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 cliché, 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.

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