Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012: A Year in Lessons and Thanks

Thanks to Nina Lesaout for this photo

I wasn’t going to write an end of the year looking back, looking ahead post on Museum Notes for 2012. In fact, I have been working on a post I have long wanted to write about putting children at the center of our work. As I wrote, read, and thought–and wrote, read, and thought some more–I was struck by how often I  learn from and am inspired by the thinking of generous colleagues, just-in-time insights, and the children and parents we serve. And so 2012: A Year in Lessons and Thanks bumps Children at the Center for the moment.

With my great thanks to…
  • The searchers, seekers, and surfers who have followed links to fresh ideas, new designs, and remarkable images hovering at the intersections of design and thinking; and have passed them on as kindling to spark imaginations. 
  • Those astute strategic planners who have let their commitment and critical eyes track implementation of their plans; and have directed their fine-tuning up-stream to support fuller, sustained, and committed follow-through on plans.
  •  The masterful museum planners who show how to look at and link everything with everything else and then follow the vibrating connections to new spaces, places, and platforms.
  • Those who share their delight in logic models, great appetite for questions, and who enthusiastically search for new, meaningful, and sometimes unusual measures of how museums matter. 
  •  The thinkers, linkers, writers, and friendly provocateurs, those past and still active, who agitate against complacency, challenge self-congratulation, open new perspectives, and spark new experiments with their books, blogs, articles, and questions.
  • The attentive and alert souls who demonstrate that listening is an active verb with a power to convert old certainties into new possibilities.  
  • Those who test easy assumptions with bold simple experiments.

  • All the parents who have shared their well-thought out agendas for their museum visits and their understanding of how their children will benefit from time in a rich environment, interacting with other children, and expanding their worlds.
  • The children, to Eli and Levi, Harper, Cyrus, Ian and Sara, and children whose names I have not yet learned, for the privilege of letting me glimpse what fascinates them, what they know and are figuring out, and all that they can do.

Best wishes for a grand 2013.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Play Spotting


Bouncing along the snow-rutted streets on a recent hectic, errand-ful Saturday, I listened to The Splendid Table on Minnesota Public Radio. Host Lynne Rossetto Kasper was interviewing John Moe about 3 food apps he recommended for techie foodies. One recommendation in particular caught my attention: Foodspotting. Moe described Foodspotting as the Facebook of going out to eat. First, you enter your location. Available foods nearby then pop-up showing what someone has ordered, photographed, uploaded. Later a comment is added about how the dish actually tasted.

It wasn’t the food focus of the app that caught my interest. Rather it was imagining play as the focus, as in playspotting. What if people were as interested in, alert to, and enthusiastic about spotting and sharing wonderful, found moments of children (and families) at play as they are about finding a delicious key lime pie or pasta Bolognese served on pappardello?

Admittedly, there are lots of resources and blogs about play, play resources, and playgrounds. A few I enjoy regularly reflect the variety.
  • PlayWatch is a community discussion listserv hosted by the Providence Children’s Museum. It shares and connects people, ideas, and resources to safeguard and promote children’s play.
  • Playscapes is a blog about playground design spotlighting examples of a wonderful variety of unconventional and unlikely play spaces from around the world: artistic, historic, rustic, and found. Some, but not all are planned as playgrounds.
  • Just Let Children Play has a list of the best play blogs  along with regular postings about play in many forms and settings.
Play spotting is some mix of these blogs and foodspotting. It picks up everyday, anywhere, on-the-spot play, those moments when children have escaped from the structure and linearity of their lives to find, direct, and become absorbed in their own play, brief or extended. Not limited to play in museums, libraries, playgrounds, nature centers, or the play corner at the clinic, it focuses on children at play on the beach, at the hardware store, in the check-out line, in the yard, taking out the trash, waiting for the parade to begin. Play spotting follows children’s play as they hide in leaves; disappear between the overcoats on the store rack; inhabit a cave under the blanket-draped picnic table, or construct an elaborate cardboard arcade at a parent’s shop. Caine’s Arcade is an excellent example of play spotting. A customer at Caine’s father’s car parts store noticed and was curious about Caine’s construction. He checked out the arcade, talked with Caine about it, and uploaded a video to share with others.

The spirit of play spotting is pausing and observing children at play. It is watching them and getting to know them and their thinking through their play. It is noticing what fascinates them and glimpsing the intensity they invest in play. If there were a play spotting app, for instance, you might share a series of photos of two young cousins fashioning swords and scabbards out of aluminum foil and duct tape. You might capture three friends standing in front of a giant fan shifting their bodies and bobbing their heads until the blowing air lifts their caps off and they chase after it–only to return to for another round of “blow-away hats”. You might notice children at Costco calling out spontaneously and exuberantly to one another from passing shopping carts. “Pickles!” shouts one. “Pickles, yum!” replies another. A final “Pickles yeah!” ends the call-and-response. As their laughter fades, you’d upload the photo or video to share with and delight the rest of us.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Serving the Museum’s Full Age Range

When one museum tackles a big question about serving their audience, I am likely to hear audience in many other questions museums are considering. So it has seemed recently. Over the last few months, I have been in multiple master planning sessions, on conference calls, and pouring over marketing studies that focus on serving the upper end of a museum’s age range. That’s one reason why I re-posted Audience, An Area of Enduring Focus last week.

