Sunday, October 16, 2016

An Urban Twist on Learning Everywhere

Temple University's Urban Thinkscape
Everyday in cities and towns across the country, young children sit in grocery carts while parents shop. They watch busses pass, wait for the street light to change, and look at the laundry swirl and tumble at the Laundromat. Accompanying their parents and caregivers on daily errands and going to and from work, day care, and school, children are passing fascinating sights and abundant sources of information about their world and their place in it. They are curious and eager to know about what they are seeing and hearing. 

These everyday moments and the conversation and questions that flow back and forth, are full of opportunities for children to make connections with others and understand the world. They hear new words, follow the rhythm of conversation, remember other experiences, and have ideas. These moments also foster meaningful adult-child relationships that serve as protective factors throughout life.

A recent story on NPR (10/03) reported on several related projects in the Philadelphia area that intend to bring opportunities to more children to explore and engage with their cityscape and their parents. Emerging from the work of researchers at Temple University, the projects’ broad goal is to level persistent inequalities in young children’s learning experiences. The project focuses on increasing opportunities for them to learn in their everyday world and to expand parent and caregiver engagement with the child that is critical to that learning.

The Supermarket Speak study posted signs with “questions for your child” in grocery stores in Philadelphia. Conducted by a team at Temple University, the study found that, in low-income neighborhoods, the signs prompted more and higher quality talk between adults and children under 8 years–an increase of one third.  Implementing low-cost ($20), simple interventions in everyday environments appear to boost children’s language development; that, in turn, can boost school readiness skills. Supermarket Speak has inspired projects in other cities including London, Ontario.

Urban Thinkscape is a pilot project in the West Philadelphia Promise Zone that offers children opportunities for engaged learning around their neighborhood. The Temple University team designed activities into streetscapes where families walk, wait for busses, meet and connect. Five installations, an Animation Streetlight, Puzzle Bench, Jumping Feet, Stories, and Hidden Figures, stimulate spatial skills and support executive function skills. On-site signage and a website connect caregivers to additional resources. The group is considering additional sites like a Laundromat and doctor’s waiting rooms for Urban Thinkscape. The project received the KaBOOM! 2016 Play Everywhere Challenge.

In connecting research and practice, this project brings another innovative approach to its goal of addressing early inequalities. One of the researchers is training local residents to unobtrusively collect data on site. Data collection will look at conversational turn-taking between parents and children and the use of spatial words and number words. Not only will this generate useful insights about the impact of Urban Thinkscape, but it will also build a range of skills among neighborhood residents.

Seeing Children In Everyday Places

In addition to creating a space that helps reduce barriers that undermine the potential of children growing up with limited learning opportunities, Urban Thinkscape also expands the range of safe, interactive urban spaces planned with children in mind. Outside of playgrounds, there are few places to linger and enjoy. Moreover, playgrounds are typically segregated from the flow of daily urban life.

Placing activities in a real world urban context increases the visibility of enrichment opportunities that are everywhere, accessible, and critical to children’s growing, learning, gaining confidence, and becoming thinkers. Everyday places where parents and caregivers spend time with young children are truly informal learning environments. Sidewalks, bus stops, streets, shops, Laundromats, park benches, and street corners are full of small and large fascinations for children. They inspire countless conversations between adults and children, conversations that are essential to children making sense of their immediate world and the larger world.

Active thinkers and learners in the everyday moments of their lives, children ask where the number 14 bus goes and what makes stoplights change. They have ideas about where food comes from and where water goes after a rain. In the conversations that follow their questions and ideas, children are constructing explanations about how transportation systems work, noticing how things change, and figuring out the relationships among the places they go. On-the-spot resources that are salient to adults make it easier for them to support and extend these interactions, encourage curiosity, build vocabulary, and explore ideas together.

Places like Urban Thinkscape also invite the city–residents, neighbors, and passersby–to participate in children’s learning and play in ways that information campaigns and strong programs to close the 30 million-word-gap cannot. When we are on the street, we overhear children's questions, notice their interest in signs, and pause to look at the symbols they have drawn on the sidewalk with chalk. As we hear their voices and watch them explore, we see them becoming readers and storytellers. We connect with them as neighbors, friends, guides, learners.

What Takes Us So Long?

Initially finding Urban Thinkscape reposted and retweeted was heartening. Sharing information keeps core supporters current. Spreading the word about this innovative and practical concept and its purpose may inspire stakeholder interest and support.

The more I thought about the project and the enthusiasm it is generating, however, the more I wondered: What takes us so long?

