Sunday, April 28, 2013

Heading Out With Questions

The spring conference season for museums has arrived. Next week is InterActivity 2013 hosted by the Association of Children’s Museums and Pittsburgh Children’s Museum. May 19-22, the American Alliance of Museums hosts its 2013 Annual Meeting and Museum Expo in Baltimore.

Usually I return from conferences invigorated by questions posed by presenters, asked by participants, and overheard during breaks. I fully expect that after four days of sessions including the Reimaging Children’s Museums design seminar, I will have gathered questions and resources to follow-up on and think about over the next year.

This year, however, I am also heading out to the conference with a set of questions. I hope to ask and listen to colleagues noodle on a few blog topics that have been floating through my mind. I am certain my thinking will be sharper and the posts more interesting and relevant if others’ perspectives and insights are folded in. 

Play Outfitters. Outfitters provide specialty equipment and supplies for canoeing, hunting, fishing, skiing, and trail riding so the experience is top notch–easy, enjoyable, without unnecessary interruptions, and safe.  What is the scope of play outfitters?
  • What equipment, materials, objects, play things, or support should a play outfitter provide? How does outfitting for play change with the seasons? What are particularly great additions for toddlers, young children? and children in early and middle childhood?

A Question of Practice. Practice is what we do everyday in our professional lives. We refer to museum practice, talk about best practice, and pursue excellence in practice. In spite of years of practice, I am fuzzy about what is  meant by and what distinguishes practice, a practice, and an area of practice.
  • How do we recognize and define practice? a practice? What distinguishes a practice from an activity or set of activities? How is practice different from expertise? What are some examples of a practice?

The Power of Place. Place matters. It matters to children discovering who they are, their world, and their place in it. Place matters to families growing and deepening connections to their communities. Place brings people together and can help them understand their connections to one another and their community.
  • In what ways does place inspire children’s museums? What qualities of place can be experienced in and around the museum? How can exhibits, programs, and experiences strengthen place-based connections for children? families?

If we don’t connect at the conference or you are not attending, I’d still like to hear your responses to these questions. Please share your thoughts to these questions here on Museum Notes or send them to my email:     

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Exploring the Reggio – Museum Connection

Reggio is a network of more than 30 centers and schools for young children from a few months old up to 6 years (and soon expanding) in the municipal schools of Reggio Emilia in northern Italy. Reggio is also a body of evolving pedagogical thought and practice infused with cultural values that take preschool into a public square.

Reggio Children

I was going to write about documentation, a Reggio-inspired practice that is attracting greater interest in school and museum settings in the US and world-wide. A spiraling, iterative, reflective process of following children, documentation involves gathering and interpreting traces of children’s work and words to give visibility to their thinking and discoveries that are present but we are not yet seeing. Using dialogue and collaboration, documentation is a tool to make us think again and deepen our consideration of what children are thinking and how they make meaning. I intended to place documentation in a museum context and explore its potential for giving visibility to children’s thinking, look at what’s working, and consider ways to support and extend their explorations.   

The writing process, however, has been messier and more of a tangle than usual. Tromping through the tangle to investigate has uncovered some important missing pieces. For starters, documentation is hard to encapsulate briefly. Note, for instance, the density of the “quick” overview in the previous paragraph; while long and involved, it barely unpacks what is significant about documentation. It is precisely the complexity of documentation that makes this rich, layered, generative cycle of observing, reflecting, interpreting, and revisiting a powerful tool for learning for children, teachers, and parents. A tool that “brings to light what usually escapes the eye,” according to Carlina Rinaldi is unlikely to be summed up in 5 or 10 words.

Adapting documentation to museum settings is also a challenge; fortunately an attractive one. But at the core of this tangle is making the connection between the Reggio-inspired approach and museums and their practices. Documentation is a set of practices embedded in a tightly connected pedagogy that is integrated in a system of public schools that have emerged from a community in a region in Italy over the last 60 years. Work to unpack those elements has to precede exploring documentation.  

