Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Nine Things Children Are Great At

Jeanne Vergeront
Vergeront Museum Planning 

How often do you find yourself surprised by children and their capabilities? I mean really surprised and by true capabilities. Not like when a 4-year-old spells Mississippi correctly; or when a 2-year-old knows their numbers; or when a child repeats a smart remark. Often that is memorization or mimicry, which, while important, is also part of children’s everyday repertoire of words and ways of engaging with caregivers. Very young children (especially infants and toddlers) are absorbing information at an astonishing pace, learning to use language —gestures, vocalizations, smiles, call-and-response—to invite the attention and care of bigger kids, parents, and anyone they engage with. 

Are you sometimes caught off balance by a child’s thinking? Do you pause, check your assumptions, and appreciate children’s insights, for instance, when 4-year-old Jake comes up with a timeline of world history as: “the dinosaurs, Baby Jesus, the knights, and me”? Does that just seem cute? Or do you recognize there is something more complex behind these and other insights? 

This matters. How we see children shapes how we engage with them, shape opportunities for them, step back or forward as they find their place in the world. Regrettably, when we consider children’s capabilities, we often highlight what they can’t do. Babies can’t feed themselves, toddlers don’t share, preschoolers can’t read or ride two-wheelers. We confuse children’s being novices with their being deficient. Using adult yardsticks to assess their capabilities, children not surprisingly don’t measure up. 

When, however, we slow down, look closely at children with genuine interest; when we are
open and appreciate the remarkable ways they make sense of the world, we see competence, capabilities, possibilities, a spark. The more we pay thoughtful attention to children, the more we discover their extraordinary strengths and capabilities. We notice that children have some great capabilities we hadn’t recognized. What are children great at? You might be surprised. 

1. Children are great at… making connections. They make connections between previous experiences and knowledge and new knowledge and new experiences. Young children connect actions and consequences; understand that symbols stand for words and numbers; find similarities between very different objects; and understand that expressions reflect feelings. This work starts early. When 2-year-old Gwen eats something she likes, she says, “I eat it all gone, none left for Mommy.” Later looking out a window watching a squirrel eat grass she says, “Squirrel eat grass, none left for Gwen's feet.” 

Parents, educators, and adult friends play important roles in creating the conditions that encourage children to make many, varied, and fresh connections. When adults step back and allow children to explore spaces; select unscripted materials; invite them to notice details and incorporate them into their play; when adults respond positively to children’s curiosity, ask open-ended questions and talk about shared experiences, they are nourishing children’s inclination to make and build on connections. 

2. Children are naturals at… developing theories. We don’t have to be scientists and run randomized control groups or develop theories. In fact, we constantly construct, test, and revise our theories about the world. Children do too. Driven to explain the world, they develop theories about how the world works. As young as 4 years, children develop a “theory of mind.” They gather information from interactions and observations about what others think and feel that are different from their own wants and beliefs. They analyze evidence based on what they experience, drawing conclusions and revising their theories. And they test their theories by asking questions, making new connections, and making predictions. 

The process of developing temporary explanations about all sorts of things is a precursor to critical thinking. Why did it happen this way? What will happen if…? Children notice patterns of evidence; they understand about contingencies and how different actions and objects have causal effects. 

Developing theories benefits from having time to understand nonobvious causal relationships. And that’s what happens when children play, explore material-and object-rich spaces, and learn with and from other children. 

3. Children are impressive at helping and finding helpers. While we often say children are self-centered, they, in fact, both help others accomplish their goals and enlist helpers in accomplishing their own goals. Children tend to know when to turn to others for help. Early on, they count on adults to act on their wishes and goals: to be fed, comforted, or reach something up high. 
Babies are reading us and our feelings. As they watch adults help, children learn to help others, including dolls and animals. 

When children see someone in trouble, they want to do something to help. They like helping. Children step in to help because they have an idea, a skill, or strength they enjoy using. They like being part of the group, playing with others, and accomplishing something bigger with others. 

Adults can show empathy, and act on behalf of others. Rather than socializing children to focus on their own work (Keep your eyes on your own paper), adults can invite children to think together and share ideas, offer multiple avenues for input. Mixed age and ability groups offer opportunities to help and be helped. It’s important to let children be helpful even if it means a bit more of a mess. 

4. Children are accomplished at… pretending their way to more complex understandings. They are curious; they ask questions, think about possibilities, and imagine different ways the world might work. They do this through their theories, understanding something about an object or subject matter, and through pretense—in play. In imagination-based thought during pretend play, also known as counterfactual thinking, children imagine alternatives to the current picture of the world and reason about what might happen if? 

Children are adept at generating possible worlds in every day moments, about the house, in play, drawing on their growing knowledge of objects and events. Possibilities emerge as children imagine various ways things might go and bring new worlds into existence. They might pretend there is no gravity. They know that the world doesn’t act that way, but what if it did? How would we walk? fly? eat? These unreal scenarios draw on what children know about gravity, weight, movement and develop their ability to reason counterfactually. 

Adults can support children’s play with possible new worlds by encouraging imagination-based play, inviting children to think about alternatives and, predict what might happen. 