Like all museums, children’s museums struggle with how to serve the full range of their intended audience. Their more specific challenge is how to serve the upper end of their target age range and whether to serve children 7 or 8 to 10 years, tweens, and youth at all. This dance, shared by many museums, has a long history with many variations.

At one time children’s museums opened their doors to welcome children 3 - 12 years old, their parents and caregivers. Children 3 - 6 years arrived, returned, and began owning the museum. With time, many children’s museums rethought their audience and offerings and often landed on serving newborns - 8 year olds, occasionally targeting children up to 10 years. This change, it seems, brought younger children to the museums. More 2 year olds showed up as well as loyal 3 - 6 year olds. Wanting to expand their audience, serve the community well, and sometimes responding to internal pressure to “own” a wider niche, some children’s museums pushed on serving 7-10 year olds.

Evidence supports decisions to serve a younger audience and top out, for instance, at 6 years. Concern about the skills gap has meant more communities now offer universal pre-K. More 4 year olds are spending more of their day in school with less time for weekday visits to the children’s museum. Elementary schools are cutting budgets and classroom time for anything but teaching to standards and tests. School group attendance that draws children 5-6 years and older is dropping. Out-of-school hours are filled with afterschool out-of-home care , with sports, scouts. and music lessons. Growing competition among science, history, and art museums for 6-12 year olds in family and school groups is also impacting attendance. Finally, some children’s museums seem to feel resigned to losing the upper end of their target age, citing KAGOY–kids are getting older younger–and the “boo” factor–bigger children don’t want to be around younger children.  

On the other hand, the lower end of the age range, newborn to 2 years, is fairly secure for children’s museums. Parents with infants and toddlers have fewer options of places where their very young children are truly planned for and welcome. These parents are also strong, very strong, advocates for their needs and those of their babies: nursing spaces, clean and safe places, less busy times, times with fewer or no big kids. And while art, science, and history museums may be interested in serving 6-12 year olds, serving infants, toddlers and preschoolers is a significantly greater stretch to serve well. Many children’s museums are telling me that they track the average age of their audience and it is dropping. Last week I heard one museum say its average age is 4.5 years. A reasonable decision is to concentrate resources on serving a narrower age group well.

Not So Fast…
Physical challenge in play, part of a healthy childhood
That certainly isn’t the only choice. Before abandoning the upper end of the age range, I would encourage a children’s museum to look hard at the convergence of its strategic interests, the developmental interests of its young audience, and the needs of its families. Children are an audience for many museums. For children’s museums,however, children are more than an audience. They are the heart of the mission and central to the museum’s reason for being. Children’s museums have become places where children can be children. They are full of experiences and encounters that enrich millions of childhoods annually. As advocates for healthy and full childhoods, children’s museums have an opportunity, and perhaps a responsibility, to play a major role in stemming the erosion of childhood. The compression of childhood means children suited for play with toys want cell phones. Compression wears away a sense of freedom, safety, and promise children need for their well-being.

Many parents and grandparents don’t want their children aging up so fast. They want to enjoy their child at each age and stage rather than find themselves saying, “When the children were young,” regretting time passed unnecessarily quickly. Even children remain attached to their childhoods, at least occasionally. Regrettably lacking a study to back this up, I do have examples from experience: focus group summaries of tweens who are nostalgic about their childhoods and marketing studies citing 11 year olds wanting “lap time” with their parents. In children’s museums I see and listen to 10 and 11 year olds and remember overhearing an 11 year old announce, “I want to do this for a living when I grow-up,” as he pressed his 10th paper pulp medallion. Museums can make experiences better, much, much better for 7+ year olds by recognizing and responding to parents’ and children’s attachment to childhood.

Holding onto childhood favorites
Any of the 7 year olds we know hover at several points on the developmental spectrum at one time. This is typical. A child may be more like a 5 year old in social development and more like an 8 year old in language development. The broad developmental ranges typical of all children’s development are characteristically greater for children with special needs. A children's museum is a place where an 8 year old  with special needs fits in. These variations expand the picture of the 3, 5, or 7 year old a museum serves. Differences in children’s background and family experiences also account for variations. What is developmentally engaging and challenging to a 6 year old with varied and wide-ranging experiences may be more similar to an 8 year old with limited experiences. Clear-cut developmental breaks simply do not occur. Even the designations of early childhood (birth-8 years) and middle childhood (6-12 years) overlap. If a museum is planning for 6 year olds, how can it not plan for 10 year olds–who may also enjoy aspects of being 6?

A developmental perspective across the full range of early and middle childhood is invaluable. It shifts the primary focus from chronological ages and grades in school to what is happening for the child. Understanding the full developmental range involves understanding each age and stage. Recently I facilitated a half-day discussion with a leadership team to affirm their target age range–newborns through 15 year olds–and how to serve them. At the workshop’s conclusion, one participant noted that serving the age range well means knowing not only where a child is developmentally now, but also where that child is headed developmentally.

