Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Connecting Contexts for Early Learning

In Museum Notes, I write about young children in museums, preschools, libraries, and childcare; at play indoors and out; in formal and informal settings; in the US and in the Municipal schools of Reggio Emilia. I do this as part of my museum planning work, my professional service, my involvement with the Reggio network in Minnesota, and my collegial friendships with early childhood educators in the Twin Cities and beyond.

Crossing and connecting contexts around young children is invigorating and productive. I can’t imagine what I would know or be thinking about were it not for these plentiful and intriguing resources generously shared by colleagues and by their colleagues. I hear about new practices, links and resources, and benefit from valuable expertise. I am exposed to different perspectives and the realities for early learning professionals in their work to engage parents in schools, family day care, and museums. I hear about community initiatives, research studies, and new programs. I am delighted to be able to pass on many of these resources and references to colleagues and clients across the country. I have referred to Tom Bedard’s blog from his pre-k classroom in St Paul, MN multiple times on Museum Notes as well as connected him with the exhibit developers at the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota as they develop prototypes.

These exchanges cross-pollinate ideas, spread resources, and link colleagues and friends. They follow the dedicated work, deep commitment, and incredible early learning assets that exist in towns and cities, in family day care, preschools, children’s museums, nature centers, pre-K programs, and libraries. They reflect a growing interest as well as a body of evidence about the critical importance of early experiences and children’s amazing capacity to learn everywhere, all the time, from birth. They also conceal a gap of some concern.

No matter how many examples are selected to illustrate valuable sharing, the lack of connections among early childhood contexts that are deep, active, and extensive is striking. This appears to be true across formal and informal contexts; museums, libraries and schools; children’s museums and art, history, and science museums; researchers in colleges and universities and practitioners in programs.

News of what’s happening in early learning in children’s museums is appreciated by colleagues in childcare or kindergarten; yet it is received as interesting or surprising. Early childhood programs in art museums are a revelation to educators also serving that age group in children’s museums. Museums and libraries in the same community are often unaware of the early play and learning programs the other offers. Researchers are surprised to know museums have a role to play in early learning. Teachers, playworkers, program coordinators, and parent educators are unlikely to know about relevant research being done at local universities.

This is not so much a lack of a collaborative spirit as a lack of basic awareness of other broad areas of early learning. Focus, connections, and associations are strong within contexts. They are weak beyond the perimeters into other early learning contexts where colleagues have strong, shared, and connected interests of their own.

Even if not intentional, a lack of thinking outside of this or that early learning context produces the same, limited views and action around an area of critical importance in the lives of young children, their families, museums, communities, and the nation.

Starting With Museums
There is a growing awareness nationally of early learning and the critical importance of the first years in building foundational skills, dispositions, experiences, and understandings that we all draw on across the life span. In  “An Opportune Moment: Museums in the National Conversation on Early Learning” (Journal of Museum Education, Spring2012), Marsha Semmel suggests that the national conversation on early learning as the underpinnings for life-long-learning is reaching a tipping point. Coming from the Director, Office of Strategic Partnerships at the Institute for Museum and Library Services this assessment is promising.

Museums have an opportunity to play a role locally and nationally in connecting around early learning and ensuring that young children have access to quality early learning experiences in remarkable informal learning settings. Increasingly museums recognize that to accomplish their own goals and to meet the challenges and fulfill the promises of their communities, they need to serve younger audiences as intentionally as they serve their high priority audiences. Without including very young children in their understanding of their audience, museums miss the beginning of the continuum of life-long learning. History, art, and science museums can learn from each other and how they serve families with young children as well as young learners themselves in object- and content-rich environments. Art museums starting toddler classes and science centers opening children’s museums can get valuable early childhood expertise from children’s museums to inform their decisions in making their museums places for learning for younger children. 

The Spring 2012 issue of the Journal of Museum Education (JME), recently served as a platform on early learning initiatives currently taking shape in museums and several initiatives have followed.