There is no lack of evidence of the environmental factors that make a positive difference in life outcomes for children, especially children facing multiple challenges at home and in their neighborhoods. The original study that inspired Supermarket Speak and Urban Thinkscape and the 30 million word gap efforts was conducted in 1995, more than 20 years ago. While promising and interesting, Urban Thinkscape shouldn’t be a rare example of innovations in everyday places and urban spaces that encourage conversations between adults and children. There should be dozens and dozens of examples of strategies and design ideas that tap unrecognized neighborhood assets and engage children and adults in talking about and exploring them.  

Four years ago, at the Association of Children’s Museums’ Reimagining Children’s Museums conference in May 2016 in Portland, a presenter asked, What would an everywhere and all the time children’s museum be like? This was a bold challenge to bring well-designed, interactive experiences that engage children and adults in talk and play in neighborhoods, libraries, parks, playgrounds, vacant lots, and apartment complexes.

Even before I read that the Urban Thinkscape experiences were “children’s museum quality exhibits,” I wondered, why children’s museums haven’t already been dotting their city landscapes with such spaces. This is precisely the convergence of children’s museum missions, strategic interests, and demonstrated strengths. They have a position, if not an actual track record, of championing the value of play in children's thinking, learning, and wellbeing and the critical role of adults in their learning lives. They have created innovative experiences and activities that invite exploration and conversation indoors and out, in cities and in towns.

Credit: David Zinn
Of note is that two of the 50 winners for the 2016 KaBOOM! Play Everywhere Challenge that Urban Thinkscape project received are children’s museums, Madison Children’sMuseum (WI) and Children’s Museum of Eau Claire WI). Two other children’s museums, Habitot Children’s Museum (Berkeley, CA), and Marbles Kids Museum (Raleigh, NC) were finalists.

I would like to think that still more engaging spaces are in the works. Perhaps Little Free (Children’s) Libraries are already sprouting up in neighborhoods and on playgrounds. Maybe swings are replacing benches and supporting conversation while murals and 3-D chalk art bring forgotten corners of the neighborhood to life and invite descriptions, questions, and stories. There could be playpaths, storywalks, exercise tracks; Eye Spy games and dioramas animating spaces and inviting conversations.

Clearly, there is no lack of ideas of what might transform, engage, and delight children and adults. There’s no lack of evidence of the value of safe, engaging experiences for children and adults to explore together. How can we harness what we do well as museums with what we know is needed in our communities?

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Monday, October 3, 2016

PlaceMaking and Museums

Cloud Arbor, Buhl Community Park, Pittsburgh (Photo: Ned Kahn)

 Place is everywhere. In large and small ways, it is significant in how we make meaning of the world and within our lives. Place is where we come from, where we feel alive, where we connect with others and where we feel we belong. Connections to place are personal, anywhere and everyday. We are in relationship with the places we live, work, play, love, and remember.

Many museums, historic sites, zoos, and nature centers work at the intersection of history, environment, and culture: rich in local history, punctuated by majestic landforms, or on the site of nationally significant events. Here, a museum can explore, interpret, and connect visitors with the power of place. In these cases, drawing from what is well known, beautiful or captured headlines in the past is relatively apparent.

Although museums are often seen as landmarks and place-based, many are less obviously grounded in place. There are no ruins, no poet’s cabin, no geological formations. No rare species live only here; there are no caves and no traces of remarkable human persistence over time on this site. Yet, even without a plaque or a pedigree, museums can create a sense of place as placemakers engaging the community and deepening connections with place and community.

We Are Always Some Place 
We want to know where we are. At some level, we want to find out something about ourselves from a place, perhaps a preference or an interest, a feeling or a sense of what’s enduring. Through use, sharing, belonging, remembering, and time, places fill with meaning. We may walk the same way to the bus everyday and find a certain spot that feels restful. We return every fall to see that spectacular red maple in the park. We find the space between two buildings intriguing and pleasing. We remember the shortcut we took to school and the sense of mystery it held returns.

Placemaking brings to life places like these and others that we tend overlook. It capitalizes on the distinctiveness of a spot. Drawing on symbols with local significance, connecting with activities like fishing or quarrying associated with an area’s past, or interpreting local stories, placemaking opens up a site in new ways. The result may be rediscovering or cultivating an identity, adding vitality, making a site's story visible to friends, passers-by, and members of the community, or strengthening civic cohesion.
 Linked to urban design, placemaking may be as iconic as the Highline, as incidental as trees forming an arch along a street, as intentional as site-specific art, or as inspired as a mural incorporating a vine climbing a wall. 