Families with children across the age range
Not only are children wonderfully varied, but their families are as well. Many families have children ranging in age from newborn to 10 or 11 years. They want to do things together as a family–in one place. With experiences that engage a 2, 5, and 8 year old and amenities that make it easy for families to explore together, a children’s museum can be family, child, and mission centered.

What other considerations do you find at the convergence of a museum’s strategic interests, the developmental interests of its young audience, and the needs of its families?

Focusing on the Audience
What is interesting to 7 year olds?
By engaging the marketing, developmental and design expertise that has been a hallmark of children’s museums’ growing audience (if perhaps younger audience), a museum could have success serving 7-8 year olds in ways that resemble their success serving 4.5 year olds. This is not the realm of magical thinking and crossing fingers, closing eyes and muttering, “I hope, I hope, I hope they come.” It is the realm of focusing and deepening a museum’s understanding of children 7-10 or 11 and 12 years; of experimenting, stretching, and revising assumptions about how to serve them. This exploration requires plain thinking and a few guidelines about audience.
  • Trying to serve a museum’s full age range is not the same as “aging up” or changing the target audience to  older children. When a museum works to better serve its full age range, it builds on a foundation of serving that audience: attendance data with school group numbers; member and visitor surveys often with age group information; and relationships with members and teachers. An approach to better serving the upper end of the current age range may also be helpful to a museum expanding its age range from, say, 6 years to 8 years or 8 to 10 years–but the starting points differ.
  • All parts of a museum’s audience are valued. All must be served well. Here’s the catch: all parts of the audience will not (and can not) have a high presence. An equally high level of services, offerings, programs, and exhibit real estate is not needed for all groups. Groups with a lower presence at the museum, typically the youngest and oldest, should have comparably fewer but high quality experiences. The 7-10 year old set is in this “older shoulder” group.
  • Serving any and all age groups well relies on understanding them well. Get to know 7-10 year olds. Bring varied perspectives and sources of information to this exploration. What do these children say is fascinating to them? What does the museum do consistently well that other venues do not? What’s happening for them developmentally? What do their parents say interests them? What do their parents think is wonderful about them? Check assumptions about who they are and their interests. Ask them and observe them. Don't guess.
What other considerations of the audience prepare a museum for serving the upper end of its age range?

Getting Started
If serving the upper end of the museum’s targeted age range better is central to mission, attendance, and visitor experience, a deliberate and thoughtful approach is necessary.  By no means comprehensive, the steps below can get a museum started. Lessons from these steps should point to new ones.
Clarify the starting and end points. Decide on the age group to focus on and be specific. Gather information on the number of children in this age range currently served and how: in exhibits? in programs? If no information is available, a survey may be in order. Be clear about what you hope to accomplish with this effort. Is it an increase in the number of children in the age group? If so, what’s a realistic stretch? Is it satisfaction among families with children across the age range? Keeping families as members for longer? Keep in mind that 7-10 year olds flooding exhibits and programs and pushing their share of attendance from 5% to 25% is unlikely. An increased presence will occur gradually as 5 and 6 year olds grow up and stay hooked on museum offerings; as word gets out to more families; and as the museum improves its pitch for older children. 
Get to know the age group. Visit places where children 7-12 years spend time and are engaged in ways the museum hopes to engage them. It may be in your museum, another museum, at the library, park and rec, or Boys and Girls club. Observe them, listen to what they talk about, notice how they relate to one anther. Take notes and photos. Refer to books like Yardsticks by Chip Wood which has a good feel for children 4-14 years and to the Search Institute’s Developmental Assets.
Know your own museum. Take a very good look at where children in the upper end of the age range currently have the highest presence in your museum's exhibits and document it. Observe them; talk to them. Ask what attracts them to the area, what they like about the activity, why, and what else they'd like to do there. Photograph them and what they are doing; make notes. Record numbers of children, ages, and times on a floor plan in the area. Then, build on their interests, responses, and insights. Modify or develop activities and incorporate them into exhibits. Be sure to revisit these areas, observe, and compare before-and-after data. Has the presence, activity, or dwell time of this age group changed? Repeat this process; it may take several rounds to get a good feel for a good match. Apply the approach to programs as well.
Open-ended materials: water,mud and gravel
Rethink spaces with older children in mind. Many museums have spaces designated for infants and toddlers up to 3 or 4 years, both as specific galleries and as “tod pods” in other galleries and exhibits. Seldom used for older children, a designated gallery has both possibilities and challenges. Allocating significant square footage often isn’t justified for a small age cohort. Even when it is justified, identifying experiences that appeal to older children without being a magnet for much younger ones can be a challenge. Material intense maker spaces, multi-step processes like stop-action animation, physical challenges requiring coordination, cultural explorations, engineering feats, and creative applications of technology and media are possibilities. These engage the increasing capacity in middle childhood to think abstractly, apply complex problem solving strategies, persist, and use fine motor coordination. 
Tweens area (right) set lower 
than children's area (left)
Targeted age strategies are one approach. Strategies that transcend age are another. Open-ended experiences and materials engage children across the age and developmental spectrum differently. A child’s expanding repertoire of experiences that come with age and development play out differently with build platforms, material explorations, and sensory phenomena such as light and shadow. Design choices can also reinforce these strategies. Adjacencies might locate early child spaces out of first sight at the entry. Changing levels and sight lines can visually separate areas and age groups. Selecting a look-and-feel of spaces to appeal to a broader age range can expand rather than shrink age appeal. 