5. Children are naturals at… having wonderful ideas. Often launched with the  exultation, Hey, I got an idea! children talk to, play with, and connect with each other through ideas—how to build something, propose a story idea, solve a problem, make up a game, or make something work in a new way. Children are not just consumers of other’s ideas and creativity. Everyday they generate possibilities from what fascinates them, what they wonder about, their knowledge of the world, and their imaginations. There’s joy in the movement of ideas, ideas that build on other suggestions. Children delight in their ideas adding, I know what we can do and Let’s try this

Having wonderful ideas contributes to children’s intellectual and social development. Wonderful ideas help grow more wonderful ideas giving children a sense of the power of their minds, their imaginations, and their relationships. 

When adults step back, observe and listen to children’s ideas; provide space and time for children to make, test, and modify connections between ideas; and let children take their ideas where they need to go, children feel empowered in having and sharing ideas. 

6. Children are experts at… being informants on what they like, notice, value, and what is meaningful to them. In areas where they have first-hand experience, expertise, and familiarity, children have abundant and valuable information. They are eager to share their adventures, stories, and accomplishments; feelings emotions, ideas, and possibilities that excite them. They tell us who they are and are becoming, giving us a glimpse of what matters to them that is not otherwise available to us. 

When we don’t involve children as participants and co-constructors with us in making decisions on their behalf—in research, design of places for play and learning, creating activities, and selecting materials and objects— we miss insights we need if we are to empower them and serve them well. 

When we do partner with children, however, they talk, draw, act out, and use materials, to share their views and express their thinking. They narrate adventures, mention details adults overlook, and make novel connections. We find clues to how they view and make their place in the world. 

Several approaches—here, here, and here—inspire us with examples of engaging children in meaningful ways on topics that affect them, and places to live, learn, and play. 

7. Children are great at … making metaphors. We’re accustomed to thinking of metaphors in art, literature (she has a heart-of gold), and scientific advancements. Metaphor is, in fact, a way of understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. Basic to human communication, metaphor is something we use consciously and often unconsciously

Children are thinking metaphorically when they perceive a visual similarity between two very different objects that are not usually yoked together. Knowledge of the one object amplifies knowledge of the other. Play is full of metaphor, both verbal and visual. In play, the light may have a voice, a feather may evoke a sword, a bald head might be a “barefooted head”. 

There is something more complex behind these charming images. Children are using their knowledge of the world and their creativity to exploit the possibilities of an object’s features, opening up rather than confining its perimeters. Object- and experience-rich settings, opportunities to manipulate objects, freedom to explore their features and sensory qualities, varied ways to express ideas and solve problems, and questions such as what does it remind you of? invite metaphor and metaphorical processes. 

8. Children are natural … democratic citizens. Curious, engaged, born researchers, wanting
to belong, and attuned to the interests of others, young children possess the habits and dispositions related to democracy. They feel a sense of us which is evident when the child introduces an idea with, Let’s… When other children add, I’ll be the dog or I’ll drive the spaceship, they are playing with a shared mindset. Through listening, talking, and considering other points of view, they think and act for themselves. They create their own activities, make up their rules, solve their own problems, share narratives, and collaborate on projects—together. They create a world. 

Children’s interest in the common good is expressed on behalf of a group of children in a class, on the block, or an informal group at a museum or library. Space that children can claim for themselves—on the front stoop, the sidewalk, in a fort, or under a tree—is space shared with other children, thought about collectively, and an opportunity for learning to live together. 

Rather than teach—instruct—children in democracy, adults can model inclusive approaches and provide environments that value differences; invite varied points of view; use language children can use such as I think, in my opinion. Offering children opportunities to see the community and be seen by the community and engaging them in research and planning brings insights into our understandings that are not otherwise available. 

9. Children are born creators of a culture of childhood. More than an age cohort, the culture of childhood is children’s shared experiences of growing up and finding their place in the world. It is a continuous dialogue: children form the culture of childhood which, in turn, forms them, shaping their social identity, creating a sense of community, and opening possibilities. Encompassing the hallmarks of culture—language, objects, materials, expression, meaning, and symbols—it is a continuing force of connection, community, and hopeful futures. Play in many forms is the native language of the culture of childhood. Children find and solve problems together; figure out, communicate and negotiate rules; and they fill roles that adults take when they were present. 

Adults can recognize and encourage the culture of childhood and make it visible. This may involve expanding the cultural space of childhood by engaging children, families, educators, and community members in co-constructing outdoor spaces, museum spaces, nature areas, play environments, and other informal learning settings where children can come together, experiment, and creatively explore using multiple modes of expression, materials, and media. And make their mark on the world. 

Before Our Very Eyes 
These and other capabilities fundamentally challenge our assumptions about what children can do early in life. When we are optimistic about children’s competencies at a young age, we discover extraordinary strengths and capabilities and are less preoccupied weaknesses and limitations. We don’t need to wait for these capabilities to emerge later in childhood. They are, in fact, present early in children’s lives, bringing joy, and enriching childhood. When we encourage and support these capabilities in children in rich, varied, and welcoming settings, children see themselves as thinkers and doers, makers and creators, friends, and helpers. 

