs, museums, communities, and ourselves. We encounter new technologies, theories, perspectives, relationships, vocabulary, health research, etc. all the time. 

How do we prepare ourselves as individuals and as professionals for these changes? How do we keep up with, be invigorated by, and enjoy the changes we encounter? Discover and explore new ideas? I can’t think of another way than to grow ourselves as active, engaged learners, the kind of learners we hope our visitors are. 

Of course, we all grow somewhat as museum learners, but I am certain we could grow more as self-directed, supported learners if we were more intentional and viewed our learning more broadly. I have found myself thinking about the following questions. 

• How do we square our explicit museum commitment to advance learning without also committing to being active, intentional learners ourselves? 
• What limits supporting vibrant learning communities among colleagues? 
• How can we engage and support learners in a vibrant, on-going museum learning community? 
• Why not get started right now? 

How do we square our explicit museum commitment to advance learning without also committing to being active, intentional learners ourselves? This is a critical question to address honestly. Museums liberally sprinkle their visions, missions, and values with learning; life-long learning; education and educational. Learning is at the heart of other ideas: expanding public knowledge, an ever-deeper understanding, or engage, educate, and enlighten. Museums identify as places of informal learning and as part of the learning ecosystem. They focus on family learning, early learning, and experiential learning. Websites highlight how museums accomplish their learning interests—educational outreach, field trips, teaching strategies, innovative learning experiences, and PD workshops for teachers. Museums often talk about co-constructing experiences with visitors, but less so about co-constructing knowledge among colleagues. 

Being true to museums’ roles and responsibilities means seeing ourselves as learners, infusing our work with an energy around our learning as well as visitors’. It means working in a state of curiosity, questions, ideas and making meaning together. This is a responsibility of both the organization and its staff and volunteers. 

What limits supporting vibrant learning communities among colleagues? Time, always scarce, is inevitably the big hurdle in growing a robust learning community among colleagues. We are busy, often carrying large workloads which hardly allows enough time to cover everything; schedules vary. Unfortunately, time is also critical for growing a community of learners. It is necessary for reading, reflecting, and discussing articles, studies, and ideas; for exploring complex issues in a meaningful way; for following ideas and integrating practices into the museum’s work; for tracking impact; and, for building trust. Professional growth during brown bag lunches simply doesn’t communicate that the activity is valued as much as saving time is. 

Funding is also critical to staff learning being a priority. Realistically, professional growth isn’t likely to reduce costs. More likely it will add costs and compete for time with demands of job responsibilities. Fortunately, other benefits accrue: improved staff satisfaction, innovative strategies, greater collegiality and long-time friendships; and increased capacity and impact. 
Mini-YMEC reunion at ASTC:
Paul Richard & Paul Tatter

How we see ourselves as thinkers and learners plays out here as well. While we come into our positions with expertise and skill, we may not question 5 or 10 years later how sharp our skills are. When confident in our expertise and experience in our area, we may not challenge assumptions, consider new scholarship, or try new practices. So busy doing, preparing, and moving to the next set of deadlines, we assume our work has a beginning and end rather than fits into repeating cycles which invite reflection and learning. 

Responsibility for professional growth may receive inadequate attention in a museum, as an afterthought, or tucked into “other duties as assigned.” A patchwork of responsibilities in HR, department budgets, or director’s choice means required training tops the list and annual conferences are automatically approved. Midyear budget trimming takes a bite out of it. 

A robust professional growth and development program is not an item on a checklist, but an expression of a museum’s values, its commitment to its people, a belief in its impact, and its investment in its future. It takes time, resources, collaboration, and imagination. 

How can we engage and support museum learners in a vibrant, on-going museum learning community? Conjure up the most powerful professional learning experience you’ve ever had, something that really inspired you, changed your perspective, or energized you to do something differently. Was it discovering a new practice? A deeper understanding of a familiar concept? Glimpsing how to engage more effectively with visitors? And what about it was so valuable? Navigating diverse perspectives? Extended time with colleagues? Time to consider ideas critically? Moving at your own pace? 

As informal learning settings, museums start with an advantage in creating learning experiences that are participatory, learner-directed, offer choice, and reflect an understanding of adult learners. Then, museums limit themselves to a few formats like trainings and conferences to deliver targeted professional content. This contrasts with museums encouraging staff to shape experiences that reflect their own learning interests. 

These interests vary widely across any museum. Staff may be brand new or long serving; have a museum background or not; have practical or philosophical inclinations; be drawn to local or national issues. Still, everyone deserves access to professional learning and growth opportunities that suit them. The following examples (many of which are, unfortunately, no longer active) illustrate just how wide-open learning opportunities can be, opportunities where museum learners adapt formats, play with group size, and modify along the way. 

Thinking Groups, self-forming groups of practitioners, are connected by an interest such as facilitation, design thinking, assessment and documentation, early years, or cultural competency. Thinking groups are flexible. Small or large, they may be contained within a museum or reach across museums, link with academic or other settings. Familiar in museums as communities of practice (CoP), members get together regularly around a shared concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better together. 

Thinking—or working—groups may be formed to address museum as well as field-wide needs such as regional support networks, leadership development; and exhibit resources. Thirty years after two groups of children’s museums formed YMEC (Youth Museum Exhibit Collaborative) and MC2 exhibit collaboratives (Midwest Children’s Museum Collaborative), members still talk about how much they grew professionally through their involvement, sharing with others, and solving problems together. 