Taking a cue from children's thinking
Build on strengths. Children across the age range are delightfully curious. Even as babies they express preferences; as soon as they can talk they make observations and share wonderful ideas. Learning from children and how they think can (and should) happen at any age. With development, however, children enjoy increasing capacities to think, imagine, explain, solve problems, and express ideas. In serving the full age range of the museum, take full advantage of these exciting age-related developmental capacities of children 6 and 7 years old and up. These children can draw. They have a wider range of experiences to draw on. They can explain their ideas and use increasingly complex and creative thinking and communication strategies to do so. They can tell you a lot. Perhaps the answer to how to serve children 7 years and up is to ask them.

What strategies have you found that are effective in serving children 6 and 7 years old and older?  

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Rewind: Audience, An Area of Enduring Focus

Several years ago on a strategic planning project, my planning partner Andrea Fox Jensen referred to a museum’s audience as an area enduring focus. Someone on the strategic planning team had commented that the museum had already been through discussions about their audience and what it should be.

The group seemed reassured by Andrea’s characterizing audience in this way: important, in fact so important, consideration of it is never complete. In any case, they engaged wholeheartedly in lively and productive discussions about age ranges, audience groups, and geographic radius. Later when the planning team brought the board into the discussion, members conveyed the value of revisiting this important question without a “been there, done that” subtext.

Andrea’s observation was so smart and helpful. Every project I work on–a strategic plan, learning framework, exhibit master plan, or something in between–involves a key discussion about audience. I don’t mean a back-up-and-start-from-scratch audience conversation. Typically these are fruitful discussions that review, check, or affirm the current audience. They relate the audience to the current project and get everyone on the same page. Sometimes they help bring new staff or board members along. These discussions are also opportunities to share new information or a chance insight about the audience like the arrival of universal pre-kindergarten in a community, declining school group visits, or an increase in moms’ groups.

These and countless other discussions about audiences, museums, and public value point to features that distinguish audience and other possible areas of enduring focus. Moreover, they underscore the critical role of audience in a museum acting intentionally and steadily on its aspirations and long-term value.

Of Persistent Interest
Enduring assumes a long-term, continuing interest. Nothing could be more central to a museum’s aspirations and reason for being than its audience. Who a museum intends to serve is as fundamental at start-up as it is during periods of growth and change, as it is at each step of fulfilling a promise to the community.

A sound and shared understanding of a museum’s audience is essential. Museums go about this in many ways and on an on-going basis: identifying primary, secondary, and emerging audiences; surveying visitors; analyzing attendance data; and sometimes conducting audience research. Museums then apply an understanding of the audience to shaping and presenting collections, engaging experiences, and educational services in order to open up possibilities of learning to its visitors. 

Sometimes, however, it seems that the persistent focus of audience is confused with attendance. A focus on attendance can, in fact, distract from the centrality of audience to a museum’s value. If, for instance, the challenge of audience was simply about more visitors, a museum could just send out a bus, pick up visitors, and hand out free passes.

A Significant Difference
An area of enduring focus must be capable of making a major contribution to a museum’s public service. Audience is pivotal, from community-wide awareness of a museum to making a difference in the learning lives of children, building social cohesion across neighborhoods, or increasing science literacy among citizens.

In this respect, the challenge is less about bringing more visitors to the museum than about bringing the right visitors to the museum. To be certain it serves all parts of its audience well and serves priority audience groups fully, a museum must be knowledgeable about, alert to, proactive, and respectful towards its audience. Stories spread about museums realizing the consequences of being vague about or indifferent to their audience.

Using a current and well-informed understanding of its audience, a museum needs to effectively reach and actively engage families, school, and community groups, children and adults, both current and potential visitors. The informal learning experiences it offers must address age-related development; be relevant to visitor interests, expectations and everyday lives; and align with its own aspirations.   

A Sharpening Perspective
Perspectives on critical, complex, and constant areas are never static. They evolve, advance, and become nuanced. Museums as well as their audiences exist in multiple, dynamic, external contexts. Successes and failures produce new insights that affect understanding and reaching audiences. New practices help refine and advance audience knowledge.

In only a few decades, museums have shifted from being about something, to being for the general public, to serving specific audience segments, to being concerned with who is not coming to the museum. Learning from and about actual and intended visitors shifts perspectives, reveals interests and expectations of visitors, and produces new insights about what is attractive to them.