Dr. Sharon Shaffer, Founding Director of the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center (SEEC) introduced A National Symposium on Early Learning in Museums. Supported by a planning grant from the Smithsonian Institution, initial project activities have focused on gaining an understanding of young children in museums and the learning taking place. A review of the literature on children’s learning in museums was completed by MEM & Associates and an advisory group of museum professionals and researchers who have focused on early childhood education was convened to discuss early learning. Both the literature review and advisory group pointed to a greater role for museums for this age group and its value; one hope is for the Symposium to be a catalyst for research.

Another recent development is the Early Learning Collaborative Network has recently launched by the Smithsonian. Its intention is to identify effective ways to promote informal early learning, share best practices, and support early learning research. Reaching out first to museums and extending to Smithsonian Affiliates, the Network hopes to then reach more broadly across the early childhood field.

Finally IMLS is working with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading on a publication for policy makers on the role of museums and libraries in early learning that should be issued next year.

Early Learning: A Recognized Priority
Early learning should be recognized as more than a national conversation. It is, in fact, a national priority. Perhaps it is one priority among many, but it is a clear pathway to other priorities including education, health, workforce development, and national security that give should give early learning a most favored status.

Consequently, the challenge is far greater than museums connecting with museums, traditional museums connecting with children’s museums, or museums connecting with libraries. While helpful, this is not enough.

Teachers, facilitators, directors, and evaluators in museums, preschools, universities, and libraries who barely know each other are unlikely to share practices with colleagues in other contexts. When practitioners do share cross-context, however, they are able to pass on practices that others can try, test, and adapt. These exchanges will help improve the quality of play and learning experiences for children in an art museum in Georgia, a children’s museum in Washington, and a nature center in Iowa. A shared understanding of what works for children across multiple contexts becomes possible.

Without reaching out further and truly connecting contexts, researchers, practitioners, providers, and planners invested in understanding children’s early learning do not share their varied perspectives and insights. They do not take stock of research or programmatic activity, identify gaps (or redundancies) in research or services. It is unlikely that expertise and resources will be targeted to needed areas, to an age group, a context, a community, to parent engagement.

Without a comprehensive coordinated view of early learning across contexts, we will be hampered in constructing a rich, broad perspective on children’s play, learning, and early development. Progress on building a body of knowledge around how specific contexts contribute to early learning, developing a shared agenda for deepening our understanding early learning, and replacing fragmented infrastructure across early learning contexts will be slow at best. Demonstrating impact in high priority areas will be equally slow.

Stretching and Reaching Out
In “A Look at Early Childhood Programming in Museums,” in the Spring 2012 issue of JME, Betsy Bowers, Deputy Director of Partnerships, Collaborations and Consulting at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center proposes, “A community of educators that works together to share information about early childhood programming in museums would contribute to future program effectiveness and garner national attention.”

I agree. And I would go further. I would like to advance the possibility of a more extensive, varied and robust network that crosses and connects contexts, researchers and practitioners, around early learning, knowledge related to early development and the value of learning and play experiences for young children.

In thinking about crossing contexts, I imagine children, as well as leaders and educators, doing better within any early learning context because of stronger connections across those contexts. I do not have a clear idea of what this network or interlocking set of networks might be or might function. It must be ambitious and sustained. There is not single a model, but there are attributes to borrow from other networks whose intentions are related. Here are two I know of with something to offer.
  • In 2010 Louisiana Children’s Museum and Tulane University Institute of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health convened Investing in Children: A Summit on Early Childhood Development and its Impact on Building Prosperous and Healthy Communities. The Summit built on existing cross-context relationships and reached out to new ones. Researchers, practitioners, government officials, and planners from colleges and universities, the U. S. Department of Education, children’s museums, local childcare, public schools, the Municipal Infant Toddler and Preschools of Reggio Emilia, civic engagement initiatives, and funders. The Summit built on planning for the Early Learning Village that will continue cross-context work.
  • The charge for CAISE (Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education) is to, “Catalyze connections across field sectors; facilitate the formation of networks; build and integrate infrastructure; and generate and disseminate resources to enhance the relevance, value, and impact of informal science education.” 
  • The Reggio Inspired Network of Minnesota is both very intentional and informal about crossing contexts. It works actively to engage educators, parents, and citizens around young children, education and democracy.   
What examples do you know of? Museums not only have a role to play here, but they also have a responsibility. Museums that serve or might serve young children; that serve young families; that speak to the arc of life-long-learning in their missions; or who view themselves as contributing to the challenges and promises of their community need  to look up, reach out, respond to an invitation, and find ways to connect with other contexts for early learning.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Recent & Recommended Readings

