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.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Foundational Experiences in Museums Deconstructed

This post, part 2, continues to focus on Foundational Experiences in Museums 
from November 17, 2020 
Jeanne Vergeront

Understanding that there are foundational experiences that contribute to a solid foundation for a good start in life for children, regardless of age, ability, or background is an important step in providing them. Pointing out that museums can have a role in supporting these experiences is promising. Recognizing where these experiences are embedded in museums—in the vision, mission and values, understanding the audience, and the possibilities and challenges facing a city, region, or community—is a start in museums making these experiences available. Considering characteristics of foundational experiences is also helpful in shaping them. But…

What does a set of foundational experiences for a museum actually look like?

Answering that question involves a lot of other questions that I have heard over the years in working with staff at many museums to develop foundational experiences. It’s typical to want to know how many foundational experiences should a museum have? How does a museum know if it’s being unrealistic about what it can and can’t accomplish? How are foundational experiences expressed? How does a museum use foundational experiences in developing exhibits, environments, and experiences? 

Foundational Experiences: An Example and the Headlines
Using my work with museums and with learning frameworks, I have developed a set of foundational experiences to show a possible format, explore these questions, and give a helping nudge to this work. Something of a rough draft, museums are welcome to take this, work with it, and make it their own.

The set of 6 foundational experiences below are intended to establish where a museum believes it can make a positive difference for the children it serves. It might be helpful to think of these 6 statements as something like headlines for the 6 foundational experiences. 

All children, regardless of age, ability, or background should have opportunities to enjoy:
1. A sense of connection, acceptance and belonging
2. Growing capabilities, confidence, and independence
3. Engaging in making sense of the world 
4. A feeling of well-being
5.     Exploring and understanding feelings, ideas and perspectives, one's own and others’ 
6. Finding their place in the world

Some relevant features of the headline experiences, how they are described, what
they cover, and how many a museum might have are highlighted below. 
  • These experiences reflect an understanding that healthy development occurs across domains (social, emotional, sensorimotor, language-cognitive) and across all ages. While domains should be reflected in the foundational experiences, domains themselves are not foundational experiences.
  • The 6 headline experiences define important areas in which children should enjoy many varied and positive moments, interactions, and opportunities over the years. For each of the experiences, there are many ways a museum might support them with “building-block experiences” which are covered below. 
  • There’s no right number of foundational experiences, just as there’s no right number of goals for a strategic plan. Having too many, too few, ones that are too broad or too specific can be difficult to manage. To focus, a museum might consider where it has expertise, a track record, and likely opportunities it can offer: outdoors, play, relationships, cultural competence, etc.
  • The short answer to how many foundational areas a museum might select is  5-7. 

Adding Building-block Experiences
Each of the 6 headline experiences focus on the essence of something critical for a child’s good start in life and on-going healthy development. While providing focus, they also represent many experiences and opportunities that can be enjoyed again and again and that contribute to a child’s development each time, but not in the same way every time. 

These more specific types of experiences can be thought of as building-block experiences; they add support, supply variety, and point to how museums might begin to operationalize these experiences. Some of the ways building-block experiences support a headline experience such as A feeling of well-being (#4 below) might be: children have a shared and safe place to be part of something larger, have frequent and positive experiences with nature, enjoy opportunities to rest and reflect and others.                                                                                                                                                                         
The headline and building-block experiences below represent a possible set of foundational experiences. Together they help address typical questions covered in the comments that follow: how foundational experiences are framed or expressed; how a museum knows it’s not being overly ambitious about what it can and can’t accomplish; and how building block experiences begin to connect with museum experiences.