Museum Notes 


Monday, July 3, 2023

Seeing Joy: Part 2


Jeanne Vergeront
Vergeront Museum Planning 

Photo credit: WonderTrek Children's Museum

Seeing Joy: Part 2 continues an exploration of what children’s joy looks and sounds like in our museums that I introduced in Seeing Joy: Part 1. Inspired by expressions of joy we see in museums and other settings, Seeing Joy is guided by a collaborative, iterative inquiry process developed with WonderTrek Children’s Museum in Brainerd, Minnesota. 

The process begins with a Question, leads to an Invitation to Explore that engages children and adults in exploring our question. Investigation involves setting up and observing children in a PlayLab space. We summarize, debrief, and synthesize our findings and, as part of Interpretation, we ask ourselves, “What are we seeing? Moving from Interpretation to Advancing the inquiry, we boil down our insights to a few take-aways and Re-frame the question. And we’re ready to roll again. 

Dedicated tools for each part of the process both guide and document our work. The first tool, Question Worksheet, documents the Working Question, the Invitation to Explore, Methods, Timeline, Take Aways, and Possible Ideas to Revisit. 

The Working Question and supporting questions about joy ask:
• How can WonderTrek invite and encourage children to experience and express joy?
     • What does children’s joy look and sound like?
     • What conditions appear to encourage and elicit joy?

Importance highlights social emotional learning’s critical role in human development; joy’s importance in children’s lives, fighting stress and pain. It is a form of resilience and feels good. 

Joyful Work Arounds
When we got to Invitation to Explore,
we encountered a problem. Usually, we would find ways to engage children in exploring the setting, structures, and materials with other children in the PlayLab; observe them; and talk to them about their experiences. Given the spontaneous and ephemeral nature of joy; a lack of a unifying concept around joy; and limitations of the PlayLab space and sessions, that approach wasn’t feasible so early in the process. We also wondered whether asking a 3 or 4-year-old “What is joy?” would be meaningful. 

Photo credit: Tom Bedard

“Pre-research” was needed to grow our understanding of joy before we could proceed with Invitation to Explore. We chose to explore joy obliquely by investigating it in two familiar contexts: the lived experience of childhood and children’s experiences at other museums. We used four methods. 

  • Childhood Joy Remembered drew on childhood memories of our team members
  • Everyday Joy described moments of joy observed in museums
  • Borrowed Set-ups used photos showing joy to study the presence of physical and social conditions related to joy
  • Parent Question asked about their child’s joy on WonderTrek’s social media (This had no responses.)

Childhood Joy Remembered

We were all children once and experienced joy in our childhoods. Sometimes there was more joy and other times less. Bernard Berenson, a 20th century American Art Historian, recalls a moment in his childhood that tells us something about experiencing joy.

… In childhood and boyhood this ecstasy overtook me when I was happy out of doors. Was I five or six? Certainly not seven. It was a morning in early summer. A silver haze shimmered and trembled over the lime trees. The air was laden with their fragrance. The temperature was like a caress. I remember—I need not recall—that I climbed up a tree stump and had no need for words. ‘It’ and I were one.” 

Members of the WonderTrek Project Team were asked to recall a memory of joy from their childhoods, a moment of joy when they were a child, any age up through 10 or 12 years; to explore that memory, plumb the feel and source of it. They shared what they’d been feeling and doing; where they were; who was with them. Memories that they, other colleagues and friends have shared about remembered childhood joy include being outdoors, in nature, a sense of freedom, sensory experience, immersion. 

  • Crawling through and disappearing into the tall grass
  • Going out horseback riding with my dad early in the morning in late summer
  • Climbing on the bus and going to the library by myself to get books
  • Riding my bike wearing a freshly ironed shirt my mother made. It was a perfect moment; I felt free
  • Floating in the lake with my sisters
  • Laying in the grass under trees with light coming through the leaves. All the flickering lights reminded me of a million candles 

The Everyday Joy We See 
Knowing that every day, joy comes into our museums, we wondered what those moments of a
Photo credit: Vergeront
child’s joy look like. Looking at photos including the one of the child kicking up their foot, we asked: what does this child’s joy look, feel, sound like? We observed and thought about:
  • The child’s facial expressions: body language, tone, sensory qualities of objects and materials
  • What might the child be feeling?
  • What qualities of joy do we think are expressed?
Joy is hard to define. And while we wouldn’t want to squeeze the joy out of joy by defining it too narrowly, similar qualities of joy came through in the conversations, Berenson’s quote, and the literature.
  • Joy is a positive emotion that can be experienced with other emotions, such as sorrow, at the same time
  • Joy often brings a feeling of connection – to others, to ourselves, to nature, to something greater 
  • There is contentment and satisfaction
  • A feeling of joy ranges from a peaceful contentment to exuberance
  • It is ineffable, brief, fleeting
  • Joy happens in everyday moments

