Saturday, July 9, 2011

Wonder Years: The Story of Early Childhood Development

Wonder Years: The Story of Early Childhood Development, an exhibition from the Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM) should be in a mall. I mean that in a good way and as a sincere compliment.

The exhibition presents the science of young children’s development and insights into their everyday learning from the world around them and places both in a larger social and civic context. A clear long-term community interest is expressed in an ambitious goal: “Ensure that all children benefit from the growing body of knowledge about the science of early childhood development and get the best start in life.”

While the exhibition works in the Museum’s 4th floor Human Body gallery, a mall setting would bring this message to a broader audience and further build on the Museum’s mission: Turn on the science: realizing the potential of policymakers, educators, and individuals to achieve full civic and economic participation in the world.

 My interest in the strong children-strong communities connection I’ve written about previously drew me to explore Wonder Years three times from March to late June. The first time I participated in an SMM tour for Minnesota Association of Museums and heard from Project Leader, Laurie Fink, about the exhibition. I spent an afternoon on my own exploring Wonder Years and a third time, I ducked in to it with a friend prior to visiting Tutankhamun.

SMM and its partners have managed the challenge of creating an engaging visitor experience with a serious public message. Alignment of a solid conceptual approach with its intended audience, a varied experiential mix, and a robust community platform is deliberate and strong.

The exhibition and related programs and events is a partnership among SMM, the Center for Early Education and Development (CEED) at the University of Minnesota, and Public Agenda, a non-partisan engagement organization. Funding is from the National Science Foundation.

Reaching a Broad Audience
A Wonder Years flyer identifies the intended audience as teens and adults, parents and non-parents, anyone with a child,  was a child, or lives in a community with young children. In short, the audience is intended to be everyone. On each of my visits I saw a variety of visitors and visiting groups. There were 3-generation families, parent-child pairs, families with young children and with children of very different ages, groups of teens, groups of young adults, and young couples.

Some of these and future visitors may also be policy makers and community leaders. Very likely, many adults in the exhibition have a major role in the lives of young children–their own children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews; young neighbors, students, or youth volunteers. These relationships provide strong personal connections to exhibition content. As a neighbor, volunteer, mentor, caregiver, voter, and taxpayer, virtually every adult has a citizen’s interest in children’s current well-being and potential. Children’s experiences today shape their capacity as adults to work and take part in the community; this is the source of a community’s future vitality and resilience.

The flyer also makes clear that Wonder Years intends to reach and engage members of the community more broadly through public programs as noted below. These will undoubtedly draw in members from other parts of the community. Yet, broad and varied as visitors to SMM are and as inclusive as related programs are, a mall would undoubtedly provide a broader audience.

A Solid Conceptual Approach
The exhibition brings together recent research on early brain development, insights into how young children learn from the world about them, and a perspective on early childhood development as a common interest. 

A positive view of young children as strong, competent, and born to learn comes through clearly. Focusing on children's remarkable accomplishments before they even enter school and highlighting the great promise of the first years of life, the exhibition does establish early childhood as the Wonder Years. Overall it avoids clich├ęs about young children and presenting them as cute. Large images of children on photo banners show them playing, engaging in everyday exploration, talking, touching, and laughing, hugging and being held. These images express and reinforce messages about the importance of positive relationships, active engagement with the world, and early language experiences. Occasionally the gleeful laughter of a laughing baby video can be heard and it is delightful.

Four key messages organize exhibition content and guide lay-out. The interests and perspectives of researchers, experts, parents, young children, and citizens intersect with areas and activities and reinforce the messages.
•             How scientists learn about children’s development looks at pioneers of child development research, how scientists study young children, and some questions that interest researchers.
•             What is happening in early development explores the role of early experience in shaping the brain and brain architecture; early language experience and the brain; and early social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development milestones.
•             How young children learn from the world around them highlights some of the amazing feats of early learning, the role of vision in language development, and the importance of play.
•             The impact each of us has on the healthy development of our youngest citizens brings together the impact of strong and positive relationships, the importance of everyday moments, and the contribution of many hands to the experiences children need for the best start in life. 

An important principle in early development comes across consistently throughout the exhibition but it is not made explicit. Interaction is critical and constant: interaction among developmental domains (physical, social, emotional, etc.), between children and the environment; and  interactions with parents, other caregivers, and others involved in children's lives.

Experience As Message
Wonder Years takes on and meets challenges many exhibitions face in translating information rich topics into active experiences without compromising content. It covers recent research, technical information on brain development, and hard to visualize processes of language acquisition and development. Resisting the temptations of extensive text, Wonder Years forges a fresh mix of familiar formats and creative strategies to present content experientially.