Country, Culture, and Context
Adapting the Reggio approach from a northern Italian region to another country is less of a stretch than it
might first appear. These schools have evolved within their own historical and cultural context and are responsive to changing social needs. While internationally known and admired and an inspiration and source of energy for educators and parents in schools, childcare, homes, nature centers, community centers, and museums worldwide, the Municipal Infant Toddler Centers and Preschools of Reggio Emilia can only be in Reggio. They are rooted in a particular time and place; they cannot be replicated and cannot be transplanted wholesale to another city, Italian or otherwise.

Museums likewise value the rich web of local community and cultural references, relationships, and traditions and are grounded in their communities. Local context and priorities are expressed in missions, content, collections, and community engagement strategies. Occupying a public space with some prominence, museums are increasingly pursuing opportunities that grow their public value and are responsive to their community’s assets and needs.

A Tightly Connected Pedagogy
Reggio’s philosophical underpinnings are not new to museums familiar with Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, and Bruner. Early on, educators in Reggio Emilia read these same theorists and philosophers whose views are an inspiration for understanding learning as an active process, one in which learners construct knowledge through participation in activities, and one that occurs in a socio-cultural context.

While museums share these underpinnings, there are differences. Teachers in Reggio have not been bound by these theories but instead have used them to construct their own perspectives. They have, for instance, widened the idea of “language” stressed by Vygotsky to what they call the hundred languages of children, multiple symbolic and expressive forms of conveying thoughts and feeling. Significantly, the ideas of these philosophers and theorists are more fully embodied and made visible in Reggio practice than in museums and schools in the US and most countries. Practice with a high correspondence to theory is a function of, among other things, implementing the pedagogy and practices over 60 years with rigor and depth.

Image of the Child
Reggio Children
Reggio pedagogy also reflects a whole-hearted trust and confidence in children, their capabilities and potential. An image of the child as competent, rich in abilities, and motivated to engage with the world right from birth is at the very heart of the Reggio philosophy. The schools reflect and support the child’s curiosity and interests in developing relationships and investigating everything they encounter. Teachers prepare the environment, frame projects and support extended explorations where they are also partners in learning. So primary is the view of children as capable that it extends readily to an image of teachers and parents as competent. Children, parents, and teachers are partners in a community of learners.

Museums play out related ideas. Visitor-centered museums value the experiences, interests, and expectations of visitors and learners. Participatory museums view their audience and community as collaborators, experimenting with participatory design and exploring innovative uses of social media. In fact, many museums are exploring and experiencing a shift from viewing visitors, learners, and community members as consumers to co-creators of content and experiences.

The Environment
Reggio Children
In Reggio pedagogy a belief in the powerful influence of surrounding space is expressed as the environment as the third teacher. Children create meaning and make sense of their world in the context of the physical setting and through their constant interactions with it. Thoughtful preparation of spaces considers arrangement, the presence of natural light, use of color, objects, and materials, and attention to beauty to invite and support unhurried exploration, sustained engagement, communication, and changing relationships between people, ideas and the many possibilities for expressing novel connections.

Museum environments are valued as rich, dynamic environments full of information from objects, media, and people, released through social and physical interactions. At their best, they are convivial spaces as described by Kathleen McLean and Wendy Pollock that welcome and make people comfortable, foster relationships and inspire action. The contextual model of learning proposes that the individual’s museum learning experience depends on the physical and temporal as well as personal and social contexts.

Relationships in Reggio are integral to the dynamic of learning and to the pedagogy itself. Relationships among children, between teachers and children, between home and school, between school and community form a system of connections that is dynamic and allows complexity. Reggio educators are quick to point out that the value of relationships is not limited to a warm and protective wrap. Instead, relationships operate actively, robustly, throughout the system, and towards a common purpose.     