A body of audience knowledge builds from multiple sources: surveys, focus groups, and visitor panels, census data, and information generated by other organizations. New practices and insights come from the work of other museums, from research conducted in the field on behalf of museums, and from audience development work supported by, for instance, the Wallace Foundation. Continuous scanning of emerging community and audience trends, sharing and interpreting observations, and following the implications of new information sharpen perspectives.

Supporting Practices
An intense commitment to audience in a pocket of the museum is inadequate in serving audiences well and catalyzing the mission. A museum must operate with a shared understanding of priority audiences, an organization-wide value on relationships that serve the audience well, and a strong belief that improving service to the audience will make a difference.

Robust audience-centered systems and procedures, integrated with practices, supported by resources, and reaching across the organization are necessary to grow audience knowledge, facilitate its transfer, and apply it effectively to experiences. Supportive practices must permeate developing and designing exhibitions; involving audience groups in planning programs and exhibitions; training staff for interaction; calibrating the variety of offerings and pace of change; and evaluating programs and exhibitions and their impact on the audience.

This is a museum’s everyday version of enduring focus. It circulates and re-circulates, interprets and re-interprets audience information and visitor studies. Staff look for evidence for-and-against goals and hunches. Teams address audience interests and engagement strategies at the forefront of every project and initiative. They prototype and revise experience goals, activities, messages, and designs. They evaluate the impact of experiences on the audience. And they begin again, playing it forward.

Intensifying Attention to Audience
In my work, I have found that identifying audience as an area of enduring focus is useful in intensifying attention on this critical piece of a museum’s potential to make a difference. It clearly signals to staff and board that the people and communities they hope to serve are the highest priority, at the center, at every step, now and in the future.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Playing the Building

In his interactive sound installation in Minneapolis, David Byrne has brought together three ideas that fascinate me and have, I believe, significant potential for museums exhibits and environments.
  • The building as an object for active exploration and engagement
  • Playing with place–an interpretive twist on aspects of a building or site, views, materials, or associations
  • Rewarding people for being alert and responsive to their surroundings
Playing the Building takes advantage of the raw space in an 1895 produce exchange building in the Minneapolis warehouse district used more recently by the innovative Theatre de la Jeune Lune (1992-2008). Byrne has converted the building space into an immense musical instrument by attaching devices to exposed pipes and structural elements of the building that activate materials and their sound-producing qualities. When visitors play a keyboard, they activate switches that cause metal beams, plumbing, electrical conduit, heating pipes, and water pipes to vibrate, oscillate, and resonate. The machines produce sound in 3 ways: through wind, vibrations, and striking.
  •  Wind: A blower forces air through pipes or electrical conduits producing a whistling sound depending on the length of the pipe.
  • Vibrations: Machines attached to metal crossbeams cause them to vibrate, producing a low thrum.
  • Striking: A small mallet operated by solenoids strikes metal plates on the wall or the hollow columns making a clack or clang  sound.
Wire and mechanics are plainly visible. Players sit at the keyboard of an old-fashioned organ in a great pool of light in the dark cavernous space within viewing distance of all the machines, pipes, and beams. Wires neatly exit the back of the organ, sweep up into the great volume of space, and then split off to the devices mounted on pipes, beams, conduit, and columns. Distributed around the space, the mounted devices are spotlit and easy to locate. The experience with sound is also direct. No amplification is used, no computer synthesis of sound, and no speakers.

Please Play
Children’s object play is characterized by a dynamic between two implicit questions. What can this object do? What can I do with this object? Knowing the qualities of the object and what it is able to do is necessary for a child to play with it: to manipulate it in specific ways, to transform it by giving it symbolic meaning, or to construct a set of rules around it in a game. Byrne seems to be exploring this pair of questions so his keyboard players can as well: What sounds can this building make? What can I do with these sounds? 

The installation allows eager toddlers, curious adults, and hesitant elders to explore their own answers to those questions. They sit at the keyboard and, within minutes, play the building. Guided by trial-and-error, trying a quick tap or a sustained depression, a player can find the keys that play the strikers, produce flute-like tones, or cause a humming sound. Perhaps this key produces no sound. A what if? question might prompt a search for a new strategy. Pressing another key or holding it down longer reveals more about how to play the building.

Inspiration for sound exploration comes from the keys, the illuminated devices, possible sounds, players’ imaginations and their experiments. While the installation’s workings are straightforward and as they appear, they are not disclosed all at once. Sound explorers reveal the workings, sounds, and possibilities through their play. What sound does that clapper make? What does this key do? How can I change it? Vary it? Can I make it sound like a bird? A plane? Like a song I know?