1. Children feel a sense of connection, acceptance, and belonging, when they:
Feel valued for who they are
Enjoy supportive relationships with peers and caring adults
Enjoy positive interactions including rewarding contact with staff and volunteers
Participate in activities at home, school, and communities
Care about and help others
Make memories with their family

2. Children experience growing capabilities, confidence and independence, when they:
Develop a sense of agency, a belief that they can have an impact on their world
Practice emerging skills and capabilities 
Assess abilities and risks realistically
Experience and see their impact, both big and small, on the world around them
Discover and follow their interests
Make choices and follow their implications 

3. Children engage in making sense of the world, when they:
Notice, ask questions, and look for answers
Have access to varied opportunities to explore, interact, and engage
Collaborate with others and work as a team to accomplish something greater 
Find relevant, meaningful connections with their everyday life
Have varied opportunities to explore, interact, and engage

4. Children experience a feeling of well-being, when they:
Have a shared and safe space to be a part of a community
Find wonder, joy and delight in themselves and their experiences
Have frequent and positive experiences with nature
Making healthy food, movement and activity choices
Enjoy opportunities to rest and reflect

5. Children explore and understand feelings, ideas, and perspectives, their own and others’, when they:
Share and talk about their experiences, ideas, and dreams with others
Express their ideas in varied and creative ways
Enjoy extended time playing and directing play
Explore varied objects, materials, and rich environments
Listen to others with different views or ideas
Respect how others experience sight, sound, and touch in different ways

6. Children find their place in the world, when they:
See themselves reflected and appreciated in big and small ways in the world around  them
Have positive interactions with people of diverse backgrounds
Explore their own and others’ cultures with increasing confidence
Open up to the possibilities of and manage the uncertainty of an expanding world
Can see a future for themselves 

Identifying building-block experiences gives further direction and insights into developing foundational experiences: how they are framed or expressed; how a museum knows it’s not being overly ambitious about what it can and can’t accomplish; and how building block experiences begin to connect with museum experiences. Some examples follow. 
  • Foundational experiences are about opportunities children should have for optimal development. Focusing on the child reflects this. Saying children… explore, engage, feel, find, etc. not only places children as the subject, but the structure of the statement itself centers on how children benefit from the building-block experiences: Children enjoy a sense of connection, acceptance, and belonging, when they… feel valued, etc.
  • It’s not unusual now-and-then for a building-block experience to fit in more than one area. When that happens, choose the best fit. 
  • Foundational experiences express an aspiration, a goal. Building-block experiences are stated more like outcomes, or long-term impacts. They point to where a museum has some capacity to provide an experience for a child in its setting that supports development and contributes to positive changes. A museum can identify ways it can contribute to a child finding their way in the world (#6) such as seeing themselves reflected in museum staff and volunteers, in images of children like them and of diverse families, and in experiences personally relevant and meaningful to them. 
  • Many small and large gestures across every dimension of the museum support the foundational experiences. Although not every foundational experience is present in every activity, gallery, or program, headline and building-block experiences do inform exhibit and program planning, shaping spaces, selecting amenities, and preparing staff and volunteers for interaction. With use, foundational experiences inspire activities, translate into criteria for planning, become part of the museum’s shared vocabulary, and focus evaluations. 
  • To get to a final version of the experiences, a few test questions helpful: Do the experiences all use the same format? Are they parallel to one another, for instance, do they start with verbs? Are they in the museum’s own voice?
No Small Matter    Through foundational experiences a museum can focus, act, and matter to the families, children, learners, friends, and communities they serve; they have an opportunity to contribute to children getting a firmer toe-hold in life.                                                                                        The process starts with locating these experiences in the museum’s vision, mission, and values; its audience; its community; and its own strengths. The set of foundational experiences which emerges, includes headline experiences supported by building-block experiences, which, in turn, inform activity and design choices, and encourage children explore, play, learn, and grow.  

With time and practice, with discussion and shared reflection, by learning together, a museum creates opportunities and experiences intentionally, with impact. When museums create experiences that emphasize relationships and facilitate social interactions, and that allow them to collaborate with others and work as a team to accomplish something greater. Museum experiences in rich environments with remarkable objects and intriguing materials invite children to notice, ask questions, and look for answers. Experiences offered in a gallery, program, or special event provide relevant, meaningful connections to their everyday life and support children in making sense of the world (#3). 

Doing this for children now and for their future is no small matter.

