Monday, April 25, 2011


Photo from: together structure/slideshow.asp 

‘Who would think to build something like that?’ That’s what Eric Lennartson thought when he saw a photograph of a sculpture in a weekly e-mail from an architecture magazine.  Eric is an architect in Mankato (MN) and on the board of the emerging Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota (CMSM). Fascinated by this art installation and excited to see evidence of children using it, Eric thought it would fit in with the kind of experiences the emerging museum was interested in for its Play Lab. CMSM’s temporary base of operation, Play Lab is introducing the children's museum to the community while it is focusing on how exhibits play with children and families and how children and families play with exhibits. 

Plastic wrap stretched across the steel frame
CMSM’s TapeScape is exactly that–a landscape made of packaging tape. Plastic shrink-wrap has been stretched back-and-forth from end-to-end of an L-shaped steel pipe structure about 32’ L x 24’ W x 9’ H. More shrink-wrap was wrapped and woven cross-wise around the first strips to strengthen the structure, shape the tubes, and thicken the surfaces. Long tubular shapes narrow in the middle and flare at the ends. About 15 miles of tape was used to cover the surfaces of the arms and legs of the TapeScape creating smooth, continuous surfaces with almost gyroidal form. Upper surfaces covered in clear tape give a pleasant light-filled quality to the space; lower surfaces covered with colored tape add a landscape quality.

Twisting and Somewhat Tubular
Tubular forms take shape
The unusual construction offers equally unusual possibilities for exploration. No surfaces are horizontal, none are vertical, and they are all difficult to name and describe. Surfaces curve, slope, and twist. The “floor” eases into the side of the structure which gradually becomes the ceiling. Plastic wrap and tape stretched tautly around the metal frame produce springy surfaces. Negotiating the springy, curving surface is challenging, unpredictable, and the source of laughter and humility. Even with practice, walking or crawling on the undulating surface changes immediately when someone else approaches; the impact of their weight sends waves of motion across the surface. And there are always others in TapeScape because it is an attractive, engaging, and social space.

Unexpected ripples in the responsive surface challenge and inspire children’s and adults’ movements. Stand where the floor slopes up as someone passes by and suddenly you will be sliding down on your backside; the soft and easy landing is simply too inviting not to do it again very much on purpose. Crawl up the side and let yourself slide back; do it with a friend or two or three in shared delight. Take a running start, drop to your knees and you can feel like you are making a sensational slide into home base.

The challenges of slopes, rises and ripples
Some of these examples may seem to peg TapeScape as a funhouse feature. It does invite big movements like the bouncy inflatables common at fairs and festivals. TapeScape surfaces, however, are not as responsive. Big, bouncy, repetitive movements don’t yield satisfying effects. But sliding, spilling, falling, crawling, rolling, twisting; on your front, back, or side; head or feet first is extremely satisfying.

These physical challenges have significant value for younger children. If you have just learned to crawl or walk on an even and stable surface, adjusting your balance to navigate an undulating surface is quite an accomplishment. You may be able to walk up a small firm slope in the front yard, but what will happen when the floor becomes the wall? Opportunities for developing and practicing spatial awareness and skills in TapeScape are plentiful and varied. For children as well as for adults, practice in negotiating an ambiguous space with people moving in unpredictable ways is highly valuable. 

TapeScape is a good example of the More Varied Environments for children I wrote about here recently. It’s a sculptural somewhat ambiguous environment. It’s immersive, but not thematic. It affords full-body movement and sensory exploration that is not readily available in homes, neighborhoods, schools, playgrounds, nature centers, or museums. With its novel use of familiar materials it is fresh and innovative and sustains interest. The experience, or play, value TapeScape offers is high, in fact, very high.

A Changing Landscape
Building TapeScape took place right there on the Play Lab floor over several weeks. Children and adults saw the pipes go up and the structure take shape. They watched as the layering, wrapping, and scaping came into view. Because Eric and his fellow tapescapers were also visiting Play Lab and watching as children and adults used it, TapeScape has continued to evolve. Modifications have been added, and repairs have been made.