Playing solo, duet, and in family groups, players shift easily between being the keyboard player and joining the audience. In each role, they are curious and alert about the effects the keys produce. Finding new sound combinations keep players at the keyboard, trying to make a specific illuminated striker clap or a pipe hum; making them sound off in succession. But movement and sharing is also part of the play. Fingers pointing, eyes following the illuminated sound-making devices, and sometimes running across the floor, children and adults move freely around the large open space. They climb up and down the stairs at one end of the space, stop on the landing for a closer view at a striker, and meet up again with friends and family to share observations and discoveries about how they play this building.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Managing Materials for Making and Tinkering

Although museums are no longer cabinets of curiosity, filled with rocks, relics, artifacts, and instruments, they continue to be characterized by authentic objects and materials at all scales and classifications and across museum types. Art, science, history, natural history, and children’s museums are object and material-rich environments that are also distinguished by the opportunities for object-based learning that they offer. 

Everyday in large museums and small, educators, exhibit techs, explainers, docents, playworkers, and facilitators are at work checking, distributing, and replenishing materials in galleries, exhibits, classrooms, and studios. They stock activity carts with sketchbooks, pencils, viewfinders, and magnifiers and pack bins for outreach programs. They refill exhibit components with metal washers, eyedroppers, and paper cups; reunite puppets that have migrated; and restock the grocery bins. Someone checks for missing pieces, small objects, and choke-hazards; another staffer checks the wire cutters. A group of staff assemble to offload flattened cardboard boxes that have just arrived. Perhaps a disbelieving colleague second-guesses the written directions as to whether 10,000 sticker dots to ‘dot the space’ are really intended.

Enthusiasm for found, reclaimed, and re-purposed materials has been building in museums, assuming many forms. Tinkering, maker spaces, and DIY initiatives are inspiring activities, creating exhibit-program hybrids, and putting authentic materials and tools in the hands of children and adults. My delight with the recent rise in material-rich experiences and settings is probably no surprise considering my expressed enthusiasm here for loose parts, good messes, and exploring materials. Yet, as promising as these trends are for visitor engagement, creativity, thinking, and learning, importing massive amounts of materials into museums also exerts new pressures such as encroaching on limited space, adding new tasks to full workloads, and affecting operations. Quantities of materials can also dilute the quality of projects or just produce such a jumble to make materials hard to find, use, or unappealing.

Judging from the opportunities and challenges I see more of in museums and hear about at conferences and also reflecting on my own experiences in this area, it’s clear that managing– perhaps curating–materials sits at the heart of successful tinkering, DIY and maker efforts in museums. Managing materials is a complex, multi-part, and collective process, more like a set of systems. Tapping the possibilities of materials requires extensive organization, system support, and appreciation for the beauty of materials.

Layers of Material Management
In the early 80’s, I worked at The Teachers’ Workshop, a teacher center for professional development in Madison (WI) that included, along with other resources, a recycled materials center. Housed in a double-classroom, it was filled with bins, barrels, and shelves of discards and by-products from area businesses and industry as well as teacher contributions. Displays by teachers and students using these materials from math manipulatives, to games, to art projects, added to the material richness, intensity, and sometimes, scrappy mess of the space. The push of gathering, sorting, storing, displaying, and restocking materials was relentless, inspiring, and rewarding. Looking back, I see that too often we were simply thrilled to get stuff, less driven to be resourceful with storage, and only occasionally attuned to presentation.

At that time Boston Children’s Museum had a recycle center store. On visits to Boston, we carefully noted the museum’s inventive and practical solutions for storage, display, and access to wooden game pieces, foam shapes, plastic caps, and many objects that eluded labels. The museum’s ingenuity and design expertise helped broker the competing demands of a recycle center. Storage solutions not only accommodated bulky and unusual shapes of objects, but also allowed children and adults to experience and explore materials, accentuated the delight of discovery, and contained the chaos of abundant stuff.

Managing materials is also part art. Along with quantity, variety, and smart storage, order and beauty are necessary to convey the materiality and possibilities of materials. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the material rich ateliers, or studio spaces of the Municipal Infant-Toddler Centers and Preschools in Reggio Emilia (IT). A tightly connected, coherent pedagogy rests solidly on a set of principles including the environment as the third teacher, creativity and aesthetics, and an appreciation of materials to engage children’s investigations of the sense and meaning of things and explore their own creativity. Attention to detail, arrangement of objects on shelves and tables, light from windows, mirrors that reflect children, small surprises, and displays of children’s thinking in their work contribute to the beauty of the spaces. Remida, the creative recycling center in Reggio, is a joint project of the Centers and Schools and Iren Emilia, a multi-utility working in neighboring provinces. When I visited in 2000, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that Remida also had an artist-in-residence as one strategies for fostering new opportunities for communication and creativity with materials. Had we only imagined that at The Teachers’ Workshop!

Curating Materials
Enthusiasm for massive amounts of materials is not evenly distributed across a museum or even within a department. Last year I overheard two people from science museums talk about integrating loose parts into an exhibit on which their museums were collaborating. Their conversation went: “Loose parts are not going to happen at our museum; maintenance will see to that.” The other person replied, “They’ll just have to get over it at our museum; loose parts are what we need.”

Amping up material use or introducing loose parts requires building ownership, collegial consultation, developing systems, anticipating others' concerns, and good manners.