Videos, biological specimens, microscopes, quizzes, puzzles, and games familiar in many exhibitions are used well here. There are opportunities to hear what experts say, set-ups for conversation, and an invitation to record opinions on issues. Content is accessible and presented in both English and Spanish in text and videos. The writing style is generally clear and engaging and sometimes crisp, like “Experience is the brain’s electrician.”

How pruning makes the brain more efficient
At components like Connections Shape the Brain, text, images, and a relevant instrument or model work smoothly together. Illustrating how pruning makes the brain more efficient, flashing lights show the path a message might take as it travels through the brain of a toddler, a child, and a teen. A mother comparing the three ages told her 5-ish year old son, “That’s’ why we do things over and over again. So we can do them faster.”

What the exhibition does exceedingly well is to power exhibition messages with visitor activity, sometimes getting inside the experience of a researcher, a parent, even a baby. This parallels the critical importance of experience for early brain development; “Experience shapes the brain,” one text panel notes. Similarly, engaging in conversations, tasks, role-play, and perspective taking affords a first-hand experience.

"We are going to do an experiment."
 Children’s activity sometimes becomes the exhibit. I saw parents test their child’s “theory of mind” or being able to understand that others have their own thoughts and feelings. Saying, “We’re going to do an experiment with you, Kayla.” a mother settled in at the table and guided her 2-year old daughter through the test. 
The child's activity becomes the exhibit.
In the exhibition’s pretend kitchen, children climbed on the stool at the sink, turned on faucets, and washed dishes. Well-positioned text panels cued parents on opportunities for language, interaction, and how these support a child’s development for precisely those child behaviors they might see. Nearby, children as well as adults looked through a set of three goggles that allowed them to see like a baby sees at birth, at 1 month, and at 3 months.

Seeing as newborns and infants see.
The exhibition design is not as strong as the content. Occasionally it detracts from the experience and messages. Multiple exits and entries interrupt the flow serving as paths between the building's elevators and stairs. White text on pale blue panels renders text almost unreadable. One video is mysteriously placed at about 8 feet above the floor. Finally, design styles, particularly color palettes, differ between areas and feel as if they came from separate designers or even projects.

Community Platform
Wonder Years is framed as a project with an exhibition. Its strong and complementary partners are key to this configuration. They combine expert content, experienced public engagement, and a recognized public venue.

A slate of community programs has significant, although less obvious, presence than the exhibition–certainly for museum visitors. Nevertheless, they are planned to actively engage members of the community in considering what the science of early development means to us as individuals, to our communities, and to our youngest citizens.
  • Citizen Conferences were held in the Twin Cities and in Greater Minnesota in May 2011. For parents, early childhood advocates, state and local policymakers, and interested community members and citizens, the focus on these half-day working sessions was to explore society’s responsibility to children birth to 5 years.
  • Issue Conventions are intended to encourage smaller groups of organizations and community groups to explore how the exhibition and programs can further their efforts at educating others and expanding networks.
  • Public Forums in Fall 2011 will bring experts and community members together for public presentations and conversations on the scientific findings and their implications for families and communities.

The partnership mix also suggests how seriously SMM is taking its goal for all children to benefit from the growing body of knowledge about the science of early childhood development and to get the best start in life.

Wonder Years is an engaging and responsible look at a critical social issue: the early development of children, their future capacity, and the ultimate strength of our communities. I think this makes Wonder Years a great exhibit to see at the mall. I hope you get to see it there. 

•            Gopnik, Alison; A. Meltzoff and P. A. Kuhl. (1999). The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind. William Morrow & Co: New York.
•            Hart, B. and T. R. Risely (1995). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co: Baltimore, MD.
•             Schonkoff, Jack P. and D. A. Phillips (Ed.) (2000). From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. National Academy Press: Washington, DC.


  1. Do you think you would visit Wonder Years if it were in a shopping mall?

  2. For another powerful view of the science of early brain development in an entirely different format, visit:

  3. I thought this exhibit would do well in a hospital setting.

  4. Peter, I think a hospital setting is also a really good fit for Wonder Years and other exhibits. Visitors, patients and hospital staff could easily revisit it. It's message is also about promise and hope. Thank you!

  5. This is exhibit is awesome. It is so hard to find early childhood development

  6. Thanks for the great write-up! The Children, Youth and Family Consortium (CYFC), one of many collaborators on the Wonder Years project, has created a "virtual tour" of the exhibit. You can find it at:

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