Jeanne Vergeront
Vergeront Museum Planning
December 9, 2020


Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Foundational Experiences in Museums

Museums want to matter. They want to matter to the families, children, learners, friends, and communities they serve in large and small ways, now and for the future. Their hopes and aspirations about the positive changes they believe are possible are expressed in their visions, missions, and values. Everyday, the good intentions and good works of museums are shared as museum experiences through programs, exhibits, collections, publications, events, and interactions with staff and volunteers; at the museum, in neighborhoods, schools, community settings, and on-line. These experiences which might be a once-in-a-lifetime event, an annual or monthly visit, brief or extended are, nevertheless, core to how museums matter. This is true particularly for children. 

Early life experiences, whether beneficial or harmful, have tremendous effects on human development, behavior, long-term health, and opportunities through life. Child development theory and research indicate that, in addition to children having basic needs such as food and shelter met, there are experiences that are essential to their becoming strong, caring, and responsible adults. These are experiences that children should be able to enjoy throughout their childhood and in settings across their lives—home, school, recreation, faith, and community, including museums, zoos, art spaces, and gardens. 

For all children, regardless of age, ability, or background, these experiences provide a solid foundation for a good start in life. For some children, these experiences are important as protective factors against the challenges and risks they face in life. These are children who may grow up exposed to a limited range of experiences or face adverse childhood experiences. 

The term adverse childhood experiences (ACES) refers to neglect, abuse, and potentially traumatic events that occur before age 18. These experiences can interfere with health, learning, and opportunities over a lifetime. Not as uncommon as they might seem to be, more than 60% of adults report having had one or more ACE. Research also suggests that social support, building healthy families early in the life of the child, and stress reduction strategies can help mitigate the damaging effects of ACES and build resilience. 

Where Museums Can Matter 
Among the many and varied museum offerings for children in family, school, and community groups—which many if not most museums offer—are foundational experiences.* When museums create experiences that emphasize relationships, socializing, rich environments, agency and choice, and varied interactions with families, friends, and peers, they are helping to build assets that help children get a firmer foot-hold in life. 

A child builds a gizmo that spins and whirrs; climbs to the top of a 4-story climber; takes part in a biological survey; or figures out how to build a zipline with other children. In those experiences they feel included, successful at navigating physical challenges; they problem solve and work together with other children. They are exploring their world, growing their confidence and competence, and developing a robust sense of self and belonging. These are building-block experiences that support physical, affective, and cognitive developmental processes, tap into children’s capabilities and strengths, connect children with others, and shine a light on each child's spark. 

While there is no set list of such experiences for museums, direction and starting points for a museum’s foundational experiences are in plain sight. 

• A museum’s vision, mission, and values highlight the positive changes it believes are possible for its community. Those statements often include greater social cohesion, strong families, supportive relationships, engaged and caring citizens, and equipping children for the future

• How a museum views its audience and its shared understanding of children in its age range reflect the qualities it values and hopes to encourage such as curiosity, feeling valued, and confident in exploring the world

• The promises and challenges facing the city or region a museum serves highlight where a museum can be helpful, related to, for instance, collective well-being, a more connected community, or valuing youth

• The hallmarks of a museum’s most powerful experiences are frequently starting points for foundational experiences: play as a way of learning, shared experiences, a time and a place to be children, or coming together as a family

• In addition to these museum-based sources for foundational experiences is what research, theory, and community wisdom say about what contributes to children’s thriving and what concerns us now about children during the pandemic. 

Shaping Foundational Experiences 
Shaping a set of foundational experiences is an iterative process that engages staff from across the museum to pare down, clarify, and organize a preliminary list culled from the museum’s core documents, best practices, and museum research. Lively discussions grow a shared understanding around these experiences in the context of a museum and help arrive at 5 to 7 clusters of essential experiences. Through this process, a team will discover some characteristics that foundational experiences share that are described below. (Examples below in italics.) 

• Building blocks of experience 
• Naming experiences 
• Both goals and outcomes 
• Inclusive 
• Not just for children 
• Part of a community effort 
• Integral to museum planning, processes, and efforts 

Building-blocks of experience. A foundational experience such as A sense of connection, acceptance and belonging is the accumulation of many varied and positive moments, interactions, and opportunities that a child enjoys. Those are building-block experiences that occur over time and in multiple settings. Being valued for who they are, having supportive relationships with peers and caring adults, and making memories with their family work together might be among 6 or 7 building-block experiences that contribute to one of a museum’s set of 5 to 7 foundational experiences. 