Borrowed Set-ups 

Photo Credit: Bruce Slicox. Courtesy 
of Minnesota Children's Museum
 Limited in settings we could easily create or access, we     “borrowed” set-ups of children experiencing joy in other settings. With photos like the one at left, we could study physical and social features of a set-up; the nature and quantity of materials, the ambience; the presence of other people. Looking at this photo we speculated on conditions that might be giving joy a nudge:
• Open space
• Natural light
• Objects that are soft, plentiful, accessible, unusual in this context
• Falling objects in mid-air … surprise and unpredictability in how they fall
• Visibility into what’s happening overhead
• Space for several children

Gathering a few clues from one Borrowed Set-up at a time, we glimpsed what invites joy. Asking ourselves, what we were seeing, we started building Play Conditions disposed towards joy. 
What are Play Conditions? They are features of the physical and social environment that support and encourage children’s exploration, play, and learning. These conditions emerge from what research, child development, play theory and children’s museum practices indicate encourage and support children’s engagement, and maybe their joy. This is not a causal relationship between Play Conditions and more joy. But we all carry assumptions, hunches, and mini-theories about what we think is likely to encourage some types of interactions more than others. In this inquiry, Play Conditions help us think about creating experiences and environments disposed towards joy.

Qualities associated with joy that surfaced in childhood memories and observations fall into WonderTrek’s 7 Play Conditions.
Image of the Child, children’s strengths and capabilities: expressions of joy accompany a
strong sense of agency and sense of self
Context or setting, the qualities of the physical and social space: the soft qualities of space: abundant light, natural light, moving air; sensory immersion; and space for moving freely.
An Invitation to Explore encourages children’s engagement or piques their curiosity: with surprise, novelty, or enticing sensory patterns.
Materials seed the set up with possibilities that are: explorable, unscripted; responsive to children’s actions
Interactions and Relationships connect people: children feel recognized and connected to others; and adults are sensitive to children’s spark
Content, or what is fascinating and meaningful to children: the wind, water, animals; movement, nature
Time creates openings for joy: unstructured time, a sense of possibilities and freedom

What We’re Learning

Photo credit: Vergeront

Our learning is on 2 tracks: about children’s joy and about the WonderTrek Inquiry Process. We’re learning that joy is:
• A feeling and an experience often shared with others, that happens everyday
• Even very young children express joy
• Joy’s qualities and expressions take many forms: wonder, surprise, exuberance, a feeling of immensity and connection
• Joy and play are closely related
• Museums are places for joy
• Experiencing joy matters in children’s lives. It may not matter whether we remember childhood joy; it does matter that we have experienced joy as children

We’re learning from the WTI process itself.
• Bringing in a child’s perspective shows us what we might not otherwise notice
• Play-and activity-based methods allow children’s fuller participation
• The process is flexible, adaptable to various questions and contexts
• Questions matter
• We are making meaning a bit at a time

This collaborative effort has been made possible by a wonderful team. Thank you, Peter Olson, Cheryl Kessler, Mary Weiland, Jim Roe, Shannon Wheeler, Emilee Maillot.

Sunday, June 4, 2023

Seeing Joy: Part 1

Jeanne Vergeront
Vergeront Museum Planning

How can we invite and encourage children to feel and express joy in our museums? 

This question has intrigued me. It comes from a long-standing interest in Reggio-inspired practice in children’s museums and planning in partnership with children

But it was photo above, this look of joy on this little guy’s face and the joy expressed in his body that made me wonder, how can we keep this joy alive? Where can we find it in our museums? Can we open our doors wider to welcome joy? 

Social Emotional Learning 
If we didn’t have a clear notion of the importance of social-emotional experiences in children’s lives before the pandemic, children’s absence from social settings and experiencing isolation has provided us with many examples and insights about this critical aspect of children’s growth, development, and wellbeing. We are seeing signs in our museums of children (and adults) emerging from social isolation being stressed out. 

Early social emotional development has lasting effect on our lives. Supporting children’s social emotional learning is complex, on-going, important work. Many children’s museums are focusing on this aspect of children’s development for the first time. Museums that serve children have a special opportunity to create possibilities for children to develop, learn, grow socially and emotionally with others; to build relationship skills, manage themselves, and become responsible decision makers. 

Museums are social places. They are spaces where families go to spend time together; where children and adults meet and connect with other children and adults. They share these public spaces, amiable environments, and novel materials with friendly strangers. They watch others try something and try it themselves. Children learn about sharing, taking turns, friendship, being part of a group. After a visit, families talk together and remember what they did, what they liked, what was new or hard. And they come back for more! 

Places of Joy 
Children’s museums want to be places of joy. Joy is referred to often in children’s museums. 
  • We say… “Children play for the sheer joy of it.” 
  • We highlight “joyful play” and “joyful learning” on social media 
  • Our missions aspire to: 
    •  … bring the joy of learning and wonders of the natural world to life
    • … create unparalleled experiences to inspire excellence and a lifelong joy of learning
While we believe joy is important in children’s lives and finding their place in the world, we don’t seem to have a shared understanding of what joy is; a sense of what it looks, feels, and sounds like; its importance and benefits; and how we might support and encourage children’s experiences of joy in our museums. Looking at research, we know that: 

  • A dose of joy boosts our immune systems, and fights stress and pain 
  • Positive emotions like joy and excitement powerfully impact physical and mental health over the whole lifespan 
  • Joy is a form of resilience: moments of joy can help our bodies recover from the physiological effects of stress 

These benefits get at why joy matters. And then there’s this:

"Joy, particularly through the activities that result from feeling joy, provides the individual with the opportunity to learn new cognitive and behavioral skills and forge new social relationships and skills which enhances resilience to future obstacles and threats." (1) 

If joy is important and we want to grow its presence in our museums, we need to be attentive and attuned to children’s experiencing it; to reflect on their expressions of joy; notice conditions that might have sparked joy; and invite joy in. 