Extended Inquiry is not just for evaluators and researchers, not just for scientists, and not just for grants. Rather, on-going inquiry can be carried out with colleagues at a museum and in other places with shared interests. Do you have a chewy question? Most everyone does—about their practice, learning, observation, the power of objects that can be explored through various approaches. Team-based Inquiry and collaborative action research are two just examples of processes. 

Years ago, I facilitated several groups of K-12 teachers engaged in year-long action research projects. These teachers spent the school year questioning, observing, introducing new strategies, reflecting, and changing their practice in areas of importance to them. They were invigorated by formulating research questions that mattered to them, critiquing their own classroom practice in order to change it, and thinking with colleagues. 

Small group reflection in Reggio 2013
Study Tours, focused group-learning experiences, combine travel with an extended investigation of an approach, set of practices, or other settings. A 2013 museum study tour allowed 52 participants on 9 museum teams along with partners from research, higher ed, design, and early childhood to participate in an 8-day study tour of the municipal schools of Reggio Emilia (Italy). With daily presentations by early childhood specialists, educators and studio teachers, visits to the infant-toddler centers and preschools, a tour of the Documentation and Educational 

Research Center, and facilitated reflections, the study tour allowed extended amounts of time for exploring and reflecting which is typically absent from professional learning experiences. Study tours can involve less time and money while maintaining the benefits of exploring other settings with group visits to arts organizations, libraries and nature centers, or behind-the-scene tours of museums. 

• Museums have book groups for their members (; why not for staff? Reading groups can take many forms: be small or large; sample topics or deep dive into a subject; be in-person or virtual; include one or multiple departments or museums; be facilitated or open-discussion. What they have in common is a shared experience with varied perspectives, new research, content connections; and time for lively discussion. 

In the mid 1990’s ASTC fielded an NEH-funded project for staff in museums in 3 areas, Boston, Twin Cities, and the Bay Area to read a number of classic books paired with science exhibits. Books included Plato’s Meno, Swift’s Gulliver's Travels, Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Keller’s A Feeling for the Organism. Discussions were facilitated in seminars by St John’s College tutors including Tom Simpson. A participant in the project, I found the readings and discussions both strenuous and invigorating. This project stands out as rich and multi-layered, an impressive invitation to learn together. 

What many, if not most, of these professional growth opportunities have in common is that personal choice and external support are built into them. They involve shared interests, growing relationships, continuity over time, building trust, and offering a sense of comfort and safety. 
Design Thinking Boot Camp:
Minnesota Children's Museum

Why not get started right now? The list 
doesn’t have to end there. Be inventive; 
shape your own professional learning experiences. 
Be bold! What about a boot camp, your very 
own think tank, or a symposium? Start with 
what sparks your curiosity. What you want 
to know more about: adult learning? the 
socio-cultural context in learning? tinkering 
for elders? What topics in articles, journals, 
and blogs have made you light up thinking, 
“Yes! I’ve been waiting for that!” Look 
below at some resources that might move 
you and your colleagues forward and build 
some momentum towards a museum 
professional learning community. 
Form a group, even a small group of two or three. Name it to help get it going. I once started a group called “The Little Big Ideas Club” with two friends. We had ideas for projects that we wanted to explore; they weren’t big or remarkable project ideas. 

Join an existing talking or thinking group like NISE Network’s Team-based Inquiry. 

Check-out the following links or websites. These resources are for different audiences, evaluators, scientists, educators, the problem finders, and the curious. Most resources link to tools and more resources. You will surely find something. 

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Resilience: What Do We Mean?

Sculpture by Michal Trbak

Jeanne Vergeront
Vergeront Museum Planning

Among the buzzwords brought to us by COVID-19–pivot, unprecedented, agile, and pandemic–is the near-ubiquitous word, resilience. Throughout the pandemic, resilience seems to have been everywhere, in headlinesblog topics, articles, and conference themes

When I asked two colleagues what they mean by resilience, one said, “keep going in spite of all sorts of things that have happened and continue to happen.” The other said, “optimism and hope that what you’re working towards is going to get you to a better place.” One website recommended museum workers develop resilience by taking a break and allowing time for self-care. Other views of resilience in a museum context are set in long-term, large-scale challenges such as Louisiana Children’s Museum’s resilience framework developed in response to Hurricane Katrina. 

And that’s resilience only in the museum context. 

My introduction to resilience was in the mid 1990’s by Ann S. Masten, then a Minnesota Children’s Museum board member, professor of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, and researcher on resilience in children. In that context, resilience refers to children’s ability to pull through or bounce back from challenges and stress with the help of a set of protective factors provided by positive experiences, individuals, the family, and the community. 

So, when someone refers to resilience, I can’t help but wonder what they mean. Are they referring to individuals—children, youth, museum staff, or leaders? Maybe they mean groups such as families, museums or schools. Or cities and communities. Might they be viewing resilience as mental health, child development, family strength, organizational health, or climate change? Are they thinking resilience is surviving, recovering, or thriving? While any, or even all, of these meanings are possible, they are not always clear or applicable. 