Naming experiences
. By naming its foundational (and building-block) experiences, a museum develops a shared language for understanding and working with them intentionally. Naming helps clarify what children need for healthy development and gets at the roots of these assets of great interest including what these assets might look like in younger and older children. This process also helps place children’s developmental needs such as A Sense of Well-being in the context of a museum and the experiences it creates. 

Both goals and outcomes. A foundational experience such as, Children enjoy growing capabilities, confidence, and independence expresses a hope and aspiration for them. It serves as a goal. At the same time, when a museum describes what positive developmental change in a specific area looks like, it frames possible outcomes of these experiences. These outcomes point to additional ways a museum might support them and how it might track them. 

Inclusive. Foundational experiences are concerned with nurturing a child’s developmental foundation. They value and span all domains—sensory-motor, cognitive, social and emotional—and accommodate the constantly unfolding development of children and their growing capabilities. Foundational experiences recognize and respect children’s age, gender, race and ethnicity, ability, and family income. While not exhaustive, the range and variety among the 5 to 7 sets of foundational experiences and their building-block experiences nurture strengths and develop assets in many ways. 

Not just for children. Foundational experiences relate readily to children’s growth and development. Many experiences that are essential for children’s optimal development, however, are also critical to adults’ on-going health and wellbeing. At what age do we stop needing to feel accepted and included? A sense of joy, wonder, and awe? Foundational experiences also help museums in shaping and supporting the roles of adults—parents, caregivers, teachers, museum facilitators, and volunteers—in contributing to foundational experiences. 

Part of a community effort. Museums make critical contributions to creating and providing foundational experiences. They are committed to being safe, accessible spaces that offer children rich varied encounters, environments, and materials that open an expanding world full of possibilities. Equally important, museums are part of a larger eco-system of families, schools, and other community and cultural organizations with shared interests, complementary roles, and special resources. All of this is essential to building strong, resilient children and positive futures. 

Integral to museum planning, processes, and efforts. Integral to its work, foundational experiences can be incorporated into museums at any stage of development or planning whether it is a new museum, renovation or expansion, strategic planning, learning experience framework, or a pivot during the pandemic. They are embedded in a museum’s processes, planning, and practices; communicated to staff, trustees, partners, and supporters. 

In the Museum Context 
Foundational experiences fill a child’s experience bank and self-confidence with successes and small triumphs that will serve them well when they encounter setbacks, have to make difficult choices; they will cheer them in the moment and last into a hopefully brighter future. While these experiences alone are not guaranteed to change life outcomes, planning with them in mind represents a commitment to adding positive factors to the lives of young members of our communities and building on children’s potential. Museums are fortunate to be in a position to contribute to those foundational experiences and the building-block experiences that can make a difference into the future. In fact, as museums step forward, adapt, and respond to the pandemic, health concerns, and educational disparities, they have an even greater opportunity to be more deliberate about delivering foundational experiences. 

The next Museum Notes post will continue to explore foundational experiences and look more closely at a set of foundational experiences I am developing from my work on learning frameworks.

*I have been exploring the idea of foundational experiences over the past decade and have written about them here as essential experiences. I have used essential experiences in dozens of learning frameworks with museums. But, this is only one way of looking at look at nurturing strengths and changing futures for children—and in the context of museums. Check of The Search Institute and its Assets for Healthy Development and the GAR Foundation's Essential Experiences.

--- Jeanne Vergeront
     Museum Notes
     November 17, 2020

Friday, October 9, 2020

Making Sense – Two Ways

When you start planning a museum experience for children—an exhibit, environment, event, program or even a museum for children—how do you go about understanding the children you intend to serve?