Adding a horizontal (red) tube slowed down the running.
Since the very beginning, running through the giant tubes has had great appeal for not only children but adults as well.  To manage the running, both to reduce collisions and extend the life of the structure, new tubes have been grown selectively. A red horizontal tube lowered the overhead clearance and slowed traffic. (See photo at right.) More recently a vertical tube was added to create two chambers out of one larger one. The materials allow these relatively simple changes; cut a hole, add plastic wrap, and surface with tape. This same approach has been used to repair a rupture and to add a porthole. (Notice the yellow sun in the photo above.) The technique will be used to add a spiral in one area and add peepholes in others for viewing children’s art work.

TapeScape is in a permanent state of prototyping. The ability to slice-and-tape to repair and shape means the structure can evolve based on use. Play Lab staff and volunteers have brought an experimental mindset to TapeScape. They are using weekly observations, discussion, an interest in extending play and understanding how children explore and use space to rethink and change TapeScape.

TapeScape straddles an interesting and unusual position for a museum exhibit. It is unashamedly plastic and, in fact, fascinating because of the responsiveness and light qualities of the plastic. On the one hand it has an elegant gyroidal shape and, on the other, it is relatively unfinished with low production values compared to most exhibits.

Requiring about 200 volunteer hours to build, another 100 hours to make changes and repairs, and about $5,000 in materials, TapeScape has been a nimble response by a resourceful young museum to finding experiences that support its mission and goals, engage its audience, and offer insights into play and exploration.

A Sticky Idea
TapeScape seems to have immediate appeal. Eric first saw the image of the structure in October 2010. Construction began in January 2011 and TapeScape was open and fully owned by Play Lab visitors in February. I have been fortunate and fascinated to see it grow so quickly on my monthly visits to Play Lab. In just a few months, it’s also drawn interest from several museums and museum planners.

This marvelous structure won’t last forever. It probably isn’t able to stand up to tens-of-thousands of museum visitors. And in May when Play Lab closes its doors, TapeScape will become a huge tape ball. TapeScape, no doubt, has a promising and interesting future. Maybe you’ll find it at a museum near you.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Building on Strengths

Display from 2005 Jane Addams School of Democracy Freedom Festival (St Paul, MN)

Some weeks I want to write about children building with blocks or exploring with loose parts. Other weeks I am thinking hard about how museums build public value or community impact. Both interest me. They interest me intensely. They may seem unrelated or perhaps even opposite. For me they are inextricably related. Strong children need strong communities; resilient communities rely on capable children. Museums have a role in contributing to both.

Seeing Children
Children are inherently capable with a great many resources and potential. Before even entering school where we expect they will start to learn, children have learned to communicate, to walk and talk. They get themselves dressed, help here-and-there around the house, show compassion, and even make jokes. All in just about 4 years.

Yet, we tend not to recognize children’s competence. Rather we describe them as being deficient in some way. Often this is due to their not being older or bigger than we know they are. Have you heard someone say to a 3 or 4 year old, “when you can read…” or “when you can ride a bike…” or “when you are big…”? Our preoccupation with what children can’t do interferes with our appreciation of their remarkable abilities and capabilities at every age. I would love to hear a 3 or 4 year-old pipe up and say, “I am just fine as a 3 year old, thank you!”

No sooner are we pushing children to be older, but we are saying, “when they were young…” or, “oh, when you were little, you were so cuddly.” First we overlook how remarkable they are; then we regret they are no longer that way. In between we have missed their wondering, investigating, and discovering.

So often we remark that children look at things in really interesting ways. Actually, I think we’re surprised by how fully children look at things. A child notices how a bird walks or wonders whether she will see her face in this mirror too. Children are excited to tell us what they see and what they think about it. Their language is fresh, inventive, and expressive. It tells us, if we are listening, of their ideas, understanding of relationships, and theories about the nature of things.