There was much buzz and enthusiasm from self-identified “material nerds” at the recent ASTC 2012 about managing materials for maker spaces, tinkering studios, and take-apart labs. Some suggestions were more obvious than others, but ingenuity and trial and error with materials, storage, presentation, and collegiality had clearly gone into clarifying relevant steps, managing stuff, and figuring out solutions in the material stream. Steps, like sorting, happen repeatedly: in gathering, as part of storing, preparing activities, and putting materials out though the focus shifts.  At every point, order, beauty, visibility, and findability guide decision making. In the  practices below that I found helpful, naming the steps is somewhat arbitrary.

Gather materials, re-used and upcycled, physical resources and digital media resources, from multiple sources. Post signs at work asking co-workers and repeat visitors to bring in materials. Place a bin for drop-off, specifying requirements such as clean recyclables. Work with pre-school teachers. Take things apart such as timepieces and toys. Check out on-line sources, find the local recycling center, and locate scrap exchanges in the area.

Store materials based on clear, shared criteria. Frequency of use is a basic one with two broad categories. Back-up storage holds large quantities of materials that are drawn down to replenish at-hand storage for easy access during activities. The next challenge is finding the right containers within these two categories to hold objects and make them visible. Smart solutions use a systems approach: containers fit within and next to containers efficiently and can be prepped ahead of time. For instance, hotel steamer trays hold materials on tables and carts, are easy for visitors to use at worktables, and can be filled in the morning for quick resets. Milk crates hold smaller containers like tennis ball tubes hold stacked portion cups–and are easy to carry.

Tracking materials, or monitoring the constantly fluctuating quantities of materials that a museum has/doesn’t have/needs/the available quantities is the trickiest part of the process. A binder can include things that are needed and ordered. A dry erase board, used at ¡Explora!, can show when an item is “out”, but it doesn’t show what’s available now. Development of a searchable database is underway at the Exploratorium.

Preparing or gathering materials for a project is often based on a list of materials required for the project that have been tried ahead of time. The material nerds recommend that projects are framed and prototyped so that the materials and tools are scoped, materials are collected, bagged, and organized to support and deepen the tinkerer's investigation. Estimating quantities and planning for easy at-hand storage happens here. Set-up involves putting out materials in ways that are visually inviting and recognizable, accessible, and suggest possible starting points. A partially set up project can suggest where one tinkerer went with the materials or encourage a newcomer to capitalize on it, repeat, or jump off in a new direction.   

Projects on display require plenty of forethought and preparation. Encouraging tinkerers to leave something behind that has value to them (and perhaps to the museum) can be difficult. Prompts may be required to suggest that visitors label their project and leave it behind with, “This is my gizmo.” Visitors might scan their creations and publish them on the museum website. Staff may also move around and photograph what’s happening and ask visitors to comment on photos, and display images and comments. Notably, questions persist about how to encourage tinkerers to document their own projects.

Return to the material stream. The recycle life cycle of yogurt containers, hanks of wire, paper, corks, and cardboard tubes is evolving. While initially extended by recycling for tinkering, it can be further extended by dismantling reused materials and sending them back to storage. Other materials will meet their end in the museum’s trash until someone finds better uses for them at the tinkerers' table. 

More for Tinkering and Making
The enthusiasm of these tinkerers reflects a love of materials, an appreciation for solutions that accomplish multiple objectives, an interest in persistent challenges, and a generosity–including these tips.
• Think through every step and what visitors need, how to keep a tinkerer focused on the project and not distracted by string rolling away.
• Both variety and abundance of materials are needed to get the right “dooda”to deliver the best solution in an activity.
• Look for inspiration in managing quantities of materials in settings that do it well: Ikea, container stores, Remida, Reggio studios, and hardware stores.
• To find out more about the data base that Lianna Kali at the Exploratorium is developing, contact her at:

 Also, check out Paul Orselli's recent blog, Good Bye Columbus, Hello Makers, on ExhibiTricks

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Science in Play

“I think that’s as high as you can build,” 4 year-old Leo politely cautioned Rachel, the Visitor Experience Educator building a tower with small blocks next to his own construction. A moment later, Leo’s tower fell. Soon after, Rachel’s tower fell. Looking from one pile of blocks to the other, Leo said, “My tower crashed and made the table wiggle. Like a earthquake.” Leo continued building and said, “I just built something new, but I took it down because I knew it wasn’t stable.” 

Sitting on the building platform surrounded by blocks, Leo was just one of many children in Science in Play that I listened to and observed on a recent visit at the Kentucky Science Center (KSC) in Louisville. Two-and-a-half year old Eli was intent on connecting the energy coaster tracks. With repeated tries, he fit the pegs into the holes and connected 4 or 5 sections of track. Throughout the morning he returned to the tracks now focusing on the loop-the-loop. Picking up the orange ball, he pushed it against the inside of the loop, first at the top, then the side, and near the bottom. Each time he let it go, it dropped; he watched it roll away and stop. On one attempt, the ball landed in the track below and began to roll along the track he had constructed. After this, Eli picked up the ball and released it at the same place and watched it roll. He rolled the ball again and again (and again). Eli jumped up and shouted, “I did it!” 