For museums, relationships are an important and basic although less visible element of the dynamic. The powerful relationship between people and objects is often recognized as distinguishing museums from other settings. Museums also cultivate relationships with stakeholders and partners deliberately and effectively. Few museums, however, explicitly consider deep and sustained relationships as central to their purpose. Likewise, many museums focus on family learning, yet few view the relationships between family members as an object of engagement or support.

Reggio schools value creativity as a characteristic of thinking, knowing, and making choices. Confident in children’s curiosity and motivation to explore and in the role of a supportive and engaging environment, Reggio educators view creativity as constructing new connections between thoughts and objects. Emerging from daily experience, creativity happens all the time and is not relegated to a creative hour of art. Creativity is more about the art of thinking than about art.

Interest in creativity in museums is also strong although with perhaps another emphasis. Creativity in museums appears to be more closely associated with art and less with learning. For children, creativity in museums is more likely viewed as art education or making art rather than as part of learning in a broader sense. Play often involves creativity but is typically viewed as imaginative play rather than as the construction of meaning.

Expressions of the tightly connected pedagogical philosophy and the interplay of ideas come through in countless other ways such as the atelier or studio spaces; projects that are extended explorations of themes and ideas; display of children’s work and words; and the power of documentation.

Where Differences Emerge
Overall, the alignment and resonance between Reggio pedagogy and museums is strong, from foundational theories to specific practices. There are, however, structural differences between the schools in Reggio, in fact any schools, and museums that affect how fully and in what ways this body of pedagogical thought can be adapted.

Schools are places children go everyday, usually 5 days a week for 9 months of the year. Museums are places children and adults visit occasionally, or if frequently, then irregularly. In a context where social and physical relationships are paramount as sources of encounter, connections, and communication among children, with the environment, between children and teachers, and between school and home, lively, regular, deep, and sustained engagement is limited. There is, as the Italian educators say, little or no continuity. Many practices such as projects and documentation rely on or significantly benefit from the continuity of daily relationships.

At the same time, museums offer another type of continuity–families visiting together. The parent-child relationship valued in the Reggio schools is well represented in museums. In many museums, 50% of visitors come in family groups. Many are members returning multiple times each year. For families visiting together, the web of relationships connects family members–often including grandparents–and the museum experience with home.

This structural difference is not insignificant nor is it insurmountable. The Reggio approach can be and is valued and implemented in museums. The spirit of the pedagogy can and does inspire practices across a variety of settings.
  • There are also networks like the Reggio-Inspired Network of Minnesota, a community of educators, parents and citizens who share an interest in the philosophy of the
 municipal preschools and infant-toddler centers of Reggio Emilia, Italy that is focused on growing the community of learners in schools, homes, and throughout the community.

This is a rich and generous pedagogy. It is rich in its thinking, in examples of constructing new perspectives from existing theories, and as a model of rigor and depth in its practice. It is generous to its learners viewed as strong, competent, and full of potential, whether they are children, teachers, parents, or the community. This community of educators in Reggio Emilia is open in sharing the unfolding educational project and in inviting others to join.

Other Resources

Sunday, April 7, 2013

10,000 Shades of Green


Chihuly installation. Museum of Glass, Tacoma

In landscape, fabrics, food, wood, and gems, color is tremendously varied, subtle, and surprising. In children's toy boxes, bedrooms, classrooms, camp activities and in children’s museums and young children’s areas of science centers it is not. With few exceptions, color in those contexts is predictably bright red, blue, and yellow.  

When there is a world of pearl pink-blue opalescent skies and 10,000 shades of green in the tree canopy, why do we limit the color world for children to 3 primary colors? We should be opening up children to noticing the in-between shades of every hue; thinking about and mixing the colors in their imaginations; and describing the colors of rust, river stones, and weathered wood.

Colors, Not Knowing Your Colors
Not long ago I was in Target and overheard a mother asking her 3-year old son to name the colors of the shirts of the action figures he was playing with in the shopping cart she was pushing. “What color is that shirt?” the mother asked. “Green,” answered the boy. “And what color is that shirt?” the mother asked pointing to the other figure. “Red,” answered the boy. “Good!” the mom said and went on. At that moment, I desperately wished for a deep authoritative voice to come over the store speaker to remind the mother that her son was only 3 years old, they were just shopping, and that playing with toys is not a quiz.