Learning About Joy in Children’s Lives and Our Museums                                                 

For several years I have been working with WonderTrek Children’s Museum an emerging museum in Brainerd, MN. Our planning work includes co-developing a collaborative inquiry process for exploring how children direct their play. 

As part of this, I’ve been exploring joy. The museum’s mission includes, The joy of play and the wonder of learning and Experiencing joy is among a set of essential experiences in WonderTrek's learning experience framework. A site has been secured and a new building is being designed. WonderTrek believes it’s not too early in the process of opening a strong regional museum to use a research-and learning approach in: 

  • planning experiences at a temporary 900 s.f. PlayLab 
  • offering activities at locations across the region’s 5 counties 
  • developing exhibit concepts and design 
  • growing WonderTrek’s Center for Play and Interactive Learning 

WonderTrek’s project team has developed a collaborative, iterative inquiry process that actively engages children and adults including staff and consultants. We use a variety of methods to investigate and document roomy questions around children’s play, exploration, and learning; the role of the environment and materials; and how they understand place. 

We’ve mashed up and adapted several processes to fit the Museum’s interests. WonderTrek Inquiry (WTI) process brings together Team Based-inquiry from the NISE Network; Reggio-inspired documentation; practice-based research; and collaborative action research. We’re making up the process as we go along: developing and modifying it, sometimes at the same time. 

Supporting this practice-based research is a belief that, if we can recognize joy in our museums and find ways to encourage it, we can shift from hoping that children will experience joy to greater confidence in creating the conditions that support joy in exhibits, programs, environments, and interactions. We can invite more joy into our museums, tweak experiences, nurture resilience, and contribute to children’s long-term well-being.

WonderTrek Inquiry Process 

This is the WTI inquiry process in its neat and tidy form. Walking through it, this work clearly requires time. So far we have been able to prioritize time for several reasons. Not only is the approach key to developing museum experiences and environments, but its continuous professional development is core to creating shared understandings of WonderTrek's foundational ideas and putting them into practice from the start. 

Taking a quick spin through the cycle, the process starts with a Question, developed collaboratively. Often one person offers a question that has been floating around and we polish it together. Sub-questions support the lead question and focus the inquiry. At this point we probe why this question is important to the Museum. We've learned to value the time for thinking about importance.

The Question leads to an Invitation to Explore, which challenges us to think together about how we might shape opportunities to engage children and adults in exploring our question.
When we think about Investigation and documenting, we look for activity- and play-based methods—visual, digital, participatory methods that fit the question, setting, children and families, and our capabilities. We are particularly interested in ways to bring in children's voices and perspectives. These might include: brief written observations of children, conversations with them, photos, videos, a talk-back board for parents, and traces of children's works: drawings, constructions, stories.

We move into action, setting up the PlayLab, observing, listening, documenting. After reviewing and summarizing data, we debrief and synthesize. As part of Interpretation, we ask ourselves, "What are we seeing? What might it mean?" Moving from Interpretation to Advancing the inquiry, we do a group reflection, boil down or insights to a few take-aways and Re-frame questions. And we are ready to roll again.

In my next post, I will write about the work-arounds we needed to come up with to continue our exploration of joy when we encountered a challenge. We needed to grow our understanding of joy before we could proceed with an Invitation to Explore.

(1) Johnson, M. (2020). Joy: A review of the literature and suggestions for future directions. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 15(1), 5-24

Tuesday, May 2, 2023


Jeanne Vergeront
Vergeront Museum Planning

What's a Learning Framework, Anyway? was the question explored at a session at the Association of Children's Museums' annual conference in New Orleans April 26-28. I was asked to start the session with some background on learning frameworks. Three children's museums presented their learning frameworks: Tiffany Espinosa and Lisa Williams from Children's Museum of Houston; Hardin Englehardt from Marbles Kids Museum; and Peter Olson from Wondertrek Children's Museum

In 1992 I was head of Exhibits and Education at Minnesota Children’s Museum when we started planning for a new, much bigger museum in downtown St Paul. We invited 5 colleagues from other museums to be peer reviewers for a programmatic master plan that would guide development, design, and fabrication of 20,00 square feet of gallery space and new programs. 

At our first gathering, the MCM team asked the peer 
reviewers, “What’s a programmatic master plan?"
Everyone shrugged their shoulders and looked perplexed. It wasn’t the response we’d hoped for. Undaunted, our peer reviewers did work with us to create a programmatic master plan that went beyond “what” exhibits and programs would be about. It also focused on the children for whom the experiences were intended. We connected exploration, play and learning; identified varied engagement strategies and how we thought children would be likely to explore the spaces, materials, and activities; and the roles of adults. 

