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?

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