Resilience, also referred to as resiliency, is understandably of great interest to museums especially after our long pandemic year, economic slowdown, and social unrest. The pandemic, however, was not the first upheaval for some museums; nor will it be the last. In the wake of hurricanes Katrina (2005) and Sandy (2012), museums coped with environmental disruption, endured related trauma, and struggled to survive. Going forward, all museums will encounter change including large-scale disruption. External circumstances intersect with museum missions, community responsibility, resources, and long-term viability. They always have, but we are acutely aware of it now. 

An attractive, timely construct, resilience is much more than bouncing back which is precisely what makes it so valuable. 

Unpacking Resilience 

Over the last 40 years, multiple theories, frameworks, models, and studies on resilience have developed across disciplines, from human development to epidemiology to educational administration to social sciences. Although terms and definitions vary among disciplines, models, and researchers, resilience is applied at the level of the individual, family, organization, community, and environment. Frameworks and models are not interchangeable, but they do share some underlying elements related to good outcomes in the face of challenge, adversity, and misfortune. 

In general, resilience is an asset-based, not a deficit-based, construct. Rather than focusing on the negative consequences of exposure to adversity, resilience centers on the positive variables, or protective factors, that individuals and organizations possess to deal with stressors and to moderate exposure to risk and trauma. Not a single, static trait located in a particular place or person, resilience is more like a capacity distributed across people, organizations, places, and relationships dealing with personal loss, natural disaster, or a pandemic. Interconnections occur not only among individuals, organizations, and other systems, but also among multiple internal and external factors. Internal factors include skills, hardiness, support, and optimism while external and environmental factors include supportive resources, relationships, and robust systems. There appear to be parallel resilience factors such as close relationships, active coping, hope and optimism, and a positive view of self or community that work at multiple levels. 

Across various stages of adversity and challenge, individuals, organizations, and community respond by surviving, recovering, or even thriving. 
  • Surviving involves continuing to function but at an impaired rate. 
  • Recovering points to a return over time to where the individual or organization was previously in spite of stressful experiences. 
  • Thriving is going beyond the original level of functioning as a result of experiencing setbacks as a growth opportunity. 
These shared features across models and scales, from individuals to groups like families and organizations, to cities and regions are a helpful context to museums thinking about and growing their capacity for resilience. 

Resiliency Frameworks 

Much more than reacting to events thrust upon us or our museums or those of our own doing, resilience is how families, museums, and communities prepare for, respond to, and adapt to change and challenge. Since every museum will at some time meet with upheaval as will its leaders, staff, community, and visitors, museums want–and need–to be prepared for the next disruptive event whether it is economic, social, ecological, or medical. 

As many museums have learned over the last 18 months, how they weathered the pandemic was a function of multiple factors, some within their control and others beyond their control. It was not only the nature of the pandemic itself, but how the museum was prepared and how it responded that made a difference in the pandemic's impact. 

To minimize setbacks and adapt successfully to disturbances, museums need to anticipate and prepare for both incremental change and major disruptions before the next crisis. One step in preparing is developing a resiliency framework that identifies risks, develops protective factors, and increases readiness to adapt. 

Each museum’s resiliency framework will be, and should be, different. The specific steps taken, questions explored, and participants involved will also vary by museum. The following sets of questions are intended to help launch discussions and reflections on how the museum has fared over the pandemic, consolidate lessons learned, clarify local resilience challenges, and identify protective factors and opportunities. 

Build a deeper, shared understanding of resilience. Think about: 
  • How does the museum view resilience in its context? 
  • Where is the museum’s greatest interest, or need, in growing resilience? Is it in its staff, leadership, the organization, its audience? 

Ground the framework in the current situation and its particular resiliency challenge. Think about: 
  • In what areas–health and well-being; equity; cohesive and connected communities; resources; environmental–is the museum most likely to face challenges? 
  • What might the nature of these challenges, or disruptions, be? 
  • What are alternative ways to view the greatest challenges, or view a challenge as an asset? 
  • Over which external factors does it have greater and lesser control over? 

Examine the museum’s internal capacity and challenges. Think about: 
  • What protective factors does the museum, leadership, staff, children and youth in the community or the city currently enjoy? 
  • How can the museum intentionally build on this capacity to better meet disruptions? 
  • In what areas could additional capabilities enhance the museum’s resilience? 
  • What does the museum have control over that can promote resilience? 

Look ahead, prepare for what’s next. Think about: 
  • What does surviving, recovering, and thriving look like in the face of disruptions? 
  • Where is the museum under-investing in its capacity? 
  • What additional strategies must it develop? 
  • Where does the museum start in growing and organizing resources for resilience? 
  • What will keep the museum flexible and nimble? 
Developing a resilience framework won't stop a pandemic or natural disaster in its tracks, but it will help soften the blow, assist the museum in adapting, help it bounce back, and, ultimately, flourish in the face of change. 

Resilience Across Contexts and Scales

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

In Partnership with Children: Experience Planning


Jeanne Vergeront
Vergeront Museum Planning

With a strong interest in welcoming, focusing on, and serving visitors, museums describe themselves as visitor centered. Children’s museums also focus on their visitors. In particular, they give particular attention to children whose well-being and learning are at the center of these museums’ own long-term, strategic interests. Children, rather than content, are the reason for children’s museums. In fact, they are both the core audience and the primary explorers of the experiences children’s museums create. 