That 1992 Programmatic Master Plan was followed by an Education Framework in 2000. MCM’s 2013 Visitor Experience Master Plan for its expansion and renovation updated its approach to learning experiences. In 2019 a Learning Framework was developed. 
Children’s museums have been charting a course from “what is a programmatic masterplan?” to having a learning framework as a best practice — asking new questions, drawing on current research, deepening an understanding of what learning looks like, how we can support it in our settings for the children, families and communities we serve. 

Still, learning frameworks are generally newcomers to museums’ core documents including a mission, vision and values; a strategic plan; business plan, and marketing and communications plans. 

This movement enjoyed a boost when a project of ACM’s Children’s Museum Research Network in 2014 looked at learning frameworks in 5 network museums. It noted that learning frameworks are both institutionally specific and have the potential to inform the larger field’s understanding of how children’s museums conceptualize and operationalize learning. 

From my work developing learning frameworks in our field over the last 30 years, I’ve noticed that: 
  • Learning frameworks are both becoming an established practice and are evolving. 
  • There’s variety among learning frameworks from one museum to another. 
  • Learning frameworks are developed by museums at all stages of development, from emerging museums to ones that are expanding or reinventing themselves; or doing some backfill on their learning focus. 
  •  And interestingly enough, I think children’s museums are leading the way among museums in developing, using, and advancing learning frameworks. What is a learning framework? 
As the 2014 Research Network study concluded, there are many answers to this question. For me a learning framework is a process and a product that consolidates and articulates a museum’s most important ideas around learning and learners for its intended audience and its community. It’s a: 
  • foundational set of ideas grounded in its vision, mission, values, and audience 
  • resting on research and conceptual foundations around children’s growth and development, their play and learning, and their futures 
  • and is developed collaboratively. 
A learning framework gets at not only what a museum does, how it does it, and why that matters. What museum couldn’t benefit by better understanding that? 

The process of creating a framework articulates the relationships among the aspirations of vision and mission, the experiences visitors enjoy, children’s take-aways; and how the museum believes it can help a community accomplish its goals for children. 

The framework itself focuses and sets priorities about where a museum intends to direct its expertise and resources to bring valued, engaging experiences and opportunities to children in family, school and community groups. 

As a tool, a learning framework assists a museum in doing its work. It informs exhibit, experience and program development and design; guides evaluation of exhibits and programs; and research on what the museum makes possible. 

A clear focus helps a museum be accountable. Instead of just hoping that children will engage in child-directed play, or thinking critically, or working cooperatively, we can deliberately shape experiences, select materials, offer choices, and create possibilities that are likely to do so. 

For instance, a framework could focus on connecting children’s play with being life-long learners. It might base its view of children as learners who are curious, social, and active in research; identify relevant social-emotional skills; prioritize compelling engagement strategies; and create contexts that that are fascinating and meaningful to children. 

The framework provides a common vocabulary and understanding about the meaning of core ideas on project teams, writing grants, staff development, even website design. Do you mean what I mean when I say “agency?” or “place-based experiences?” or “multiple entry points?” Do Marketing and exhibits share a vocabulary based in the learning framework? Equally valuable is the role these frameworks play in communicating with partners and stakeholders about how the museum fits into the local learning, cultural and civic landscape; or have a positive impact on the lives of children in the region. 

To the question of why children’s museums seem to be taking the lead among various types of museums in developing learning frameworks, I have a hunch. “Traditional” museums such as art, history, and science museums rest on an accepted body of work, a canon. Even if that canon is evolving and being challenged, it is associated with a discipline and connected with content, processes, and tradition as well as school curriculum and careers. While not tailored to a particular museum, community or age group, those bodies of knowledge serve some of the functions that learning frameworks serve for many museums. 

While children’s museums engage children with varied content, that is not their primary focus. Children are. Children’s museums are for children, not primarily about something. We may be envious of a museum’s having pretty much of a ready-made framework in a canon of knowledge. For me, however, adopting a ready-made framework for children’s museums is unimaginable. How would a canon of knowledge acknowledge the naturally interdisciplinary
Mud is quintessentially interdisciplinary
way that children investigate mud or explore and find their place in the world? In fact, developing a learning framework for a children’s museum is an opportunity to articulate how we support children’s burgeoning interests and capabilities; their ways of making meaning of their experiences; and how we champion children in our communities. 

You may have noticed that I’ve slipped “play” and “exploration” in with learning. Frameworks allow museums to define their interests, agendas and their roles in their communities. With a focus on children and families, as free choice settings, as object centered, children’s museums are not required to follow formal-education, its methods, standards, or assessment. Rather, learning frameworks allow us to define learning broadly—social, emotional, physical, cognitive, and linguistic learning; to connect play and learning; focus on engagement; and characterize the positive changes we believe are possible. That’s perhaps why frameworks have shifted from being called programmatic plans, to education frameworks, to learning frameworks, to play and learning frameworks. Every framework reflects its museum’s interests. 