When I work with museums, I frequently hear language such as, “we’ll make the children try…” or “this will let children,…”. In spite of my best intentions, I do this as well. We often speak and act as if children are passive learners, rather than the natural, active learners they are. They hardly need our permission to be curious, touch something, ask a question, or make sense of what is going on around them.

While they don't need our permission to be curious, children do deserve recognition and support for their remarkable abilities and resources. They also need adults to pay attention, listen to their words, observe their response to materials, see their excitement, notice their learning strategies, and think about their interactions with others. They benefit from the experiences and encounters that engage their creativity, knowledge building, and individual action. Building towers, structures, and designs; exploring rich and varied environments; and playing with loose parts are really important. These are, however, only a few of the kinds of activities children should be able to experience, enjoy and draw from. 

Networks of Relationships
The same qualities children bring to accomplishing their greatest learning feats are those that make a difference in school, the workforce, families, neighborhoods and civic life. Taking initiative, being resourceful, asking questions, listening, acting on ideas, and communicating with others prepare children and youth to have relationships within their community and to become contributors and thoughtful critics in their communities as adults. Developing these qualities happens in the context of strong relationships with caring adults in many roles from infancy through young adulthood.

Strong children mean strong communities. This may sound like a clichĂ©, but it’s not. Evidence of this connection comes from several directions.

The Search Institute’s research-based work for 50 years has focused on strengthening how citizens and communities raise children and adolescents. The Institute has identified 40 Developmental Assets for healthy development. Assets are positive experiences and qualities that help influence choices children and youth make and help them become caring, responsible adults. The more assets young people have, the more likely they are to thrive and the less likely they are to engage in a wide range of high-risk behaviors.

The Search Institute’s work and their Healthy Communities • Healthy Youth initiative recognize that raising strong and successful children takes more than just one single family or a school. An entire community must be engaged. This requires many people—educators, faith community leaders, parents, aunts and uncles, governmental figures, and others—to come together and nurture strong, active relationships with children and youth.

An interest in children and youth brings members of a community together. Examples readily come to mind of informal “mom’s groups” that meet and connect around childbirth, the playground, or other parenting interests. Parents and neighbors working together have made preschool coops, scouts, and children’s sports run. They have been vital to starting children’s museums all across the world.

A landmark study of civic engagement, Working Together: Community Involvement in America, sponsored by the League of Women Voters reinforced this when it concluded that, “A focus on children and youth is key to engaging Americans… children and youth registered among people’s top concerns and [the subjects] most likely to motivate community involvement.”

The Habits of a Community Develop the Habits of Children
Several years ago the Kettering Foundation produced a report on why some communities work. Research presented in Communities at Work pointed to many factors. One, in particular, stood out: “One of the characteristics common to communities that are able to manage, if not solve, their problems is that citizens take responsibility for their future.”

Neighbors, parents, or citizens who come together to solve a problem, address a concern, or realize a hope initiate a cycle of reciprocity. First they change or improve conditions by sharing ownership and taking action. Then they create a lasting example of community engagement for their children. Children grow into the lives of the people around them; they will renew the community in the future.

One city’s remarkable educational and civic project has been evolving in the infant and toddler schools in Reggio Emilia (IT) over the last 60 years. Based on an image of the child as strong and capable and of relationships among children, teachers, parents, and citizens at the heart of learning, the schools have become known worldwide for integrating theory and practice to work at the intersection of strong children and a vibrant community.

A sense of co-responsibility for children’s education and their futures is deep and wide spread. In fact, in June 2010, Pedagogista Tiziana Filippini was honored by Louisiana Children’s Museum with one of its Great Friends to Children Award. In acknowledging the award, Tiziana also made a polite yet important clarification when she said, “My city is the great friend to children.”