Centering on children is also evident in children’s museums’ visions, missions, and values. Vision statements often envision a promising future with expanding opportunities for children. Missions focus on the critical role of play in children’s development, sparking a delight in learning, and nurturing their unfolding creative potential. Values such as the critical role of play and childhood, early learners becoming lifelong learners, and the supportive relationships of parents and caregivers guide these museums. 

Intentions are not achievement, however. While a strong and aligned set of beliefs and aspirations is critical, it is only a start in keeping children at the center of a museum’s work. Centering is not guaranteed; competition for an organization’s time, attention, and resources is constant. Everything wants to be at the center: safety; subject matter; play; resilience; sustainability; architecture. If the priority is keeping children at the heart of the museum, we must think often, hard, and in new ways about how to do it. 

Minnesota Children's Museum
How can children’s museums act on their visions and values to create remarkable experiences of enduring value for children and become recognized anchors in their communities across generations? 

They can work in partnership with children. 

In Partnership with Children 
A long-term, active, and respectful relationship between a museum, its staff, trustees, and volunteers, and children connects beliefs with behaviors. Actually a mindset, being in partnership with children permeates how we view children, work in new ways, and see ourselves as learners. 

Typically, museums form partnerships with organizations around relatively near-term objectives for a project, to extend audience reach, or access expertise. While children do participate in museum projects as an invited audience group, their participation is typically short-term and structured around a specific activity. They are unlikely to be viewed as long-term partners or having relevant expertise for the experiences created for them. 

Generally, children’s participation in developing the exhibits and programs we produce for them is limited. When considered at all, their involvement is often a single activity or workshop, something a team schedules and carries out to gather children’s input on preferences, what they like, or icons of popular culture they recognize. Planning team members ask some questions, check the core curriculum, and move through the established experience-planning process, prototyping along the way, ticking off steps, and tucking bits gleaned from children into the final design. 

This is neither a partnership nor an expression of great respect for children’s capabilities to contribute to the opportunities we create for them, in fact, the very opportunities we want them to enjoy at our museums. Consequently, we don’t benefit from children’s insights, expertise, and ideas for shaping varied experiences and opportunities we offer them, their families, caregivers, and teachers. We simply don’t ask them. Ironically, while our goal is to engage children in learning experiences in finished exhibits and galleries, we keep them from the learning opportunities in planning: telling us about themselves, what is fascinating to them, what they wonder about, where they see connections between ideas. 

While we may say we plan with children in mind, 
we fail to add the critical perspective of the
Project: Explore & More Children's Museum
Buffalo, NY
end user. Without children’s first-hand information, we create experiences grounded in adult assumptions and expectations about them. Understanding what children like, how they construct knowledge, or what is humorous to them comes through an adult lens, if it comes through at all. 

Seeing Children 
Whether we are parents, caregivers, teachers, or museum staff, we each carry an image of the child which invisibly directs us as we approach, talk to, listen to, and design for them. At the core of our partnership with children is our view of them. Is it the capable child or the needy child? If we see children as needing help and we focus on what they can’t (yet) do, we overlook their competence and what they are capable of contributing to our understanding and to their exhibit experience. If, on the other hand, we see them as resourceful, capable of making choices using many modalities to express their ideas, children become co-constructors of experiences with us. 

Shifting to a mindset of the child as rich in ideas and potential, strong in spirit, and an active agent in their own learning moves our thinking and informs our work. We begin to assume children have something valuable to contribute which, in turn, suggests questions to explore, ways to engage them, and generates new insights. 

When children are valued partners, competent and full of potential, we view them as actors and active agents with us. They are subjects who think and create, not objects to be studied, managed, or directed to do what we already had in mind. Children are, in fact, sources of information and expertise that is otherwise unavailable to us. Together with them we can investigate our questions and theirs about how they understand a corner of the world in an exhibit in ways that help expand opportunities for them to explore, discover, and learn. 

Project: Hands On Discovery Center
Johnson City, TN

We ask different questions of children when we have a strong, positive image of them. We interact differently with them. Rather than asking, do you like this or that, making up a sorting exercise, or evaluating their knowledge, we shape questions to deepen our understanding of what children wonder about and care about. We follow what they notice and where that noticing takes them. We look into what they think is happening when waves crash, bubbles burst, or fish sleep. At the same time, they are having real-world experiences, exploring, sharing, and understanding their interests, choices, and identities. 

Working in New Ways 
After decades of planning experiences for children rather than with them, bringing them into an established experience planning process seems challenging. In fact, partnering with children builds on existing processes and practices. It engages with a museum-led process to create museum-identified experiences such as an exhibit, placemaking, an initiative, or even a building. Grounded in a practice of inquiry, partnering with children adds their points of view to the diverse perspectives of educators, developers, designers, researchers and evaluators thinking together. From preplanning to opening, every phase of the process includes children in meaningful ways that build on their strengths. Using varied strategies, such as drawing, writing, materials exploration, and discussion, children become co-researchers with designers, developers, and educators in creating an exhibit. 

What this approach adds to a typical exhibit planning process is an on-going dialogue between the museum’s team and the children it wants to serve, sometimes involving and learning from parents as well. The team follows its charge from the museum to explore a topic or question and develop an exhibit. It is not looking to children to decide the direction, content, or design. 