That variety is, in my view, a good thing. What’s important is having a learning framework grounded in a museum’s mission, vision, and values; actively using it in planning and evaluating experiences to deliver learning value; and benefiting children, families, and the community in planned and unplanned ways.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Play Conditions: A Framework


Jeanne Vergeront
Vergeront Museum Planning

Photo credit: Vergeront (WonderTrek)

Play Conditions are a bit like Robinsyard. Robinsyard, you ask? 

When my nephew Matthew was 4 years old, he carried a small rolled up piece of paper tucked into a yarn belt that he liked to wear. I asked him what had he drawn on the paper and he replied, “Robinsyard.” I knew he had a friend name Robin, but I didn’t know what a Syard was. So, I asked, “What’s a Syard?” Matthew replied, “I don’t know but Robin has one.” After some mulling about what a Syard might be, I guessed that it was Robin’s Yard. The precise meaning is not so critical. What is important is that: 

 Play conditions are like Robinsyard: It’s hard to explain what they are, but we have them. And play conditions have meaning in children’s lives. 

We may not have precise terms for play conditions, a shared vocabulary, or a taxonomy for them. (We don’t really have a definition of play, either.) We do, however, have a sense of when play conditions are just right: when children are engaged actively, deeply, and joyously in play—play that they direct and find enjoyable. That’s when play conditions are well tuned. Conversely, when interactions are few, focus and attention is brief, conflict is frequent, children’s affect is flat, and ambience is bland, play conditions are out-of-whack with the intentions for the experience, the space, and those children. 

Play doesn’t happen independently of the conditions surrounding it. Since we think, in general, very little about the conditions that encourage exploring, playing, and learning, we are hazy about just what they are and how to harness them. For about the last 10 years, I’ve been exploring the idea of play conditions in planning work, learning frameworks, and master plans. Currently, I am part of a team at WonderTrek Children’s Museum, an emerging museum in north central Minnesota, working with play conditions in a collaborative question-driven, iterative process that explores, documents, and shares insights from children in play-based settings. 

This work is giving shape to a framework that helps get at the complexity and simplicity of
Photocredit: Vergeront (MIA)
and play conditions. Starting with working definitions, this framework acknowledges related concepts, identifies a set of play conditions, and frames principles that tell us something about the nature of these play conditions. 

While the framework focuses on play conditions, it is relevant to shaping spaces and experiences in every kind of museum as well as encouraging inquiry and learning. In fact, museum planners, developers, designers, and educators often draw on qualities and varied conditions in creating exhibits, environments, and programs that engage visitors— but they may not be doing so intentionally nor focusing on play. 

Play and Play Conditions 
Exploring play conditions relies on having a shared understanding of play among staff, team, or partners. This can be challenging. Affected by age, setting, and who’s controlling it, play is not always easy to recognize. It is connected to exploration and learning which children seem to move between seamlessly. Definitions of play are abundant as well. One I am drawn to places the child at the center and works across varied contexts. Play is freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated

Viewing play conditions as the qualities or variables of the physical and social environments that are likely to encourage (or discourage) and support children’s play accommodates this definition of play and others. It also recognizes that there can be conditions that interfere with play. 

Photo credit: Vergeront (CMOM)
Play conditions share some qualities with the concept of affordance, the features or property of an object that define its possible uses or how it can or should be used. A chair’s properties afford sitting or standing on it. An affordance provides strong cues about the operation of things. It is an actionable and discoverable possibility. In some design contexts like user-interface, an affordance prompts users to take specific actions. 

While play conditions may include affordances, they are not limited to physical features nor are they directive. More than 3-dimensional space, physical design, furniture, or arrangement, play condition’s qualities are also temporal, social, and affective. They tap into all senses, give cues, and suggest possibilities. Neither a recipe nor a formula, nor a way of scripting children’s play, play conditions are as open-ended as play itself. 

Seven Play Conditions 
An understanding of play conditions emerges from what research, child development, play theory and museum practices suggest will encourage and support children’s exploration, play, and learning in informal learning settings. Dimensions such as space, materials, relationships, and provocations, salient to different aspects of play, help in understanding play conditions. Observations, imagination, and intuition add to this knowledge, filling gaps and inviting us to think together. 