In St. Paul (MN), a group of neighbors and organizations has been involved since 2004 in creating the West Side Neighborhood Learning Community. Their vision for All Around the Neighborhood is “a community alive with learning where youth develop their potential and become productive, contributing adults.” Children and youth are involved in planning and co-creating learning experiences as they learn in and about their West Side neighborhood. Parents, neighbors, and businesses are actively involved as planners, teachers, learning sites, and in documenting learning activities.  One result of these activities is that West Siders have been engaged in rethinking and designing new public play spaces.

Strong Children, Strong Museums, Strong Communities
Where do museums fit in? Along with libraries and schools, museums are part of a civic infrastructure that is critical to vibrant, resilient communities and to the well-being of their citizens including, of course, children. While schools have a particular civic function–to provide basic education–museums and libraries do not. They do, however, have a responsibility to use their resources to contribute to a rich, shared, inclusive, public life.
Museums also have a tremendous opportunity to leverage their knowledge, assets, and relationships to deepen connections with the community and to enrich and expand their understanding of its children. Contributing to strong children and strong communities as museums also strengthens themselves in a decidedly rich, complex, and long-term process. A few dimensions and the interactions among them interest me, in particular.
  • Take the wealth of children’s potential seriously. Involve people from across the museum in actively pursuing ways to make children’s thinking visible. Develop, adapt, and practice documentation. Develop museum-based practices for observing, noticing, responding to, scaffolding, extending, recording, and revisiting evidence of children’s learning.
  • Use the museum’s growing knowledge of learning and learners in informal settings along with its expertise in creating learning experiences with objects and materials to design encounters for children to follow their interests, pursue their explorations and extend their thinking.
  • Pursue the thoughtful and deliberate thinking required to develop public value and explore the authentic give-and-take dialogue to define what a stronger community means to a particular community that Nan Kari encouraged in her comment on that blog. 

My thanks to the friends and colleagues who have helped my thinking on this: Nan Kari, Tiziana Filippini, and Lani Shapiro.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Just Let Children Build

When people want to validate that just building is worthwhile for children, they mention that Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother gave him Froebel blocks to build with when he was a child. The geometric shapes he built with as a child influenced his architectural designs later.

It’s as if we need to justify children’s building because a famous architect also built with blocks as a child. When I see the concentration, problem solving, negotiation, measuring, estimating, designing, describing, conversation, and great excitement that children of all ages show as they build, I am perplexed as to why we are so reluctant to just let children build.

Building blocks and toys are valued loose parts children use to explore, shape, and vary their environments. In building, children investigate the nature of things, work with others and on their own, and explore their imaginations. Building encompasses a wide range of activities, materials, and scales. With large cardboard building blocks children construct dens and forts, while they use smaller unit blocks and Kapla blocks to create complex structures, intricate patterns, and tall towers. Extensive building systems such as LEGO and K’nex add specialized parts and themed sets for constructing elaborate models. Building materials can also be found at the beach, in the woods, or in the trash. Irregularly-shaped building materials like sticks, stones, branches, and cardboard packing boxes introduce variety and the opportunity to build virtually everywhere. This great wealth of building materials fosters open-ended exploration, embraces children’s questions, invites self-challenges, and releases delight in their accomplishments. 
Parents and children build with boxes

Everyone Gets into the Act with Building
The urge to build emerges early and persists. Watch a baby try to stack bits of food on her highchair tray or a toddler as he stacks plastic cups on top of each other on the floor. In preschool and kindergarten rooms across the country, the designated block corner signifies an understanding of the social, emotional, physical and cognitive value of block building. Though boys may engage more in constructing structures and systems and girls in creating places and patterns, both like to and do build. 

Everyone builds at the Minnesota State Fair
Long after children have left behind other forms of building and childish activities, many tweens and teens still build complex structures with kits and models. And, as some of my recent observations have indicated, adults more readily engage in building with children than in most other kinds of activities besides the cafĂ© and grocery store exhibits. Whether building towers and forts revives their own childhood memories or the urge to build never completely disappears, adults are valued partners in extending children’s play and exploration.