Team interest in and curiosity about children’s 
thinking and ideas, along with a spirit of
Source: American University
openness informs how it involves them in a question-powered process supported by inquiry, reflection, documentation; by interpreting and revisiting their words, drawings, and constructions. And finding new meaning there. 

Team-created openings bring children into the process to help shape the exhibit, its approach, context, experiences, and activities. Often framed around overarching questions, children’s involvement allows them to share what is interesting and important in their daily lives. 
Children's exploration of materials, conversations, choices, and expressions of their feelings allow the team to glimpse and appreciate their agency, curiosity, imagination, and funds of knowledge. 

Observation of children’s natural exploration and learning strategies along with their own spoken, written, and visual contributions gathered from conversations, workshops, and physical explorations inform and inspire the team throughout its work. A team may consider drawings, narratives, discussions, photos, asking what are we seeing here? what does this tell us about how children understand this? what is behind these words or inside this drawing? Every contribution, response, new question, and idea children offer in this exchange deserves thoughtful consideration, although not every idea must be used. 

The team selects the most intriguing and relevant traces of children to reflect on and to follow their connections in an effort to better understand them, expand its perspective, and further its own explorations. The team might find a new question, revisit and revise previous assumptions, or encounter possibilities it hadn’t thought of before. In the process, a team and its members begin to see alternative ways of working with children and folding in their views. Teams discover what children know about their world and how that might inform the exhibit context and activities. 

Source: Internet
Children’s drawings, words, photos, or constructions become part of the give-and-take of creating a new exhibit, gallery, or maker space. Their insights help push the team’s thinking and ideas beyond what it thinks it knows. That shove might push a team somewhere it hadn’t planned to go; drive new possibilities of experiences; surface a valuable starting point for a future project. Or simply make environments, exhibits, and experiences better. 

A partnership with children is about wanting to work with children to offer experiences that engage, support, and extend their capabilities. Over time, this work produces a set of supportive practices and resources that can be adapted to new questions, other projects, and different groups of children. Traces of children’s thinking and ideas emerging from a project help document the process and insights it generated. Project-by-project the museum grows a set of resources and builds new knowledge about children. In giving visibility to children’s skills, strategies and competence; to their play, exploration, and learning, it instills pride in children. Through its partnership with children, the museum is living its vision, mission, and values. 

Seeing Ourselves as Learners 
Not only does an active, respectful partnership with children change how we see them as thinkers and learners, but it also has the potential to change how we see ourselves as thinkers and learners. The varied work involved in creating environments, exhibits, and programs with children is capable of transforming work responsibilities and daily tasks into professional growth and development for exhibit developers, designers, program planners, researchers and evaluators. 

We all learn. We learn as individuals and as groups. Sometimes we are more intentional about learning than others. The rich, layered, interactive experience-planning process concerned with creating possibilities for play, exploration, and learning depends on multiple perspectives and varied sources of information. It brings together concept, content and context. Every step along the way is an opportunity for learning, both intentional and incidental. 

Through a steady practice of inquiry, observation, and reflection, teams investigate questions, find connections, and discover how to extend exploration. Teams and their members innovate, adapt, and learn, changing how they work over time. Typically, the nature and quality of questions change. Simple questions such as, what do children like? evolve into polished questions such as what moves children to a place of wonder? A single question is recast as a set of sub questions capable of guiding research, thinking, children’s contributions, and documentation. New ways to explore these questions emerge; new ways to glimpse meaning in children’s work surface. 

Along the way, the team develops a shared vocabulary of words, concepts, and practices. Focusing on children’s thinking and learning builds awareness of individuals’ own thinking and learning and moves the team’s thinking. Discussions become richer and more productive. 

In this territory, teams are often working at the nexus of theory and practice, between theoretical knowledge and what is understood from observing children in exhibits. While learning theories are not the usual background of designers and fabricators, how children and adults play, learn, and think is always at the core of the experiences children’s museum teams create for visitors. Over time, teams deepen and extend their understanding of the nature of learning by sharing and reading blogs, articles, journals, and books. 

 Project: Louisiana Children's Museum
Creating experiences with children represents a museum’s long-term value of and investment in people–children and staff. This on-going work represents an interest in creating opportunities that are responsive to and engage children’s capabilities and potentials as well as growing and supporting staff in their work. In the process the museum cultivates an organizational culture that is interested in, alert to, and nurtures its staff’s outstanding capacities. 

Related Posts 

Friday, April 23, 2021

Listening to How Children See their World


Jeanne Vergeront
Vergeront Museum Planning

"We're camouflaged as a bench, Mom."

There’s a secret passageway from here to there. And I am the only one who knows about it. 6-year-old boy after crawling through a maze at Minnesota Children’s Museum (1991) 

I feel like a robot who never had a battery. 5-year-old-girl at Bed, Bath, and Beyond to her mother (12/2015) 

Barry, do you remember when our block used to be the whole world? 7-year-old Andy (1971) 

I collect children’s words and language. These are just 3 from the dozens of quotes that I have overheard as I have listened in on children’s conversations, questions, musings, and discoveries in museums, zoos, stores, airports, restaurants, and family gatherings. 

If we notice quotes and anecdotes like these at all, they might evoke a smile or chuckle. We might repeat them to someone else and for an instant, we might appreciate the fresh view of the world they offer. What these words really offer, however, doesn’t stop there. 

