Sunday, January 6, 2013

Children at the Center


Children at the center has a ring to it and, at least in my networks, is referenced often enough to be familiar to many. But, is it a powerful tool or an empty buzzword? Yes–and both. With some teams I work with, children at the center sparks an interested, highly engaged response. From other teams the phrase produces a polite blank or bored look, signaling a readiness to move on.

A suspiciously attractive phrase, I nevertheless think placing children at the center extends well beyond a professional belief invoked with passion. What is at the center is what is important. Occupying a central position serves as a reference point towards which other considerations and actions are oriented. Children at the center asserts that children, their healthy growth and development; their resilience in the face of adversity, small or large; what is in their long term interest; and their joy are all important.

At its fullest, this idea offers an asset-based approach to building social capital in communities–better day-to-day experiences for children now as well as brighter futures. Children at the center has the capacity to align interests among multiple organizational partners to work towards long-term change for a community, its families and children. Finally, it is a compelling idea with enough gravitational pull to consolidate and focus a shared set of understandings and practices to better serve children in a museum, school, childcare, or community program.

While placing children at the center can advance these significant strategic, organizational, and learning interests, it does so only with deliberate and steady work among a group, or even an active network, of people. The work starts with developing a deep, clear, shared understanding of what placing children at the center means. 

Seeing Strengths
Seeing children as strong, capable, competent, and full of potential is at the core of placing children at the center. The strengths and possibilities of even the very youngest child refute the easy assumption that children are simple and in need of correction, direction, and filling up with facts. Through movement, thought, reason, and language, infants and toddlers notice, follow sensations, organize information, seek out others to engage with, and make and change meaning. We might even view children as the original hackers, with their innovative customization of their world.

Children’s amazing potential is captured in the recent experiment of delivering a box of tablet computers in sealed boxes to two remote Ethiopian villages. The purpose was to see if illiterate children with no previous exposure to written words could learn how to read by themselves by experimenting with the tablet and its preloaded programs. Within 5 days, children had opened the boxes, figured out how to operate the tablets and were using an average of 47 apps each. 

It is not just children in remote villages with comparatively limited opportunities to spark an eagerness to explore that illustrates their strengths and capabilities. Evidence from everyday moments abounds. Children use others, often adults, as tools to accomplish their goals: to access something on a high shelf, roll the ball back to them and play, decode text, lift them up for a better view. Children observe others doing something they can’t do and then imitate them. Now they do it by themselves.

Our perspective influences what we see in children’s curiosity, expressions, persistence, and successes. If we see a strong, capable child, we see an active agent in exploring and learning. We view a child’s marks, questions, and choices as intention to make meaning–something we value greatly. We notice an extended focus on a purpose a child has invented herself rather than presuming a short attention span. We believe each child has something to say; each brings a narrative to the moment. It might be an observation about time, such as one 5-year old’s chronology of  world events, “Dinosaurs, Baby Jesus, the Knights, and me.” These are some of the magnificent offerings of children.

New Starting Points
Museums that internalize a view of children as strong and competent are in a position to activate the potential each child has. This sounds ambitious, and it is. The careful work of placing children at the center requires a deliberate shift from creating exhibits and programs to fill heads with facts or impress museum peers to centering the museum’s language, thinking, planning, and actions around children.

Learning from, with, and about children offers significant new starting points for a museum’s work. Who are these children? What do we know about them? What fascinates them? How do they explore, think, and make meaning? If children are the focus and what is important, then everyone across the museum becomes interested, patient observers. This is precisely the same as everyone being alert to safety everywhere and all the time.

Focusing on children’s strengths and capabilities reveals their competence as authors of their own experiences. They follow interests, investigate materials, make choices, modify approaches, and express possibilities. Children’s use of their many languages or ways of representing their ideas and emotions comes through in their spoken and written words, visual arts, drama, movement, and more. This focus opens new understandings about children and allows a museum to imagine ways the child’s agenda can be the starting point for explorations that will generate new thinking. Approaches shift to make room for children’s competence in building knowledge and seeking meaning in the environments the museum creates, the interactions it facilitates, and the relationships it nurtures. Rethinking environments, experiences, exhibits, and programs that invite children to wonder and extend their investigations is inevitable.

The sustained work of placing children at the center relies on listening to, being responsive to, and sharing in a child’s world attentively and respectfully. While evidence of children’s thinking and connections and their own words about what they are doing and understanding is rich, varied, and plentiful, it is all but overlooked in most settings. Documentation, an approach that gives visibility to children’s processes and accomplishments, brings together listening, recording, photographing, and reflecting on children’s actions, work, images, and words.

In making children’s thinking visible, documentation gathers evidence of an individual child’s or a group of children’s thinking from their words, drawings, questions, actions, and exchanges. In a program, at an exhibit, during a drop-in activity, and while prototyping, staff may listen to a child’s questions about what keeps a ball aloft; observe a child's repeated adjustments of objects around a light source to change shadows; notice a child’s persistence blowing bubbles; or reflect on a child’s varying the base of block structures. Notes, transcripts, photos, and children’s drawings that staff collect fuel discussion and interpretation about how children approach and think about the experiences the museum has created for them, or that they have created or found. Documentation is an iterative process of reflection, distillation, and sharing. It yields insights into how to support and extend children’s explorations, and modify environments where children will choose to invest their curiosity, imagination, and creativity.

At its best, documentation is a teaching, learning, and research tool. It illuminates children’s thinking and learning to them, to parents, and it staff; it frames new questions, and informs future planning.

Centering the Museum Around Children
There is no straight, short, or simple path to placing children at the center of a museum in a meaningful way. However, when educators, developers, designers, and visitor service staff from across a museum wholeheartedly and collectively engage in placing children at the center, momentum builds and change occurs along many dimensions.

Seeing children as strong and capable readily translates into seeing colleagues across the organization as capable and competent. Colleagues are recognized for bringing varied perspectives and complementary expertise needed to advance a shared vision. Staff working in different departments become collaborators in explorations and documentation that informs and deepens their work. A larger community of learners and partners with and around children takes shape.

Centering the museum’s language, thinking, planning, and practice around children takes hold gradually. New and more ways of placing children at the center begin to appear earlier in planning an exhibition, developing programs, framing the budget, and hiring and training staff. Through each project insights into children’s strengths and capabilities deepen. A shared vocabulary develops. New ways to support more elaborate explorations unfold. Cycles of documentation are tried, shared, and modified. Existing practices evolve and new ones emerge, clustering into an increasingly supportive set of everyday practices with children at the center. Museum-wide practice aligns thinking and links qualities of environments, experiences, exhibits, programs with children’s thinking and knowing.

All museums have aspirations. Yet few actually translate these aspirations into change at a meaningful scale for a community, its citizens, or even itself. A shared vision and a sustained commitment are required. Placing children at the center of a museum’s long-term interests can be a way a museum matters in the life of its community. This commitment may be adopted as a value, a foundational principle, or a vision statement such as, “We envision a child-centered community that makes decisions based on what is in the long-term interest of the child.” Stated clearly and at the highest strategic level, placing children at the center can inspire, guide, and unify a museum’s varied and complex work across multiple formats and over time.

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