I feel tremendously lucky that I need to spend time on my professional reading regularly and frequently. While finding the time for it is a challenge, being able to settle in and enjoy the thinking and perspectives of museum colleagues working to inhabit their professional practice feels like a privilege.

I am also challenged to fully inhale, retain, and internalize the news, ideas, study results, and perspectives as much as I would really like. Yet, even when I’m fuzzy on the details and sometimes on the big ideas of an article, I often remember very vividly reading an article: where I was and what I was doing. I recall the sensation of tracking ideas as they link up with a click or taking in a slow, easy breath as something I thought I knew now feels more secure.

Sharing what I read–a snippet, a quote, an article–is also a treat. Seeing a study inform a museum’s work is as rewarding as is sending off a “just-in-time” reference for a proposal deadline.

It’s hard to pick a favorite among so many good journals from my reading list, all of which I recommend: American Journal of Play, Curator, ASTC Dimensions, Journal of Museum Education, Hand To Hand, Museum, Stanford Social Innovation Review, The Informal Learning Review, and Visitor Studies.

Recently I have been referring to, mentioning, rereading, and thinking about three articles in particular. One is on the play-literacy-environment connection, another on parent engagement, and a third on children’s nature play. Besides exploring relevant aspects of museum’s strategic and learning interests, each does so in a way that broadens current thinking to inform, and possibly shift, museum practices.

In The Play-Literacy Nexus and the Importance of Evidence-Based Techniques in the Classroom (American Journal of Play, Vol. 4, No. 2), Kathleen Roskos and James Christie take on two difficult-to-define concepts, play and early literacy, and look at them together with the physical environment. Admittedly, I am biased about this nexus with long-standing interests in children’s play, early literacy development, and children’s environments. To their credit, the authors manage to both support and temper my excitement about the physical environment’s potential to support play and enhance literacy development. Even as the article identifies areas in which specifics of a literacy-rich environment remain unclear and must be addressed, it also opens up an understanding of the play-literacy-environment relationship to explore and push on.

The authors review theoretical frameworks that support their play-literacy hypothesis and follow with scholarly research indicating that a literacy-rich play environment promotes literacy behaviors in children during the developmental ages of three to five. They identify three fundamental principles present in a literacy-enrich play environment.
  • The infrastructure principle relates to the basic arrangement, display, and storage of furniture, equipment, and materials that is intentional in informing and organizing experiences as well as attractive and full of images, text, words, and visual arts.
  • The authenticity principle calls for play areas, indoors and out, with materials and tools that afford opportunities for a variety of everyday literacy experiences of drawing, writing, decoding, and reading.
  • The complexity principle values varied and complex material resources with multiple parts, multiple sensory modes, and multiple uses that hold children’s attention, challenge their thinking, extend communication, and encourage expression.
While the research comes from the early childhood classroom, its focus on play and play environments is relevant to museum settings planned with young children in mind. These three principles are often present in museum settings for young children. Moreover, museums have expertise developing and designing environments and experiences. They shape spaces, create experiences, and engage young learners and their more literate companions. The play-literacy-environment nexus identified by Roskos and Christie appears to be an opportunity for museums to work deliberately, find, and test their contribution to this area.