There are words behind words and meanings within meaning. When we observe children or hear their comments, we are enjoying privileged glimpses into how a child understands the world. This thinking out loud hints at what captures their attention; what is interesting and relevant to them; the promise they see in materials and objects; the capabilities they are proud of; and how they see themselves. Children’s words and language are a wide, open invitation for reflecting on their thinking and making sense of the world, sharing insights with others, and carrying forward new understandings and choices. 

When I reflect on children’s words and language, my mind moves over three questions. My 
Listening in on a conversation
intent in doing this is not to prove what I already think or to reinforce a particular theory. Rather, I hope to learn from children, to open new lines in my thinking, and consider fresh possibilities for engaging and supporting them. This approach can be helpful in learning from children’s words, as well as their drawings, play, movements, and constructions. 

What have I heard the child say? When possible, I write down what I overheard, in the child’s own words. I add relevant factors about the child including age, place, date, expressive qualities. These notes might include what else is happening: the child’s movements, others’ presence, interactions with objects or materials, and what preceded or followed this. 

What might be the deeper structure of these ideas? Starting with the basics of what I noticed about the child’s words, I consider: was it a question? a statement? What words did the child choose; which words stand out? how do they seem to relate to the context? What possible meanings might these words have for this child? What might this suggest about the child’s thinking, interests, self-management, or sense of agency? 

How might we return these ideas to children? As respectful stewards of children’s words and anecdotes, we must make good use of insights and possibilities on the child’s behalf. This means exploring new understandings of this particular child or for other children in a similar setting. We can bring new knowledge, explore a promising hunch, and try out some possible conditions to encourage more critical thinking; help the child move further into their encounter; or encourage new connections. And then, we watch, listen, reflect, and repeat. 

Don’t Step on the Green Dirt 
Several years ago, at a family gathering, 4-1/2-year-old Cyrus approached a group of aunts and uncles lounging about and informed us seriously, Don’t step on the green dirt. He paused and continued, Well, technically, it’s not green dirt. Cyrus had our attention. We agreed not to step on the green dirt. Uncle Andy and I commented to each other on the use of “technically” (pronounced tenknikly). Cyrus turned and sped back to the bushes where his cousins played. 

Since that day, this episode has flitted through my mind often and unbidden. If there was something special about green dirt, what was it? How did Cyrus understand the word technically? Was he inhabiting a moment of awareness about moving from inside the play frame—a material or non-material boundary that contains play episodes—to outside the play frame, from a place where green dirt is possible to where it doesn’t exist for others? 

When I revisit Cyrus’ conversation, I think of how the idea of a play frame might be relevant. How might we support play episodes that extend across days, weeks or months? How can we respect stepping through the play frame? This episode is striking in spotlighting how much play apparently takes place in the child’s mind, even though we so often think of play as hands on, physical, and social. Perhaps we should insist on blurring the domains in play. 

Moreover, we should recognize children as astute and constant observers. A familiar object that has been moved, novel surface materials, or graphic patterns intrigue children and demand investigation. The green dirt prompts thinking about other possible surface materials and finishes and how they may inspire play, exploration, and learning. Even a change in flooring or fluttering shadows launch fresh play scenarios. So, what unfamiliar materials and surfaces are fascinating? What unusual combinations of materials invite new story paths? How do they build children’s fluency with the material world? 

Real, Fake, and In Between 
Listening to Cyrus reminds me of several episodes of other children’s apparent interest in what is real, fake, or somewhere in between. At her 6th birthday party, Clara received a small potted flowering plant. After being told that it was a primrose, Clara carried the pot around to show each of her guests. In no uncertain terms, she directed each one’s attention to the plant, pointing emphatically to the primrose saying, This is a primrose. And it’s real. 

At the Mall of America LEGO Store, 7-year-old Ian had an important message for his sister about the brick constructions when he said, It looks like it’s fake, but it’s made of LEGO’s. This distinction continues to intrigue me. I wonder what quality was the obverse of fake for Ian. I also wonder how LEGOs fit into this distinction? Is it possible that Ian, and other children, entertain a third quality along with real and fake—our familiar adult dichotomy? Might real exist in more than one form for children? Might this third quality enrich children's state of play? 

LEGO Store Dreamworld models
"It looks like it's fake, but..."
This isn’t an idle exercise. Museums are settings where authenticity is often a goal; where real and fake are often intermixed; where many distinctions, imitation, pretense, genuine, etc. are applied to objects, artifacts, materials, environments. And children are aware of this. 

A real hollow log

At the dog park, I overheard a 6-year-old boy explain how to know if a hollow log is real. After crawling through a fallen, hollowed-out log he explained, If it’s too round, too shiny, and there’s no dirt, it’s not real. They can put moss on it, but it’s still not real. He contrasted this log with one he'd crawled through at a museum.

Based on this admittedly small sample of three children, all 6-7 years old, we can agree that children are concerned with, or interested in, what is real and what is fake. Even at a young age, they seem to be relatively astute connoisseurs of these important, but somewhat elusive, qualities. Real is a distinction that gives something additional value; at least Clara thinks so. The boy climbing through the log understands that things are not always as they seem to be. 

Clearly, this distinction is not a simple one and appears to be somewhat flexible with children seeming to occupy a world between real and pretend. Years ago, a 4-year-old boy was looking through binoculars from the mezzanine in Minnesota Children’s Museum’s Earth World gallery. When a boy standing nearby started to set off the thunder storm, the boy protested, You can’t make a thunderstorm! I am watching birds. 