While professionals and researchers across the museum field have various methods for learning about museum visitors, they are generally not used widely with children. Even when they are, they often have a narrow focus. This is somewhat understandable. Gathering input is time consuming and requires expertise to be helpful. Familiar methods are generally less suited to engaging children. Outside of behavioral observations, methods like focus groups, surveys, and interviews rely on skills children may not have developed fully. When we do consult children, the focus is often limited. We assess their understanding of a concept or a preference for one activity over another.

Wonder of Learning Exhibit: Reggio Children
And yet, we are undergoing a change in our conceptualization of children. Advances in
neuroscience and brain development and educational projects like the Reggio Emilia schools have expanded our view of children as capable social actors, thinkers, and doers, active agents in their play, learning, and development. This provides ample reason to go beyond occasional questions about a specific activity or a focus on a skill rather than on the child to more fully understand and engage them in museums. 

To be more than a good intention, however, we must create meaningful opportunities to actively involve children and learn with and from them. There is no lack of interesting and important questions to explore. In fact, the questions we might ask for planning museum experiences can also tell us something we didn't know about children's thinking, learning, and understanding which is critical to creating experiences with greater impact. These are questions as much about children as about museums; as much about what delights them as what they are learning; and as much about our broader understanding of children as testing a prototype.

Familiar Steps in an Open-ended, Iterative Process. We can explore these questions using familiar steps and methods in evaluation and research and draw on approaches like the pedagogical documentation used in the Reggio schools. This blend creates an open-ended, qualitative, descriptive, emergent, and exploratory approach which offers a broader, richer, more comprehensive view of children's engagement with their world while helping us glimpse what we couldn't otherwise see.

Reggio Children
Like a series of small studies unfolding over time, one study builds on another, fueled by new questions. We don't know just where such studies will lead. We do, however, know that this iterative process of framing questions and thinking and discovering together, will build our understanding of children and contribute to authentic experiences that engage their potential. 

Framing Questions, like developing research questions, brings focus to our interest in better understanding how children make sense of themselves and their world. Questions about children's interests and understanding need to be generous, not reduced to one activity or behavior while ignoring the richness of the context. A question about how children explore a natural setting, for example, can look at how they navigate undefined spaces, are curious about mud, and develop a connection to the natural world. We might even notice something germane to siting the museum building itself or an outdoor nature play area.

Designing for Engagement, like designing a study, considers a promising focus and how to investigate it: the children, their ages and groupings; the setting, the nature of the engagement, and appropriate methods. Here, engagement is understood as children's activity—behavior, movement, conversation—as well as their attention, interest, and its intensity. The study itself is an opportunity for children to interact with materials, the setting, other children, an artist, animals, and ideas in ways that maintain the complexity of the real world. This approach is necessarily open to the unexpected happening.

Watching and Listening, may appear to be less orderly than data collection typically does, but it is no less intentional. An approach that centers on children, their capabilities, agency, and potential follows their interest, attention, actions, questions, hunches, and conversations. Methods like video, photos, recording, drones, drawings, and mapping capture dialogue, movement, play, and transformations of space. Data collection literally follows them, bringing in multiple points of view and ways of capturing their encounters. A debrief immediately following gathers what has escaped the eye and ear to produce multiple snapshots and sequences of the children's explorations.

Reviewing and Reflection, much like analysis, is concerned with thinking about what we are

Photo credit: Vergeront
seeing in the information and impressions we have gathered. Multiple passes of videos, photos, recordings, or drawings by different people capture what we think might be happening. With careful consideration, we arrive at possible interpretations. We work to locate the meaning making in the child and then in ourselves. And we do it again. Why? Because in suspending our certainty about what we are noticing, what the child might be feeling, paying attention to, or doing, we are also learning about how we see. We are making sense in a way that is provisional both for the child and for us in understanding the child.

Relaunching, much like results, considers where exploration might lead. While a study might be a starting point for understanding a child's interests, questions, and ideas on a potential exhibit topic or activity, it should also help us make sense of how children work with others, set their own goals in play, or view their capabilities and accomplishments. The genesis of an exhibit can come from observing and listening to children rather than from exhibit planners, marketing, school curriculum, or funder interest. A Relaunch invites exploring alternative meanings, pursuing another line of inquiry, and shaping questions around a museum's long-term interest in children. 