Parent Engagement
When I wrote about parent engagement last year, I was both inspired by the importance of engaging parents in museums and frustrated with the challenges of doing so well. Both sensations have persisted, aggravated by a lack of frameworks for parent engagement relevant to museums. Whether the frameworks I have come across and others have recommended are for early childhood or school age children, they focus on parent involvement with schools. Parent engagement in their children’s education is critically important; but these models overlook the valuable out-of-school time and role museums and other informal learning settings might play. 

In Breaking Down Barriers: Museums as Broker of Home/School Collaboration, Jessica Luke and Dale McCreedy (Visitor Studies, 15(1) 2012) look at how to expand thinking about parent engagement and role that museum programs might play. They describe results from two complementary studies of a parent involvement program designed and implemented by a museum. Luke and McCreedy draw on a conceptual framework (Ecologies of Parental Engagement) that has emerged from studies of parent engagement with urban schools and that uses the concept of capital that can be activated: parents’ strengths, experiences, and resources.

Listening to parents talk about the features they attributed to their involvement revealed for Luke and McCreedy how the museum program afforded parents opportunities to think about and support their child’s learning science. The museum program played a role in giving parents resources for participating in their child’s schooling. Through informal, casual interactions often around shared activities with other parents and teachers, parents accessed different types of information about their child; they increased their comfort with and found entry points to more formal school structures. Activities and connections built a feeling of being part of a larger group. Opportunities and situations created by the museum program also helped parents learn about their children, their interest in science, and how they learn science. Drawing on enhanced personal resources, parents were able to find ways to have a presence in their child’s schooling, shift the role they played, and participate as a family in activities outside of school including a museum visit.

Museums are building their own capital in listening to visitors, developing relationships, building on strengths, and grounding engagement in activities. These two studies take a valuable a step in rethinking parent engagement and where museums can help parents navigate and engage around their child’s learning.

Recognizing Children’s Nature Play Tendencies
For a venture outside my regular set of journals, I recently found my way to Orion magazine (July/August 2012).

David Sobel combines a developmental perspective with a wonderful ability to recognize children’s nature play tendencies to push on a shift in environmental education in Look, Don’t Touch: The Problem With Environmental Education. Where others see an opportunity for an environmental education lesson, Sobel notices and describes children’s joyful encounters with the natural world on their own terms. These moments, he notes, are being lost for a range of reasons including urbanization, changing social structure of the family, and stranger danger.

He also notes and is bold and articulate in describing a troublesome disconnect. While adults lament children’s loss of contact and freedom in nature and promote protection of the natural world, they nevertheless structure activities for children around knowledge about nature that they, adults, want them to have. “Much of environmental education today has taken on a museum mentality,” Sobel writes, “where nature is a composed exhibit on the other side of the glass.” (Ouch!)

What Sobel understands from a grounding in both nature education and children’s development is that for children to connect with nature, they must have experiences in nature. The character of these experiences varies with children’s development, but shared opportunities for children to connect with nature, even if (or perhaps, especially if) it’s messy, unstructured, a little risky, and tromps a few plants along the way.

An emergent body of research is starting to clarify the relationship between childhood experience and adult stewardship behavior. A child’s first-hand, on her-own-terms exploring wild or semi-wild places over many hours correlates with adult environmental values and behavior. This is a remarkable and valued combination: beliefs and action. While the research Sobel is reporting is not granular enough to differentiate between particular types of environmental education experiences, it’s hard to overlook a basic message. Children’s wild nature play, following their joy, and leaving the trail is valuable.

  •   What are your recent and recommended readings?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Learning + Literacy

Several years ago, as part of developing the master plan for the Minneapolis Central Library’s Children’s Library, I researched and summarized connections between learning and literacy. I wasn’t surprised to find connections, but seeing how closely learning and literacy map onto one another was striking.