Nanne, 4 years old, arranges blocks in patterns

STEM, STEAM and Literacy Too
Experiences with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) begin early with a toddler’s stacking and dropping. The tremendous capacity for repetition for which this age group is so well-known is especially beneficial for exploring cause-and-effect. Watching and listening to the sound of crashing, tumbling, skittering blocks provides first-hand information about the force of gravity that, by third grade, children may only be reading about in books. The value of building is not limited to science centers and children's museums; it has a role in art and history museums as well. As children build, they work with STEM concepts, incorporate the arts to produce STEAM, and practice 21st century skills. All is richly layered with the “talk and play” foundation for literacy as children:
Let's build.
•    grasp, lift, and carry blocks;
•    connect, stack, order, and balance blocks;
•    count, divide, and compare blocks among co-builders;
•    arrange and fit blocks together using their length, width, or height dimensions;
•    create symmetrical and radiating patterns and designs;
•    measure structures using standard and non-standard units of measurement;
•    build from memory, imagination, or views;
•    describe their structures and create stories about inhabitants and the worlds they have created.
How tall should we make our tower?

The Glorious Informality of Building
Building is a source of rich content. But it does not necessarily benefit from being interpreted or taught directly. Actually, I find the informality of children just building to be building’s great strength. When children direct their own building, they follow their interests, work at their level and stay ahead of where instruction would likely peg them. Building engages them in an easy balance of process and product. So, rather than incorporating more explicit subject-matter content into building with structured activities or text, a few adjustments are more likely to extend and enrich children’s building.

A Building Place: Building can proceed at a furious or leisurely pace in an area that is out of the way and protected from traffic. A smooth and stable building surface reduces the frustration of unsteady blocks toppling too soon. A slightly raised platform protects impressive, but fragile, structures from moving feet. It can also can be a place to crouch or perch. Multiple platforms ad the possibility of multiple building projects.

Can we make this tower as tall as he is?
Abundance: A wealth of blocks, boxes, bricks, or sticks encourages building, building, and more building. There is no sharing to slow down enthusiastic builders; they need only add extensions, build higher, create more intricate structures, and perhaps discover a new city. To inspire building, I would choose sets, and sets, and more sets of blocks over architectural models or inspiring photos of architectural landmarks.

Open Views and New Perspectives: Introduce views and perspectives from which children can draw their own ideas and inspiration. Locate building areas near windows that bring the outside in and frame building shapes and proportions that are part of the everyday world. Especially when windows aren’t an option, place mirrors to provide new views of the most fascinating building activity of all. Wall-mounted mirrors can show different views of a structure. Mirrors can also be placed in less likely positions: down low or overhead to capture the evolving construction from different and interesting views.

If we pull up a stool, we can add a few more inches?
Comfort: If adults are to be engaged as observers, supporters or co-builders, their comfort must be considered as well. A platform of 12” - 18” is great for both building on and perching on.

For the record: When a few materials for documenting what they have built are present, children can make their thinking visible, express their joy, and share the experience with others. Small pieces of paper or sticky notes, pencils, a place for display, and a way to post them are often just enough to capture what is important to a child about what she has built. These traces are also small gifts to museum staff on how to build on the strengths children have brought to their constructions. 

Why Not Just Plain More Building for Children?
Now, the big push. Let's see how it falls.
Even if building didn’t offer children a splendid array of physical, social, cognitive, and emotional benefits, museums might want to offer more building anyway. Building helps them negotiate around practical constraints. Building areas with abundant materials bring high play and learning value at a relatively low cost for many visitors at small museums, new museums, museums with tight budgets, and museums needing to fill the schedule between traveling exhibits. Few museums, if any, that I know of don’t need to plan around one at least of those considerations.  

So, let's get building.

Great building opportunities and materials are everywhere.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Public Value: From Good Intentions to Public Good

For several years, I’ve been interested in public value as a framework for museums being more intentional about how they make a meaningful and recognized contribution to their communities.

