Saturday, March 2, 2013

Not Just About Play

At the recent Math Core advisors’ meeting I attended, several exhibit developers, advisors, and designers mentioned how they had observed children building with blocks, constructing towers and houses, before and sometimes instead of focusing on the math. I noticed the same thing.

One particularly long building sequence started when two girls, 4 years and 8 years, walked up to Scaling Shapes, an exhibit about doubling the size of the object in three dimensions, height, length, width. The exhibit has a large work surface with a one-inch grid, loose one-inch cubes, and several block structures of assembled cubes. A monitor shows a structure being enlarged by doubling all three dimensions.

Standing at the exhibit, one girl said to the other, “Do you want to build a house?” They swept all the cubes to one side and started building a house for their three stuffed animals, a giraffe, a puppy, and a bear. As they built, they talked about what they were building, and who their animals were: “They’re all triplets.” “They’re watching TV.” “Where should we put him?” the older girl asked holding up the giraffe. “Let me deal with that!” the younger one replied, grabbing the animal. The activity continued, sometimes with more building and problem solving (“How do we make a window for the giraffe?”) and some times with more conversation.

This kind of activity sequence occurs frequently in children’s museums, science centers and museums and probably in every type of museum. While content specialists, advisors, exhibit developers and designers who create exhibits all want to see our exhibits used as we intend them to be, more than likely, it’s just not going to happen or not going to happen right away.

Exploration and Play
Planned for or not, play and exploration are an active, present, and inevitable part of the museum experience. The problem solving, critical thinking, and the planned discovery we intend for children and adults in exhibits require time and the opportunity to explore, to develop a familiarity with and knowledge of the materials, objects and even the context.

We can look to play for some insights into what happens at exhibits and, for that matter, in many contexts. What we think of broadly as children’s play with objects has two distinct aspects proposed by Corinne Hutt in 1970. In her play taxonomy, also referred to by Rennie and McClafferty (2002), she identifies epistemic behavior, or exploration, and ludic behavior, or self-amusement, along with games with rules.   

What can this do?
In exploration, a child picks up a ball, block, stick, piece of string, sock, stone, (etc.) and begins to investigate it. In eying, touching, lifting, squeezing, shaking, pounding, throwing, dropping, rolling, stepping on, and for the very youngest, mouthing and gumming, the child gathers information about the object’s basic properties. Implicit in the child’s mind during this investigation appears to be: "What can this object do?" Hutt also suggests that investigative, epistemic, behavior may be divided into three kinds of activities. In exploration a child uses her senses to gather information. In problem solving she focuses on doing a puzzle. In productive activity she is intent on making changes to the material and/or acquiring skills.  

What can I do with this object?
Play, or ludic behavior, relies on the child having sufficient information about the object to make it familiar and to be comfortable in shifting to ludic behavior, or amusement. Here the implicit question is, “What can I do with this object?” In this realm, Hutt says, children draw on the knowledge gathered about the object and skills in using it to play symbolically with the object. A block becomes a phone; the stick is light sword; a stone is a magic egg; a sock fits over the hand and is a cat puppet; and a pile of blocks are stacked to be a house with a window for a giraffe. Often pretense is involved.

A new combination, a new round of exploration
 Through play–informed by the initial investigation–a child gathers and consolidates additional information to develop further knowledge and understanding about the object and greater skill in using it. Children often move between exploratory behavior and play. Occasionally, the accidental discovery of a novel feature or introduction of an unfamiliar object prompts a new round of exploration, but this is incidental rather than the goal of the activity.

The need to explore and become familiar with something does not disappear with childhood and is not limited to toys or play. Adults certainly bring more information to each encounter, but the material (and even social) world is not static enough to remain familiar. When a new gadget or piece of equipment enters our life, when we try to open a particularly pernicious type of packaging, or we walk up to the rocket launcher at a science center, we take time to inspect, investigate, and explore before wholeheartedly committing to its use or to making something with it. In fact, Rennie and McClafferty suggest a paraphrase of Hutt’s two questions: “What can this exhibit do?” and “What can I do with this exhibit?”

Museum and Exhibit Context
In developing and designing museum experiences, most of us, most of the time do so as if investigation, play, and planned discovery to accomplish objectives were one and the same. They are not. In fact, the distinctions among them are often material to the goals museums have for learners in exhibits and programs. This disconnect seems to influence not only how learners engage in those activities, but also how long they are likely to remain with an activity and even the messages and understandings they take away.

When a learner encounters objects, tools, or materials at a maker table, a math exhibit, a harmonograph, or a building platform, investigation begins. It is likely to be relatively brief if there is some previous experience and familiarity with what is being explored. With new objects or novel combinations of materials, however, inspection and investigation are both longer and necessary for gathering information.

Museums, however, are not the highly familiar, everyday environments of the kitchen or car. They are, in fact, an intentionally prepared mix of familiar, unfamiliar, and often, rare objects, materials, and mechanicals, presented in engaging and intriguing ways. Since variety, novelty, and something out of the ordinary does characterize museums, it is reasonable to expect that many visitors will require time to explore, become oriented, and take in a museum and its exhibits. Similarly, a certain level of investigation, or epistemic behavior, is likely for children and adults to become familiar or reacquainted with an exhibit since most visitors do not attend museums frequently.

At many exhibits, investigation is likely to focus on what Hutt calls productive behavior that is concerned with changing the material or the user’s skill in using it. Changing the material may involve altering it by tearing, folding, cutting, applying pressure, or dissolving; changing another material by cutting, pounding, piercing, or illuminating it; or making something with it by attaching, assembling, connecting, or sewing it. Combinations of these processes are likely and expand the investigation. Another concern of productive behavior is developing skills in using or working with a material, object, or tool. Through familiarity and extended use, and through multiple tries at one’s own pace, the investigator acquires skills, develops competence, and derives a sense of confidence.

Lessons and Starting Points
Investigation, play, and productive behavior offer useful insights and lessons for planning exhibits. While related to one another, they serve distinct purposes. While similar to many exhibit engagement behaviors, their focus is less on the exhibit's objectives and more on what its elements can do.

Through exploration that often informs–and is informed by–play, children and adults engage with an exhibit. They develop a familiarity with the materials, objects, tools, and the context. These are the very same elements an exhibit intentionally brings together in order to meet its specific objectives. Equally as important, exploration and play provide the learner with skill in using the materials and a degree of preparation that is valuable in pursuing and accomplishing the exhibit’s objectives.

The learner’s tendency to investigate, play, and explore his own objectives offers insights and opportunities into additional ways exhibits might accomplish their objectives:  
  • Recognize the learner as someone inclined to investigate, play, and pursue objectives
  • Channel these activities towards the exhibit's objectives
  • Provide for these activities in exhibit design 

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