While I developed this for a library, the close connections between museums and libraries and the relationship between learning and literacy also brought the public value of museums into sharper focus. The same life-long, active, social, meaning-making process that characterizes both learning and literacy is very much at the foundation of what museums do that matters. Engaging with objects, art, artifacts, in family, school, and community groups are the active ingredients of learning and literacy. These activities and experiences are fundamental to the 21st century learning of museum-goers as well as to the long-term priorities of communities. Every day in museums, millions of people look, point, talk, remember, imagine, and question; they listen, observe, notice, wonder, compare, investigate, reflect, build, and create. In these countless moments are the opportunities for museums to build and strengthen the life-long arc of learning for a five-year old in Cranston, a 12-year old in Norwalk, a family in Bozeman, grandparents in Madison, and couple in Los Angeles.

The interactions between literacy and learning in museums are more than just interesting. They point to where we need to pay close attention, understand and follow the connection, and deliberately shape experiences that invite, encourage, support, extend, and document moments of learning and the span of  learning across a lifetime.

The early years last a lifetime. From birth to five, children rapidly develop foundational capabilities on which later development builds.i. Research on early brain development indicates that organic changes in the brain and environmental effects work together.ii The neural system is activity-dependent, affected by smell, touch, movement, social interaction, talking, singing, cooing, and reading. The adults providing nurturance and support, security, predictability and encouragement are essential for infant learning.iii
Early experiences with language lay the foundation for later literacy iv. Children take their first critical steps towards reading and writing very early in life.v From birth, babies are learning: developing knowledge about spoken language from the sounds they hear, hearing their names repeatedly and listening to simple songs. The sounds and touch that go with speaking and reading to infants and toddlers expand neural connections that are used in reading and writing years later.

Learning begins at home. Long before children arrive at school, the foundation for learning and reading is established. In asking and answering questions, taking children to libraries and museums, spending time on homework, parents convey the value of learning. Dispositions, the tendency to exhibit frequently and voluntarily a pattern of behavior, are more likely to be acquired through modeling by the people around children than by didactic processes.vi
Parents play a key role in raising readers. From early interactions with their parents, children hear sounds, use words, identify letters, and process letter-sound relations–all before entering school. The young child who hears and enjoys many stories is also beginning to read, from learning how to hold a book, to knowing where to begin to read the text, to developing early concepts about print, to understanding narratives.vii

Learning is an active process. Learning is not the passive acceptance of knowledge that is out there but involves the learner in engaging with the world. Learners use sensory input to construct meaning.viii
Literacy skills develop through active exploration in settings rich with images, words, objects, views, and people to talk with.ix  Wider access to books, and objects, exploring spaces that are engaging, varied and sensory rich, and using authentic props and materials that extend engagement encourage children’s language.x

We learn to learn as we learn. Learning is both building meaning and building systems of meaning. For instance, learning a chronology of dates of historical events also teaches the meaning of a chronology.xi
The more we hear and read, the more we know. Hearing more language and richer language, enhances children’s language development xii. Talking to and reading to children increase their language development xiii  that in turn encourages reading and talking.

Constructing meaning is mental. Making meaning happens in the mind. Hands-on learning and other physical activities may be necessary for learning, especially for children. But learning must engage the mind as well as the hands.xiv
Language is essential for making meaning.
Language gives order to thought. Many types of talk help the child to make connections between the meanings and language forms of text and his actual experiences, including the use of language in other familiar contexts.xv

Learning involves language. Language and learning are inextricably enmeshed; language does not just express thoughts but actually helps form thoughts. Learning is mediated by language, socio-cultural context, artifacts, and people.xvi
Talking, reading, and writing build literacy skills and broader understandings. Being read to introduces young children to the parts of a book, to new people and places, ideas, and possibilities. Reading and playing engage children with spoken and written language in a constant back and forth between thought and word.xvii

Learning is a social activity. Learning does not occur in a vacuum but in a social realm in which ideas are shared and shaped through expression and discussion.xviii From the very start, children’s social relationships affect their learning.
Positive social interactions related to reading create a disposition to read. Language, the foundation of reading, is by nature a social activity.xix Parents talking to their infants; a young child being read to in a parent’s lap; a new reader reading aloud to a grandparent; and readers of all ages talking about stories and characters develop and strengthen the habit of reading.

