Monday, December 12, 2011

Storyland: A Trip Through Childhood Favorites

Storyland: A Trip Through Childhood Favorites is very much like a really great picture book. It has a strong storyline, reads well, and has vibrant, engaging images. It also shows the critical piece readers bring to books and stories to make them powerful and memorable.

Developed by Minnesota Children’s MuseumStoryland builds on the Museum’s on-going commitment to early literacy development delivered through literacy-rich environments in exhibits  such as Go Figure!, Curious George, Adventures With Clifford,  public settings across Minnesota. The Museum’s research, planning, evaluation, and strong partnerships have helped in building a body of early literacy experiences and environments for young children, their parents, and caregivers that encourage active exploration, stimulate conversation, offer wide access to literacy tools and books, and invite lots of pretend play.

Children and adults explore Storyland in these ways and more including storytelling, singing, dancing, reciting dialogue, and laughing.

Abuela somersaults in mid air.
Seven picture books are featured in the exhibit: Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault, The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff, The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, Where's Spot? by Eric Hill, Tuesday by David Wiesner, and Abuela by Arthur Dorros. This selection reflects true classics and new classics; very well- and less well-known books; stories told in rhythm and rhyme, with a great storyline, and through illustrations; and with humor and drama. Multiple versions of each book provide small and large sizes and English and Spanish text. Author names are prominently displayed so a family can look for this book as well as for other books by the same author at the library.

Organized around seven book environments, the exhibit concentrates on six pre-literacy skills recommended by the Every Child Ready to Read initiative of the Public Library Association, a Division of the American Library Association. Early literacy is what young children know and learn about reading and writing before they can actually read and write: speaking, listening, reading, writing, and viewing. These parts of language are all interrelated and develop at the same time. Evolving from birth, these skills develop through the talk and play of young children interacting with others and the environment:
• Print Motivation: Being interested in and enjoying books
• Print Awareness: Noticing print and knowing that it has meaning
• Vocabulary: Knowing the names of things
• Narrative Skills: Being able to understand and tell stories
• Letter Knowledge: Knowing that letters have names, are different from each other, and that specific sounds go with specific letters
• Phonological Awareness: Being able to hear and manipulate the smaller sounds in words

Besides a broad message about the delight of sharing stories, the set of pre-literacy skills serve as the exhibit’s message. The six skills are introduced and reviewed at two kiosks in the exhibit and are reinforced in a variety of activity formats for children and adults in the book settings. They are also highlighted as parent practices and integrated into each story environment as both text and audio, in English and in Spanish. A pillow says, "Have fun reading." A small door at adult height carries a message, “Talk about what the child does and sees everyday.” Pressing a button plays a recording that models the technique with an adult reading and asking questions, followed by a child’s response.

Parents and other caregivers are clearly a priority audience for the exhibit along with children, newborn through eight years. The parent-child reading relationship may actually be the exhibit’s true audience. This is an important and well-informed approach that supports engaging both children and adults intentionally, fully, and actively. While some activities are intended for adults (parent tips) and some are pretty much just for children (making the snow angel), most are engaging and work better with an adult and child.

Enjoying books starts early.
The exhibit also has excellent pitch for children eight years and under, and in fact, appeals to an even wider age range. At one point, I saw at least six crawlers intently occupied: opening and closing doors, fitting letters into holes, turning pages in a book, and spinning cylinders. A few clusters of girls 9-ish to 12-ish were highly engaged at the drawing station, reading  pre-literacy tips to each other, playing the keyboard in Where’s Spot? and making rhyming words in If You Give A Mouse a Cookie. Nearby, a group of boys passed through If You Give A Mouse a Cookie, tossing potatoes from Peter Rabbit.

Playing It by the Book
Both parents and children bring a great natural inclination for pretend play with them into an exhibit. Children begin pretend play about 2 years. Research confirms that mothers teach their toddlers to play (Haight and Miller. 1993) and that toddlers engage in more make-believe play when their mothers are involved.

Storyland embraces this readiness to play and extends it. This is apparent in many play sequences observed in Peter Rabbit. One began with Susanna, a 2-3 year old, going to wake Peter up in bed and exclaiming, “Mommy, Peter’s tummy hurts. Call the doctor!” The doctor is called and the dialogue jumps to Susannah telling her mom to cook and serve potatoes for dinner. They both put Peter to bed singing “This Land Is Your Land”. While not all play sequences were as involved, adults and children worked together to find upper and lower case numbers, paired up to walk together through the snowy pathway, and peeked in the windows of apartment houses in Abuela.
 Crunch, crunch, crunch. Step into Peter's footstep
Drawn from the books themselves, activities in Storyland are geared to making pre-literacy skills apparent, engaging, and very attractive to children and adults. The exhibit does this extremely well. The Snowy Day gives the sensation of walking through snow; stepping on footprints activates a crunch, crunch crunch sound straight from the book. Children took to this immediately and repeatedly and varying the activity with a “follow the leader” twist. Dads with babes in arm followed the footprints to make the crunch happen.

Children peeked in the tiny dioramas and sat on and climbed over and under the giant colorful letters in Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. Noticing the giant lower case ‘h,” a four-year old girl announced, “This is like a tunnel,” and crawled through it repeatedly. Other children sat on the letters, conforming their bodies to chair-like ‘h’ and the leopard print ‘L.’

A told B and B told C, "I'll meet you at the top of the coconut tree."

Accenting the strong rhythms of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, a mother read the book while her three young children recited it, pointed to words, and bounced to the rhythms, loudly, exuberantly, and repeatedly, and, in the process, demonstrated several of the pre-literacy skills in action.

The Nooks and Niches of Stories
The book-based environments spotlight the stories with meaningful contexts that support a wide range of literacy play. They also have the kind of nooks and niches that research indicates encourage greater language as well as physical exploration. And the variety among Storyland's book-based settings, in size, indoor and outdoor, explicit and somewhat abstract, broadens and extends children's language and physical exploration.

From the tall coconut tree in Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, to the flying grandmother in Abuelita, the images and elements from the books are the strongest part of the design. The walls are a beautiful deep blue that works as a backdrop for all of the book settings; other colors pop. The surround, however, feels stark and bold, the light overly strong and unvarying.  Lighting could soften the edges of the gallery space, provide a bit of atmosphere, and distinguish the story settings even more.

The greatest limitation of the exhibit design seems to be the limited variety of materials. Many of the large structures are carved from foam and covered in urethane; others are painted wood. While faithful to the images in the books and durable, there is uniformity to the tactile qualities of smooth painted surfaces. This is a true absence in a story and literacy-based exhibit. Materials carry information about how the world is made and how it works. Varied materials, wood, fabric, leather, rocks, rugs, basketry, invite varied conversation, rich description, a blizzard of questions, and personal stories. Literacy–language, science, and other–is grounded here. 

Knowing and Loving Stories
Storyland builds on a love of stories and books that children and parents bring with them to the exhibit. The result is a lively and full exploration combining the power of language, the pleasure of play, and a delight in being together. Families recited portions of books in unison and sang songs. Grandparents showed youngsters how to play hopscotch. Shared memories were often called on and chocolate chip cookie recipes were compared. In some cases, parents seemed to experience the books through their own childhoods, talking about their favorites, being read to as children, and squealing with delight at familiar images.

Storyland will be at Minnesota Children’s Museum until February 5, 2012 when it will begin its national tour.

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