Making Sense of Children Making Sense. The involved and evolving nature of a process concerned with making sense of children making sense of the world is challenging both in practice and in making the benefits concrete and concise. Brief descriptions and photos from 3 museum projects follow, each highlighting various aspects of this approach.

    Planning for the recently opened Louisiana Children's Museum (LCM) in New Orleans involved groups of children and parents in a set of activities and conversations that informed the design direction, exhibit development, architectural design, and graphics. Development of LCM's 2011 museum strategic master plan began with a visitor panel of a dozen children, 5 - 10 years, their parents and caregivers that met 3 times. Sessions focused on what was fascinating to children in LCM's Julia Street exhibits, how parents and caregivers saw their child's thinking and learning, and what was important and interesting to the children about water in their everyday lives. Children's drawings, discussions, photographs, and words not only expressed their ideas and interests, but also inspired planning. 

Photo credit: © Gyroscope Inc.

One boy's drawing of his ideal exhibit showed a giant chessboard overlaid with a map of New
Orleans and sounds collected from across the city. Moving a chess piece would activate a city sound on that square. His drawing inspired the Jackson Square entry experience in the Make Your Mark gallery.

Recognizing how this first round of conversations and drawings brimmed with children's ideas and parent observations, dialogue sessions were held throughout the 8 years of planning. They were incorporated into camps, one-time sessions, and school projects. Sessions focused on topics about growing food, where ideas come from, water, animals and their habitats. Some focused on the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. The insights and interests that emerged from children and families inspired experiences (a crawfish boil), became gallery graphics, were incorporated into way-finding, and even appear in LCM's logo. Highlighting the role of children's contributions, use of a child's art work includes the child's name and age.

Photo Credit: Louisiana Children's

Through the team's observations and listening, members learned that these children have a sense of place, understand something about local food culture, and how water plays a role in moving food from New Orleans to the world. Relationships are important to them; they take care of things, help each other, and are careful observers. These observations and new questions are being folded into LCM's ongoing work.

•    Interest in exploring children's ideas about communities and the places that make up communities prompted a 2014 collaboration between Minnesota Children's Museum and the Reggio-inspired Network of Minnesota. As part of MCM's 2014-2017 expansion and renovation, Seeing Everyday Places was a project within a project within a project. MCM shared with educators and families in local early years programs the community settings the Our World gallery would include: a fire station, park, farmers' market, hardware store, post office, and food truck. 

Over several months, children visited one of the settings with their class, in small groups, or with their families. They met and talked with people at the hardware store; went behind the scenes at the bank; and visited the fire station. New lines of inquiry emerged: curiosity about types of mailboxes and each child's family mailbox, and how more money is made. 

Fire Station Kitchen
Courtesy Minnesota Children's Museum

Documentation panels from each of the groups highlighted connections children found between everyday places in their neighborhoods and communities. "A Story of Materials and Money" captured a family's trips to the hardware store. That parent noted that, over the course of the family's exploring hardware stores, her 4-year old's building constructions changed from spaceships and fantasy vehicles to gas stations and neighborhood scenes. Children who explored parks created Nature Park Blue Prints for the Our World park. Four-year old Oliver's blue print specified the number (6), size (s, m, l), and type (deciduous and evergreen) or trees; a button for making rain sounds; a fountain and a bench; and magnifying glasses. Responding to children's curiosity about firefighters living at the 
Fire station living
Photo credit: Vergeront

station when they work, MCM devoted more space and activities to a fire station kitchen where children could explore firefighters' daily routines through dramatic play.

 •    Planning currently underway for Region 5 Children's  Museum (R5CM) in north central Minnesota is conducting a set of small studies and community engagement based in the Museum's strategic master plan. Referred to as encounters, they are intended to engage children, families, and communities around understanding more about how children find their place in the world. They are also part of early exhibit development. The first of several encounters for small groups of children 2 - 10 years is underway in a park that is likely to be the home of the Museum.