 In the Shapes & Stuff Store, three-year old Sonya created an elaborate sequence of selecting shapes–cylinders, spheres, stars, and ovals from the bins. She placed them in her shopping cart, sorted them into fabric boxes, and removed them from the boxes to the shopping cart. Every gesture of selecting and stocking shapes and each footstep was accompanied by and in sync with Sonya’s softly singing, “Shopping, shopping, shopping, shopping; shopping, shopping, shopping.”  

These episodes illustrate the kind of motivation, inquiry, problem solving, theory and persistence we want to see in science learners. In Science in Play they are present and alive in the hands of young children. Levi has a theory that wiggles–vibrations–contribute to the tumbling blocks and that stability matters in a structure. Eli shows persistence in connecting the track sections. He tests his assumptions about the conditions for getting the ball to roll through the loop. Sonya is putting herself through the paces with one-to-one correspondence.

Parents and grandparents are as engaged as the children in Science in Play. One mom asks questions, “Do you have more butterflies than moons?” A father points out a feature his child hadn’t noticed: “Both pegs need to fit in here.” Parents and grandparents watch with interest and sometimes give a hand just before frustration sets in. A mother holds the baby and reads aloud while a big sister shops for shapes.

At Play With Science
Science in Play is a spot-on title for KSC’s new early childhood space. It engages children 8 years and under–particularly children 3 - 7 years–at play with science across two spaces totaling 5,800 square feet on the Science Center’s first floor. Rich in loose parts, sensory experiences, and open-ended materials that invite further exploration, the exhibit engages children in building, testing, imagining, problem solving and engineering as they play. The exhibit is a test bed for a comprehensive upgrade of the science center’s first floor as an expanded early childhood center. Activities are clustered into six zones. 
• The Sensory Course: A walk-through Noodle Forest; colored shadows and OptiMusic
• Testing Area: Build-your-own Coaster and A-Mazing Airways
• Big Build: Imagination Playground blocks
• Small Build: Table top building with Kapla blocks/Kiva Planks and Magnet Sculpture Wall
• Shapes & Stuff Store: Bins and shelves full of shapes
• Science Depot: A science workshop with changing projects and investigations

Science in Play takes a straightforward approach to presenting experiences where science and play easily lean into and merge with one another. The exhibit planners, Hands On! (St. Petersburg, FL) stuck to their brief and got out of the way as did KSC to give children an opportunity to do what they do well and naturally when they have the space, time, and materials to explore. They play, using their senses to figure out the universe around them.

The Science in Play brief, which I was fortunate enough to contribute to as member of the Hands On! team, kept its sights on a set of core ideas:
• The child as capable, competent, and enthusiastic science learner
• The potential of play to release the science
• Science connected to everyday experiences
• Adults interested the activities and engaged with children

Design of the space tackles converting a roomy traveling exhibit gallery into an early childhood zone. Following the brief and respecting a modest budget, a simple design solution unifies the spaces and confers a freedom to explore. Washed with colored light, the large white walls of the space glow. The Noodle Forest, A-Mazing Airways, Colored-Shadows, and Magnet Sculpture Wall become visual anchors. The full list of components didn’t make it into the exhibit so one corner of the space, in particular, feels empty during slow times. Combining custom-designed and off-the-shelf experiences is a smart strategy for a temporary installation. OptiMusic is novel while products such as KAPLA blocks in great abundance are attractive, and full of possibilities. Seating is varied, distributed, and used throughout both spaces.

Interpretive signage is geared to alerting adults to where a child’s play and science meet. A single message, Add a spirit of inquiry and children’s play becomes science play, is explored using familiar activities and highlighting the science of sound, energy, building, and shadows. Text is minimal. From the entry banner to the text panels, graphic design picks up the glow of the light-washed walls and colored shadows. Apparently, the graphics are effective. The free-standing text panels caught the attention of one mother who photographed it.

An Experiment
Installed in May 2012 for seven months, Science in Play is a bridge between KSC’s past work with young children and an anticipated expansion into a regional role in early childhood. In the mid-80’s, the Science Center opened KidZone, an early childhood space. Since then, it has offered special programs and classes for preschoolers, early childhood friendly traveling exhibitions, teacher training, and parent programs. With support from PNC for early childhood work and consideration of an aging KidZone, KSC decided to explore a greater commitment to early childhood. Science in Play has become a key piece in a strategic experiment to test that opportunity: explore the feasibility of a comprehensive upgrade of the first floor, connect with and serve new audiences, and prototype aspects of an early childhood center.

KSC has framed a set of questions it hopes to answer during the run of Science in Play. Some questions focus on market, others explore mission-based interests in early science learning such as: how to encourage parents to see their child as scientists; how to serve the full age range well; and how to make the experience engaging for parents. Still other questions will be answered through a research partnership with the University of Louisville College of Education.

Play On
The Science Center’s approach to Science in Play shows its confidence and courage in trusting children and their curiosity; understanding the potential of play; and believing in the pull of the science-filled world. Play on!