Children are involved in making distinctions between real and fake and related qualities that we know too little about. It’s likely that making these distinctions varies among children of different ages and background experiences. We can imagine that these qualities are not firm in a child’s mind and are even changeable over a period of time. With only a handful of quotes, we may not be able to confidently answer larger questions about real and fake to guide us in shaping experiences for children. However, even this small sample tells us that these are important aspects of children’s worlds and how they engage with them— including their experiences at our museums. 

Children’s words and language tell us that they have thoughts and ideas about their world, on this and other topics. While there’s much we don’t know about children as thinkers, explorers, and doers, we can actively learn from them. By listening to them, reflecting on the deeper structure of their words and thoughts, and returning fresh insights to them as experiences, children can enjoy new possibilities and engage with a world rich in discovering. 

Museum Notes
  • Listening to Children’s Thinking: 
  • Observation: Seeing, Un-seeing, Re-seeing:


Sunday, March 7, 2021

Making Marks, Making a Mark on the World


Jeanne Vergeront 
Vergeront Museum Planning 

Atelié Carombola Escola de Eduçao Infantil
Mosaic Marks, an exhibit from the Municipal Schools of Reggio Emilia

There are phrases or terms that sound almost strange the first time we hear them. If they also sound intriguing, we might pay attention to them, think about them, and notice when we come across them a second, third, or fourth time. After a while, we aren’t able to imagine not having these once odd phrases to help us observe, wonder, think, and make connections. 

Mark making struck me that way at first. I think it was related to a project of the Municipal Schools of Reggio Emilia (IT). A favorable association for me, it connected with the idea of the 100 Languages of Children, a metaphor for the coexisting ways of investigating relationships, using information, and representing ideas through materials, movement, words, drawing, and sounds. 

Nevertheless, the term mark making seemed imprecise and vague. Reflecting on the phrase however, I gradually appreciated its lack of pretension. Mark making both recognizes that the marks children make with their fingers, markers, brushes, bodies, and imaginations are significant in many ways and yet it leaves open possible ways to understand those marks. 

The Extraordinary Ordinary 
That same tiny finger that points to the family pet or favorite toy indicating, “look” or, “I want that” is the same tiny finger that begins to make marks. An extended finger draws in the snow, pulls a line through the spilled food, drags a strand of spaghetti, and finds an uncapped marker great for marking on a book or a wall. 

Mark making starts early in a child’s life and is a building block to brain functions, literacy skills, self-expression, relationships, and communicating. When that finger, stick, brush, or pen encounters paper, clay, or stone and leaves a trace, a lot is happening. The hand, body, and mind are engaged and coordinated. Small motor skills and eye-hand coordination are developing. 

Often unnoticed by busy parents or older siblings or referred to as “scribbles,” this noteworthy effort emerges from the child’s observing others using materials, an interest in communicating, and the joy of authoring a visible trace. From watching others around them write, children become aware that marks have meaning and are intent on recreating that sense of meaning themselves. They pretend their marks represent something. In these first marks is the start of children’s writing and drawing. With time and more mark making, the child makes new marks and realizes they are capable of changing marks. Random swirls become circles, possibly a head, a sun, a world. 

Young children’s marks are created with intense focus. I recall that when, as a pre-kindergartener I worked hard to make a mark that I now know as a lowercase cursive “e,” I was delighted by creating a recognizable mark. At six years, writing my name was a gift to my mother. Writing names certainly is an accomplishment in children’s mark making and identity. Yet it’s only one milestone in a larger, life-long process from the first dots and dashes, to forming recognizable letters, drawing a scene, telling stories, writing poems, composing a life. 

And while a precursor to writing, mark making is not a brief, linear, or automatic progression. Learning to control any mark making tool, such as a pencil, pen or paintbrush, is hard; it takes time, and requires many skills. Opportunities with marking tools, various surfaces, and approached from different physical postures encourage children who are developing skills at their own pace. Some children want and need to spend more time in a particular mark-making world. 

Making marks is not just about writing and is not limited to paper and markers. It unfolds over time, recruiting new capabilities, expressing feelings of connection, and building on memories. In this sense, mark making emerges from the immediate context perhaps creating a moment of joint attention, responding to what the materials and surfaces at hand make possible, expressing delight. Marks are an opening to something new. Few or many marks, bold colors or fine black lines, snow and black dirt may represent something, cover large areas, or transform surfaces. 

A drawing can change with the addition of each mark, a new color, an act of play, or a spill. If
Photo credit: Interaction Imaginations

we are paying attention, children will tell us. They talk as they develop their idea; their words offer glimpses into their thinking; they give clues about what these marks mean to them. An arrangement of lines or shapes across a page might be a fledgling idea for a code, a diagram showing how a seed grows, or a lost island. The meanings of these marks are not fixed, but likely change as the child encounters them again and experiences them in a new way. A child may describe a drawing differently now and tomorrow telling a parent, caregiver, teacher, or friend about the marks on the page or in the clay. That spiral is a sleeping cat today; tomorrow it’s a windstorm; the next day it’s a new galaxy. 