Recently several professional opportunities have focused on public value in museums. The public value of visitor studies was the theme of the 2010 Visitor Studies Association conference in Phoenix. All 2010 issues of the Journal of Museum Education focused on museum education and public value. For the Association of Children's Museums’ March leadership call, I presented Connecting the Dots Between Building Public Value and Service in Children’s Museums.

Public value isn’t a new concept. It goes back to John Cotton Dana and The New Museum in the early 20th century. Stephen Weil was also an eloquent advocate for museums doing useful work. Relevance and community impact often refer to how a museum matters in its community.

While not new, public value is also not business as usual. Tough economic times have amplified the need for museums to go beyond fostering good will to intentionally and actively fostering public good. In the past, museums have relied on their mission statements and attendance figures to convey their value. But these do not go far in telling whether and how a museum has made a difference in the lives of children, families, or the community.

Positive, Recognized Change
Public value moves beyond internal museum priorities to the positive changes a museum can bring to its community. Increasingly, museums are expected to–and want to–demonstrate their public value. This relies on knowing the public good they are trying to accomplish for their community and how to contribute to that public good in a way that also serves their mission.

As a museum planner, I have found the ideas in articles and presentations by Mark H. Moore, Carol A. Scott, and Mary Ellen Munley to be extremely interesting and helpful. Also as a planner, I have also seen the need for a practical, accessible process to guide a museum in thinking and acting systematically in building its public value. With this in mind, I've used several sources to synthesize a seven step approach to build public value. Thinking of these steps as “dots” that need to be deliberately connected to one another emphasizes how each and every step must build on the previous one to maximize a museum's impact.

•   Community challenges: Knowledge of the pressing needs that face the community based on current studies, reports and needs assessments

•   Museum’s strategic interests: Aspects of the museum’s strategic interests– its mission, audience, position–that align with community challenges 

•   Public good: The positive and recognized changes in the community that the museum intends to have and for whom that also advance its mission

•   Goals: Framing what the museum intends to accomplish to achieve those changes

•   Platforms for action: Strategies and resources targeted to accomplish the goals

•   Outcomes: Specific areas of intended change for individuals, groups, the organization, and/or the community 

•   Measurement: Indicators that measure the extent to which the museum is having the desired impact

Most museums do some of these steps well. Some do many steps well. Often, however, connections between these steps are not fully made. They may hover near one another but do not truly engage, work in sync and, consequently, produce recognizable change. Unconnected dots are the difference between a museum that is well thought of in its community and a museum that is recognized for making a difference in the lives of children, families, parts of the community, and the community as a whole.

Going Forward
Public value is a rich and roomy idea that is definitely worth taking the time to understand and put into practice. Museums can integrate this approach into their work as part of strategic planning, in developing a large scale project or initiative, or in developing a case for support for an expansion or even a new museum. The following resources might be helpful in going forward.

A presentation, Connecting the Dots Between Building Public Value and Service in Children’s Museums is available here on Museum Notes. You should be able to get it by clicking on the slide to the right.

A session at InterActivity: From Nice to Necessary on May 19 at 10:45 AM in Houston

Articles: These are some of the articles I have found helpful.
•    Measuring Public Value. V.S. Yocco, J. Heimlich, E. Meyer. And P.Edwards. Visitor Studies, 2009, 12(2), 152-163.
•    Being Purposeful: Planning for, Initiating, and Documenting Public Value. L. Dierking. ASTC Dimensions. January-February 2010.
•    Raising the Bar: Aiming for Public Value. M.E. Munley. Journal of Museum Education, Vol. 35, No. 1. Spring 2010. Pp. 21-32.
•    Museums, the Public, and Public Value. C. A. Scott. Journal of Museum Education, Vol. 35, No. 1. Spring 2010. Pp. 33-42.
•    Intentionally Fostering and Documenting Public Value. Lynn Dierking. Journal of Museum Education, Vol. 35, No. 1. Spring 2010. Pp. 9-19.
•    Advocating the Value of Museums. C. A Scott. Presented at INTERCOM/ICOM, Vienna 20th August 2007.