Photo credit: R5CM

With an interest in understanding more about how children engage in open-ended exploration and child-directed play in an outdoor setting, the Museum's team set up 2 conditions, a park playground area and a natural area, both with loose parts the children could carry, build with, pretend with, and investigate. In one session, an extended play experience laster nearly 25 minutes. Captured on video, a group of children ages 5 - 9 from a summer day camp program worked collaboratively at the climb-on play equipment. Using 50-feet of rope and moving back-and-forth between two structures tying the rope between them, from 3 - 6 children worked to make a zip line. 

They tied knots and tested their strength. When knots loosened and the rope—and the child—dropped, they tied new knots. They lowered the height of the rope at one end and raised the other end by shimmying up poles and boosting each other up to reach higher bars. Working with an apparent hunch about reducing friction on the zip line, they found a length of PVC pipe and slid it over the rope. Like good problem solvers, they tested, revised, rethought aspects of the problem, and improved their design.

From review and discussion of this and other videos, photos, and notes, the team has been thinking about what the children are doing and what their engagement might mean to them. The team noticed the children's extensive and innovative investigation of materials; how they were collaborative and managed their interactions; had hunches and persisted in exploring them; and that they socialized easily. The child-directed curriculum of everyday STEM the children developed was rich.

The first set of encounters has laid a groundwork for the next which will focus on the natural phenomena at the park the children notice and how they use their senses and imaginations to explore and represent them. The team has yet to see where that will lead.

More Like a Milkweed Pod Than a Pocketful of Rye. Where we place our attention is where we begin to see what is happening. When we follow compelling questions and when we wonder, think, and discover together, we deepen our understanding of the thinkers, doers, and learners in our museums including ourselves. We push on safe ideas, shift perspectives, fold new insights into everyday choices, and create new touchstones within a group working together. Each person takes something of that shared understanding into a new setting, fresh possibilities, and a new set of questions.

My thanks to Lani Shapiro, Tom Bedard, Cheryl Kessler, Mary Weiland, Jim Roe, Peter Olson, Maeryta Medrano, and Julia Bland

Related Museum Notes

Observation: Seeing, Un-seeing, Re-seeing:

Listening to Children's Thinking:



Monday, September 7, 2020

Navigating Professional Reading in a Pandemic Moment

Origami by Peter Keller

Are you reading more and enjoying it less these days? Are you reading less and enjoying it more? For me, it could be one or the other depending on the day. Often, it is both. Consequently, I am selective with my reading which involves trying to figure out what that means.

On the one hand, given the tumultuous times we are going through, we can’t retreat and avoid facing the challenging realities surrounding the museum field and its future. On the other hand, we are trying to see into a future that can’t be seen. Nevertheless I navigate this territory by thinking how do we make sense out of where we are, think about how to move forward in a meaningful way and, at the same time, make room for what we don’t know might happen?  


Consequently, I scan the articles, blogs, on-line journals, and videos looking for ones by thinkers and writers interested in the big picture, bold questions, and new opportunities that will create movement and change—and hope. I've dubbed this intriguing terrain between planning and chance. And since what we are facing is so enormous, I think about it as three questions.

§  What do we understand about our current situation and the dynamic context of our community in the pandemic and post-pandemic world?

§   What matters long-term to our organization and community that must be valued, preserved, and protected?

§  What’s possible? What new opportunities do we want to be poised for?


These questions are intentionally big and roomy and demand courage to address them honestly. They insist on people from across a museum engaging, listening, thinking together, building on one another’s ideas, and assuming a shared good-faith interest in the museum’s future. While set out as if in sequence, these questions do not follow a linear, step-by-step sequence. Instead they are more like a large spiraling conversation that is carried out in the tentative tense, reflecting uncertainties, helpfully expressed as would, could, let’s, maybe, perhaps, what if?


Each question generates more questions that prompt thinking, listening, and reframing. They are enriched by varied perspectives within and beyond the museum. They connect to resources, create openings for more thinking, and support change.


#1 What do we understand?

This question is about developing a current, realistic picture of the museum, its strengths and challenges, the community it serves, and the context in which it operates. The challenge of addressing this question is to be honest and realistic, to be neither too granular nor too self-congratulatory. For developing a shared understanding, these sets of questions and relevant resources might be helpful.