Making Marks, Making Ourselves 
Museums are full of meaningful marks. Collections, exhibitions, and programs interpret the languages of lines, patterns, texture, shapes, and material properties as drips, splashes, brushstroke, and etchings on canvas, plaster, stone, walls, the world. Deciphering the marks created through movement and sound, museums tell stories, reveal beauty, challenge thinking, and inspire new questions. They deepen our awareness of ancient and modern makers and offer glimpses into how marks create community, follow our families, and express our individuality. Museums honor the functional, ornamental, and spiritual marks of letters, documents, and decrees that celebrate our survival, voice our aspirations, and record our struggles. 

Even more than all of the meaningful marks that museums hold, share, and interpret are the ways in which they can nourish the human desire to leave a mark. Each time they develop an exhibit, display an object, set a tinkering challenge, facilitate a program, shape camp activities, or lead a tour, museums have an opportunity to support and extend the powerful disposition to create connections and transform a small part of the world. 

Children's Museum of Pittsburgh
This work emerges from an expansive idea of mark making. Grounded in an optimism about the capabilities of all of us, even babies as mark makers, this view understands swoops, patterns, and gestures as an extension of the mind, thinking, exploration, communication, and play. This work is advanced by: 
  • Focusing on the mark maker. 
  • Exploring the conditions that encourage, support, and expand the possibilities of mark making. 
  • Integrating mark making into a wide range of activities, experiences, and spaces across the museum. 
  •  Focus on the mark maker. Whether novice or experienced, an individual’s interest in the world and what it offers, and finding a place in that world is the impetus for mark making. Mark making nurtures the individual’s voice, ideas, and thinking. 
- Situate mark makers at the center of an experience. Who are they? What are they curious about? Allow flexibility for how children encounter, explore, and engage. 
- Frame questions around developing an understanding of mark making. How do children fill a space with their marks? What are intriguing forms for them? 
- Observe children’s attention to their mark making. What are their initial marks? How do they elaborate on them? How do they use instruments to explore, transform surfaces? What brings them delight? 
- Listen to children narrate what they are doing. What words do they use to talk about their drawing or project? Does a story emerge from the gestures? How does their telling change? 
- Reflect on how children respond to and use materials, surfaces, words, and feelings. How do they work with them individually? Together? How might children’s images, symbols, ideas, and efforts be extended to other experiences? 
- Document in words and photos insights into children’s thinking about their mark making in a format that serves as a tool for creating new mark making experiences.
  •  Explore the conditions that encourage, support, and expand the possibilities of mark making. A wider range and richer mix of materials invite a deeper exploration of mark making. Push the obvious limits to create new and wider openings for mark making; search beyond the art studio. Check the shed, shop, kitchen, or woods; look for both materials and ideas that prompt exploration. 
 - Think about all the conditions that encourage mark making: materials that modify color, texture, smell; tools, instruments, and media that shape and transform; surfaces that hold marks; ideas to explore; and time to engage and focus. 
- Select varied materials and objects: brushes, markers, pens; sticks, feathers, straws, yarn, cord, wire, fabric, torn paper; leaves, seeds, or petals; found objects; crayons, charcoal, chalk, paint, ink 
- Look around for tools, instruments, and media: an overhead projector, cameras, light, mirrors, circuits, hammers, saws, scrapers, and etchers. - Include surfaces for receiving marks may be textured, porous, or contoured: walls, rocks and stones, sand, the earth, mud, clay, bubble wrap, foil, fabric, sandpaper and wood planks. 
- Experiment. Some materials change with use or interact with other materials in various ways. Water evaporates, light creates shadows; creative accidents happen. Go big with rolls of paper. Add plant material. Select materials with special properties such as clear acetate; overlays invite children experimenting with backgrounds, foregrounds and combining drawings. 
- Above all, think how invitations to mark making that are a starting point for greater explorations. 
  •  Integrate mark making into a wide range of activities, experiences, and spaces across the museum. More than lines and shapes on paper and more than an art activity, mark making is an act of a person having an impact on the world. Recognizing the importance of this powerful, natural disposition acknowledges individuals, makes children’s capabilities visible, and enriches the museum experience for others. 
- Extend mark making invitations into exhibits, programs, and social spaces to invite new ways of looking and thinking. Put sketch pads at the top of the climber; roll out great lengths of paper on the studio floor; add materials to a light table; invite map making at the water table or the city building area. Add a friendly provocative question to initiate exploration. 
 - Vary the context for mark making activities to provide inspiration, new perspectives, or introduce varied conditions. Take mark making outside; vary the scale; go to new heights; incorporate natural materials; add music; use the whole body. 
- Incorporate mark-making into materials exploration, investigating light, shadow, color; building gizmos; imaginative play, STEM play, and nature exploration. 
- Showcase children’s work, using their images and drawings to help interpret concepts and express the museum’s value of thinkers and doers. 

Louisiana Children's Museum
Photo credit: Jeanne Vergeront

Just as the very first marks emerge from a child’s powerful desire to leave a trace, mark making throughout life is a response to a compelling invitation. Museums can extend that invitation everyday. Photo: LCM: children’s drawings 
  • A Traveling exhibit from Reggio Children, Mosaic of marks, words, materials will be in New Orleans in fall 2021. The exhibit is based on an investigation to gain a better understanding of the poetic interweaving between children’s drawings and words, in order to restore to drawing, to the instruments.