Learning takes time. Over time, meaning is built up layer upon layer, bringing greater depth to understanding.xx  Revisiting an idea; pondering it, playing it out and connecting it with other ideas; testing, reflecting and putting ideas to use take time.
Early, regular, and on-going exposure to language and books builds literacy. Even with very young children, reading a story takes time: time to read, talk about the story, letting the child hold the book.xxi

Motivation is essential to learning. Learning is associated with movement toward an optimal level of neural stimulation.xxii Rewarding activity, a balance between challenge and success and an understanding how knowledge can be used help encourage the effort required to learn.
Personal interests motivate people to find out what they want or need to know.xxiii Interests in hobbies, sports, vehicles, crafts, arts, music, or travel are starting points for reading, finding books, asking questions, and looking up references.xxiv An otherwise reluctant reader may be motivated to read to learn about flight, look up amazing facts, or read about a sports champion.
 Now What?
After you have looked over these learning and literacy connections, consider what you might do as you: develop an exhibit, write the annual report, greet a visitor, talk to your board, set materials out for an activity, sell a membership, hire staff, write a proposal, speak at a school board meeting, orient new staff, cultivate an organization to partner with, write job descriptions, introduce an activity in a program, evaluate staff performance, write label copy, develop the budget, update the museum’s FaceBook page, plan a donor event, answer a parent’s question, develop project goals, revise membership benefits, orient interns and volunteers, work with faculty at a college or university, evaluate an initiative, talk to the Chamber of Commerce, convene advisors, or visit your state representative or town councilor. 

i Shonkoff, J. P., & Phillips, D. (Eds.). (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early child development. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
ii Shonkoff, J. P., & Phillips, D. (Eds.). (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early child development. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
iii Vygtosky, L.N. (1962) Thought and Language. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA. (As cited in Hein, George. (1992). Proceedings from ICOM/CECA Annual Conference, 1991. ICOM.)
iv Neuman, Susan B. and Donna Celano, (2010). Every Child Ready to Read. Public Library Association., American Library Association: Chicago, IL.
v Zero To Three: Early Literacy. (2003). www.zerotothree.org/child-development/early-language-literacy/earlyliteracy2pagehandout.pdf.
vi Katz, Lillian G. Dispositions as Educational Goals. ERIC Digest. 1993.
vii International Reading Association and The National Association for the Education of Young Children. (1998). Learning to Read and Write: Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Young Children. Young Children. Young Children. Washington DC.
viii Hein, George. (1992). Proceedings from ICOM/CECA Annual Conference, 1991. ICOM.
ix Roskos, Kathleen and James Christie. (2001). “On Not Pushing Too Hard: A Few Cautionary Remarks About Linking Literacy and Play.” Young Children: 56:64-66.
x Roskos, K., & Neuman, S. B. (2001). Environment and its influences for early literacy teaching and learning. In S. B. Neuman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook of early literacy research (Vol. Volume I, pp. 281-294). New York: Guilford.
xi Hein, George. (1992). Proceedings from ICOM/CECA Annual Conference, 1991. ICOM.
xii Hart, B., & Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.
xiii Huck, Charolotte S, Susan Hepler, and Janet Hickman. (1989). Children’s Literature in the Elementary School. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers. New York.
xiv Hein, George. (1992). Proceedings from ICOM/CECA Annual Conference, 1991. ICOM.
xv Wells, Gordon. (2003) Children Talk Their Way Into Literacy. In J.R. García (Ed.) Enseñar a escribir sin prisas…pero con sentido. Sevilla, Spain: Publicaciones M.C.E.P.
xvi Lee, C. D. and P. Smagorinsky (Eds.), (2000). Vygostkian Perspectives on Literacy Research. New York: Cambridge University Press.
xvii Forman, George E. (1992). Research on Early Science Education. In Seefeldt, Carol (Ed.) The Early Childhood Education Curriculum. Teachers College Press. New York.
xviii Lally, J. Ronald. (1998). Brain Research, Infant Learning and Child Care Curriculum. Child Care Information Exchange. 5/98. Redmond WA.
xix Zero To Three: Early Literacy. (2003). www.zerotothree.org/child-development/early-language-literacy/earlyliteracy2pagehandout.pdf.
xx Hein, George. (1992). Proceedings from ICOM/CECA Annual Conference, 1991. ICOM.
xxi Huck, Charolotte S, Susan Hepler, and Janet Hickman. (1989). Children’s Literature in the Elementary School. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers. New York.
xxii Huck, Charolotte S, Susan Hepler, and Janet Hickman. (1989). Children’s Literature in the Elementary School. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers. New York.
xxiii Falk, John H. and Lynn D. Dierking. (2002). Lessons Without Limits. Altamira Press: Walnut Creek, CA.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Explore Yellowstone: A Gateway Experience