One way museums bring value to the communities they serve is in their role as placemakers. Whether planned around the museum itself or in  community spaces, museum placemaking projects engage visitors, partners, and neighbors,  building on existing knowledge of and relationships with a place and work towards a shared vision. Varied perspectives and imaginations help in reimagining ignored spaces, animating an incidental space, and making a place welcoming, meaningful, and shared. In reimagining a place, it is as if we are noticing it for the first time or in a completely new way. When a space that was once a pass-through becomes a place for people, we want to gather, linger, return, and share with others. In the process we are taking ownership, building caring and connection with others and with places, revitalizing an area, and strengthening community.

Making Place Visible
Varying in form and scale, placemaking is a process takes shape through extended community engagement with place at the center. Placemaking projects engage museums, arts organizations, libraries, businesses, citizens, and community groups. They reveal the potential of a space, bring assets to the forefront, and introduce new possibilities and meaning 

Placemaking uncovers and reveals the unrecognized potential of a space. Placemaking may use a building, views, natural light, surprise, humor, the region, or the past to highlight and make visible a place's identity.

• One of Pittsburgh Children’s Museum’s multiple creative placemaking projects is Cloud Arbor, a public art piece by artist Ned Kahn. Located in front of the Museum, this year-round interactive experience along with seating and plantings has helped transform a neglected space and former crossroads into Pittsburgh’s newest park. 
• In the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, pedestrians enjoy an encounter with an unexpected giant Troll crouched under the Aurora bridge (originally holding a crushed VW bug). Playing with place, the sculpture uses the Three Billy Goats Gruff story to animate a typically ignored space and transform it into a local landmark.
• The Oil Museum in Stavanger Norway transformed an adjacent abandoned space into a playground, reinterpreting place around the oil fields in the area. In creating play spaces for children and youth, Geopark uses geologic forms and recycled materials related to the technology and materials of oil production
Placemaking uncovers and brings assets to the forefront. Sometimes the resources of a place and what it holds are disconnected or hidden by change and growth. Placemaking may involve peeling back layers to discover new ways to signify place.  

• From 2010 -2014 Open Field at The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis invited individuals and groups to propose and share activities that converted The Walker’s big, green yard into a cultural commons. In this summer-long festival of community-sourced events, the line between casual spectator and active participant shifted. Activities ranged from card making for nursing homes to yoga, to poetry readings, to a Fluxus Running Club.  
• Significant features of place can assert themselves into placemaking. When the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach planned a 42,000 square foot addition, preservation of an 80-year old Banyan tree prompted the redesign of the museum’s entry by the project’s architect, Sir Norman Foster. 
• Streams that once ran through our towns and cities have since been covered over or diverted to culverts, tunnels, and sewers. Daylighting streams that ran through an area restores them to their more natural state and makes the past visible. Arts projects like Ghost Arroyo sonically and visually highlight an underground creek in an area of San Francisco tracing the pathways of waters long hidden.
• A pedagogy of place, studying and solving problems based in an area, shares a strong relationship with placemaking. The Grand Rapids Public Museum School uses the the Grand Rapids area as a textbook to involve students locally through real world problem solving that can apply to other places or situations.

Placemaking reshapes a place to introduce new possibilities and meaning. Reimagining a place around a new purpose, finding a collective vision, or opening it to other experiences can transform, revitalize, or invent it as something completely new.
MAH's Abbott Square: Photo Credit: MAH
• When Paley Park  opened in 1967, it created a quiet respite on a busy Manhattan street. It also became a model for transforming smalls spaces into parks and parklets for people by creating gathering places in public areas. The Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco hosts a parklet with benches and views into the museum as a way to engage the public in its mission.
• In 2013 the Museum of Art and History activated a community engagement process to transform Abbott Square into the creative heart of Santa Cruz and the front porch of downtown. MAH has engaged hundreds of community members to envision Abbott Square, shaping a cluster of projects, defining spaces and their connections, and framing plans for programming that will animate the space.
Burning Man offers perhaps a curious and somewhat twist on introducing new meaning through placemaking. Burning Man has created a place with great meaning and a strong identity out of the “empty” space Black Rock Desert in Nevada. Moreover this place is also distinguished by its intentional impermanence every year; it disappears. Yet, it has cultivated a powerful sense of place.

Whatever space and time mean, place and occasion mean more.
-Aldo van Eyck
Placemaking Resources

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