By separating and clustering these dimensions, we discover examples and possibilities, and begin to examine and manipulate play conditions in intentional and new ways. Seven play conditions are summarized below. Each is characterized by the general role it plays, its valued qualities, and a small sample of possibilities. 
  • Image of the Child is about the child’s strengths and capabilities and means engaging children at their highest level of ability; and making their strengths and capabilities visible. 
    • Valued qualities are: children’s curiosity, capabilities, social disposition, caring and empathy 
    • Possibilities that support and reflect the child’s capabilities: choices for one child and different choices for different children; traces of children’s thinking, doing, and making; focus on shared interests, etc. 
  • Context or Setting is about both physical and social space, ranging from macro to micro, where children can explore, play, and learn. 
    • Valued qualities are: safe, welcoming and accessible settings 
    • Possibilities for shaping settings: different scales, large and small spaces; light and sound; recognizable features; wayfinding clues; edges that define and differentiate areas, etc. 
  •  Invitation to Explore is about arranging selected elements to provoke or encourage children to notice and wonder, explore ideas—without giving too much direction. 
    • Valued qualities are: sparking curiosity; the child taking the experience where it needs to go; offering something worth noticing and discovering 
    • Possibilities for encouraging exploration: something fascinating; questions incongruities; multiple provocations; a sound walk, etc. 
  • Materials and Objects is about loose parts, tools, phenomena, art materials, digital media, etc. that give children agency and choice; encourage exploration and experimentation that is physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and linguistic; that generate new possibilities; and reveal new perspectives and insights about the world. 
    • Valued qualities are materials that support children’s agency, promote noticing and wondering; change with use and generate new insights; work at multiple ages
    • Possibilities for materials: engage some and sometimes all the senses; are real stuff; can be carried, lined up, and moved; change with use, etc. 
  • Relationships is about children and adults engaging with others; feeling a sense of
    Photo credit: Vergeront (Madison Children's Museum)
    welcome, respect, and connection 
    • Valued qualities foster social connections, value the individual and the group, are collaborative 
    • Possibilities for connecting: exchanging ideas among children; scaffolding; conversation; multiple places and positions, roles or seating, etc. 
  • Content is based in children’s interests and what is fascinating and meaningful to them about the world 
    • Valued qualities are interdisciplinary content; implicit content from child development; meaningful connections for the child 
    • Possibilities for engaging with content: comes through the senses, is embedded in the world, is released through interactions, can be experienced from different points of view, etc. 
  • Time is about a sense of open and unregulated play; time to direct play, follow an activity to a satisfying moment, and find enjoyment
    • Valued qualities are children deciding when play starts and ends; play stretching out over time
    • Possibilities for opening up time come from discouraging distractions and interruptions; allowing experiences to come to a natural end 
 A set of play conditions with examples helps us move away from predictable approaches towards deliberately thought through play set-ups. Working with play conditions nudges us into thinking in the languages of space, materials, relationships, and provocations and developing new ways of thinking. Considering possible play conditions slows us down from leaping to a finished idea or design. We see how play conditions, like children’s play, lean into and interact with one another, virtually seamlessly. We realize, for instance, how Materials are instrumental in creating an Invitation to Explore; how Materials prompt conversations which support Relationships; and how the Image of the Child and Time can’t be separated from other conditions. Finally, play conditions tell us as much about inviting rich play as they do about getting out of the way of children’s play. 

Ten Principles of Play Conditions 
Bringing a play conditions approach into creating opportunities for play takes time. It can be a new way of thinking. Integrating the approach into existing practices can involve problem solving and collaboration, backing up and starting over. Tailoring specific play conditions, these or others, to your context, whether for indoor or outdoor play, is always an on-going process. Paying attention to the following 10 principles along the way will provide support and add to your insights. Play conditions: 

1. Are always present, whether we are aware of them or not, and whether they are favorable to play or not.  

2. Impact children’s agency in their play. Play conditions can let the child direct the play, allow children to make of their play what they need to—or play conditions can interfere with play. 

3. Span all scales. From the full volume of a space, to the smallest loose parts, to open sight lines, to the ambiance of a space, play conditions are all sizes and proportions.
4. Are more than objects and more than space, more than the architecture, design and decoration. They are tangible and intangible.
Photo credit: Jim Roe (SMM)
5. Interact with one another as well as with children making the conditions fluid and dynamic. There is no one, or right, way to create play conditions. 

6. Induce something to happen, not by removing choices, but by creating the conditions that will increase the chances that children will engage deeply in play. 

7. Balance intentions for the experience with opening up possibilities, creating a place between what we think might happen and what we don’t yet know is possible. 

8. Require imagining to build a picture of what might happen if...; how a particular possibility might interact with other qualities and how children might engage with it. 

9. Come into clearer focus over time. Children are teaching us about play conditions all the time. We can learn by observing, listening, imagining, and reflecting on what they show us. 

10. Are more than the sum of their parts

What Happens When… 
Working with play conditions is, fundamentally, forming a hypothesis, or a succession of hypotheses about the relationship between children’s play and ways to support the place and processes of play. While not causal, relationships are operating. And while we don’t know what’s going to elicit play, with practice we can be more attuned to these connections and, increasingly, use them deliberately. 

Prompted by an exploratory question or experiential goal, play conditions help us in shifting from our hopes for play in general to lived experiences of deep, enjoyable, play that engages children’s bodies, minds, and feelings. We begin with conjuring up openings for play with our wonderings. How might we engage children in investigating properties of found objects and using them in their play? What materials might encourage children to change their physical space? How can we support children in setting challenges and taking risks? How do children share their ideas with one another? 

As we interrogate the content of play conditions, reflect on past experiences, observe children 
Photo credit: Snarkitecture

at play in varied settings, we have new hunches, generate possibilities, find fresh combinations, and ask another “what if?” question. We begin to discover, and hypothesize about, connections between the presence of certain features and children’s play. We build theories—temporary explanations—that express what might happen when particular qualities or variables of the physical and social environment are brought together. 
These hypotheses and mini-theories about places for play help us keep track of this world we are creating with children for play. 

Over time, we test, improve, and edit our understandings of the conditions that encourage the kind of play that we hope children will enjoy—rich, flexible, and full of possibilities for them to discover. 

Museum Notes