Fishing at Lake Yellowstone

Museums often create and offer what they consider gateway experiences. These are experiences that open doors to a museum and its collections, to foundational ideas, or to new places and adventures. Explore Yellowstone at the Museum of the Rockies (MOR) in Bozeman (MT) is a gateway experience for children and adults to the Museum and to Yellowstone National Park (WY) about 100 miles south.

The need for more space for young children and families was identified during MOR’s strategic planning process. In addition to member families expressing an interest in more spaces for young children throughout the museum, MOR recognized an opportunity to better serve families in the Gallatin Valley as well. A new space created out of a loft gallery for art on the museum’s mezzanine level was selected to replace a smaller existing children’s play space. In 2006 serious exhibit planning began. A collaborative process involved initial design work by Lexington Design, content and interpretive work with the National Park Service at Yellowstone Park, and an in-house education, design and fabrication team. The re-conceptualized space for infants through children eight-year olds opened in June 2010.

Explore Yellowstone’s focus on the science and natural wonders of Yellowstone Park and the Northern Rocky Mountains is engaging to children, respectful of them, and interesting to adults. Knowledge of both science and young children is well balanced. A strong sense of place grounds the exhibit. Areas inspired by the region and made famous by the Park invite children to explore, engage, and make connections. A skillful mix of experience and play affords a range of learning experiences. Authenticity and accuracy are delivered with a knowing touch. Solid content is always present, supporting the experience without driving it. When used, text covers content concisely and in intriguing ways, for instance explaining mudpots and cooking fish on geysers.

Immersive Experiences, Connected Play
Designers have created immersive experiences rather than designing immersive environments in the exhibit’s Campsite, Fishing Bridge, Lodge, iconic Geyser Basin, Fire Tower, and Yellowstone Grand Canyon. In immersive experiences, there is just enough design and detail to suggest a time and place, perhaps a season or time of day. Internal relationships are kept in tact, accurate, and reinforced by structures, materials, and features. Context supports the learner and visitor experience–the direct, social, emotional, physical, and cognitive engagement in a situation or setting.

Bringing smell to the scenic landscape
Explore Yellowstone does this with design restraint, realism, authenticity, and a high regard for sensory cues to establish a sense of place. Animal sounds come from trees; smells of a forest fire can be released near the Fire Tower. The essence of a park lodge comes from pine log walls, rustic furniture, and a stone fireplace that feels massive to young children.

Painted wall murals for each area are specific scenes in the Yellowstone area. The campsite sits against a lodge pole pine forest. A child fishing in front of the mural of Yellowstone Lake catches cutthroat trout found along the shore. In addition to choosing views for scenic cues that inspire play and conversation, staff considered MOR’s strengths in realism and the information and stories embedded in each view to support staff facilitation.

The areas might seem sparse or incomplete if they did not work naturally together and were not layered with props. Connected play activities build on one another extending in many directions. A map orients visitors to Explore Yellowstone where they can pick up a backpack and head off to the Campsite, Fishing Bridge,  Lodge,  Geyser Basin,  Fire Tower, or Yellowstone Grand Canyon.