§  What resources are we working with? Consider people, skills, knowledge, leadership organizational culture; visitors; relationships, community position, and reputation; public space—indoors and out— and facility management; and time–immediate and long term.

§  What new limitations are we facing with our resources, business model, staff, audience, safety?

§  How can we understand and view more of our resources as assets?

§  What possible trends could impact the museum: financial, health, employment, local educational?

§  What accomplishments do we have—areas where we have a solid, impressive track record—that we can build on and leverage?

§  What don’t we understand that we really need to? What additional information do we need; how and where will we get it?

§  What are we learning that we can share with others internally, with partners, across the community, and in the field?


Resources that might be relevant and interesting:

§  AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums by Elizabeth Merritt

§  Nonprofit Lifecycles: Stage-based Wisdom for Nonprofit Capacity by Susan Kenny Stevens

§  Managing in Times of Transition on Paul Orselli’s Museum FAQ YouTube interview with Christian Greer

§  Quantifying Our Museum’s Social Impact: How the Oakland Museum of California is using data science to measure impact by Johanna Jones



#2 What Matters?

This question calls us to think about what matters in the long-term to the organization and community that must be valued, preserved, and protected. In exploring this question, the challenge is to be clear about the museum’s enduring purpose and deep values without being limited by cherished beliefs. To develop a shared understanding around what matters, the museum can explore these sets of questions and relevant resources.


§  What is fundamental to who we are, based on our vision, mission, and values and audience?

§  What are our community’s assets, needs, and priorities that engage with our purpose?

§  How can we frame what we want to be as we move past the pandemic preserving what is essential? Is it, for example, to survive and re-open; rebound; be more human-centered; occupy a larger position on the local learning landscape; be part of the regional well-being infrastructure; or become a smaller, more nimble museum?

§  What high potential future do we want for our museum and community?

§  In what new ways can the museum matter, or matter more, to its visitors, partners, and community? What must we preserve for that to happen?

§  What might be a game changer for the museum, something that would affect what matters?

§  What are we learning that we can share with others internally, with partners, across the community, and the field?


Resources for thinking about what matters.

§  Templates for Change on Ann Ackerson’s Take 5

§  Where to Now, Museums? on Ed Rodley’s Thinking about Museums 

§  Running Museums as Businesses: An Interview with Gary Hoover on Paul Orselli’s ExhibiTricks blog 

§  Challenge Your Thinking, Change Your Museum on Museum Notes



#3 What’s Possible?

This question is about developing a shared understanding around the kind of new opportunities for which the museum wants to be poised. Preparation and the nature of chance itself drives the challenges for addressing this question. They involve expanding a view of what is possible without losing sight of what’s essential. The following sets of questions and relevant resources are intended to help in thinking together about possible futures for the museum.


§  Where might new or unexpected opportunities emerge? Given how we’ve framed what matters, what areas of possibility or opportunity have the greatest potential to move us forward?

§  How can we re-imagine the ways in which our assets–our track record, capacities, relationships–could link together and respond to these opportunities?  

§  Of the possibilities that energize individuals and the museum collectively, how can we build consent around those most promising to our future?

§  Thinking about these opportunities, what do they allow us to accomplish that we couldn’t otherwise accomplish that works towards a greater good?

§  Are they very likely, somewhat likely or very unlikely to occur? Are they temporary or long-term change? Who will be affected by the actions we take?  

§  What do we understand about these possibilities and what they require of us? How can we use available time to grow needed capacity and the conditions for success? How can we be alert, selective, and nimble in responding to unanticipated change and opportunities?

§  What are we learning that we can share with others internally, with partners, across the community, and in the field?


Resources to inspire thinking about possibilities include:

§  Our Story by Amanda Schochtet on Micro

§  Calling All Phoenixes on Nina Simon’s Medium

§  Creating a Better World Means Asking Better Questions by Hildy Gottlieb in Stanford Social Innovation Review

§  The Power of Being an Experiment on Creating the Future

Good luck on the road ahead!