A child moves back-and-forth between the campsite and fishing bridge, catching a fish, measuring it, and cooking it. Another child catches a fish and feeds it to the eagle in the nest. In one encounter observed by staff, a boy was fishing on the bridge and was approached by a girl wearing a ranger’s vest. She asked him for his fishing license which he could not produce. She suggested they step over to the nearby fishing license station and fill out a license which they did.

Props that are relevant, plentiful, and at varying scales also support and extend play across several Yellowstone areas. A mother and son were setting up camp around the tent, arranging the mess kit, backpack stove, and food. Some of the same food was later being cooked atop the 1920's stove to serve guests at the Lodge.

Connected play experiences
In the Lodge, a 5-year old declares, “I don’t know when I’ll ever be done cooking,” as she removes a pan from the impressive stove. This is just one delightful snippet from her much longer dialogue about cooking and serving a meal for the crowd gathered around the table. This crowd included a three or four year old girl in a firefighter outfit eating a carrot, the chef, backpacker, and a real mom and dad.

Two areas, the Fire Tower and Magma have relatively few interactives and don’t receive comparable levels and types of interactions other areas do. Working with an education professor at Montana State University, Explore Yellowstone staff is looking at the goals of each area to show how children interact with one area compared to another. Remediation is the intended next step.

Getting Geysers Right
Every project has technical and content challenges to manage. Explore Yellowstone had several unusual ones that it navigated well. Designing a geyser presented several challenges.

The exhibit team’s first geyser challenge was to design and fabricate a feature that was not only identifiable as a geyser, but also worked without water because of MOR's collections. A second challenge was a convincing geyser that goes off several times a day without scaring toddlers. A third challenge was explaining geysers to toddlers since “super-heated” is not a concept familiar to toddlers or preschoolers. This last challenge was addressed through an exchange between lead interpreters at Yellowstone Park and Explore Yellowstone staff. Eventually all agreed that “boiling macaroni and cheese” to describe the boiling water under Yellowstone would work for both young children and geysers.

A quiet geyser from 10-noon
According to Angie Weikert, Education Director, Early and Elementary, meeting the first two challenges produced a lively design process. The geyser was designed to start with a low rumbling. A fan inflated a balloon-shaped geyser; the rumble continued in a low vibration. This was a very successful event with the geyser going off several times a day. The sounds of the geyser, however, were a bit too authentic for toddlers and preschoolers. Staff heard children scream and run out crying. After talking with parents, staff determined that the surprise, duration, and sound were scary. The Museum’s website now carries this message: "There are no geyser eruptions in the Center between the hours of 10-Noon daily. This is in consideration of visiting families with small children who may be sensitive to the noise.”

A new twist on Yellowstone wildlife
Yellowstone Park is a mountain wild land, home to grizzly bears, wolves, and herds of bison and elk. Because animals are well loved and engaging, Explore Yellowstone would also need to be home to animals. Exhibit planners made an interesting choice in deciding how to represent about a dozen animals, such as a swan, wildcat, and bison. Animals are fabricated from recycled objects. While this solution may sound strange particularly in a science and nature museum, it addresses a number of audience, experiential, and content considerations.

Children inevitably ask whether an animal is "real.” Answering whether a stuffed bear is real is tricky. When real objects are assembled to represent an animal, however, the answer is one a child can grasp: the animal is not real, but the objects–that guitar, brushes, and bowl–are. At the same time, the sculptures are able to accurately portray animals in size, positions, and settings. Finally, children want to touch animals. Allowing them to touch these artful assemblies of everyday objects avoids teaching them that they can approach live animals in the Park.

Explore Yellowstone works on many levels. Children are highly engaged in place-based explorations of the science and natural wonders of Yellowstone Park.  Parents and grandparents get into the act and extend children’s play. Conversations are long and lively. The layered immersive experiences, connected contexts, ample props, and scenic backdrops work together to support the kind of playful exploration museums, educators, parents, and children value.

As a place that values young families, Explore Yellowstone becomes a gateway experience to the Museum of the Rockies. By complementing the National Park Service in areas where it excels, MOR serves as a gateway experience to Yellowstone Park.