A three-year old’s being able to recognize the primary colors may not sound problematic. After all, we want children to know colors before going to kindergarten. But, in terms of encouraging children’s noticing, investigating, describing, and thinking across a range of possibilities, being drilled on colors in a shopping cart, or anywhere, is limiting. Giving children three colors to work with is a good idea for an activity now and then but not exclusively, not all the time.

The rich chromatic life of the child
Children lead much richer chromatic lives than adults are inclined to recognize or allow them. When 6-year old Jim colored trees purple, his older cousins questioned his choice. With confidence, he answered, “There are purple trees in Ohio. I’ve seen them.” A child’s delight in the possibilities of colors comes through in Eric Carle’s The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse that also features a yellow cow and a green lion. Even for the child who will always pick the green cup, car, or pail, there are many ways to describe greens; there is light, dark, pale; greenish yellow, lime, grassy green, and bug green. When I was four, I thought breen was a color, a muddy brown-green.

Colors carry the feel of places, memories, comparisons, sounds, and even smells. Exposing children to a color world larger than red-blue-yellow greatly expands the possibilities for noticing, talking, sharing, and remembering and making connections. A wall color might bring back memories of standing next to the dark gray-blue water of Lake Superior on a brisk November day. Distant hills might be described as larkspur or smoky blue. A scarf might be as red as a cardinal. Describing a rainbow trout might mean stringing together a long list of colors and descriptors including silver, pink, bright, and iridescent.

The Colors In Between
Most of the colors most of us we wear, eat, surround ourselves with at home or work, remark on in nature, and crave to see at sunset are in between and beyond the primary colors. Even the basic box of crayons (not to mention markers and chalk) has 8 colors; boxes of 48 and 96 are not uncommon. The Pantone Fashion colors for 2013 include Grayed Jade, African Violet, and Linen; Poppy Red is definitely on the orange side. A look at any one of a number of color systems also reveals the high level of interest in the everyday world of color.

Edwin Deen, artist
Artists and craftspeople often explore colors, seriously, playfully, creatively. Using fabric, yarn, thread, paper, paint, pastels, mosaics, beads, and dyes, their color studies and color ways open up the vast and interesting chromatic universe between red-blue-and-yellow. Colors in this world clearly want to flow into one another, mix, blend, and, lean into amazing possibilities. This becomes immediately apparent in the works of artists like Tauba Auerbach who works with color across a range of media. A pink-tinged-mauve transitions into lily-green in an unlikely and easy progression across the page. In Gabriel Dawe’s complicated large-scale constructions using colored threads colors mix across space and with the light.

Using bundles of colored sewing threads, fiber artist Elizabeth Tuttle has crocheted color studies and small-scale interiors.
Elizabeth Tuttle, artist
Working with a seemingly unlikely mix of colored threads, she drops and adds colors as she crochets. Colors change subtly and smoothly producing a sense of volume, depth, and perspective across the small rooms and spiral staircases of the interiors she creates. At a distance, the eye and mind blend the colors together as with pointillist paintings. Looking closely, the color progressions reveal colors within colors. There is a moment where peach-beholding-a-hush-of-blue becomes visible.

Thinking About Color
Chromatic Typewriter by Tyree Callahan
Adults enjoy encounters with color in museums and art galleries and in their own artwork, crafts, hobbies and nature walks. Naming 3 colors during small group time, in a shopping cart, or in a museum program couldn’t be more different than thinking about, playing with, mixing up, and delighting in thousands of colors with paint, chalk, fabric, light, crayons, even food coloring. Why not invite children to explore their color imaginations and colors that have no name rather than limiting explorations to 3 primary and 3 secondary colors and to keeping colors separate?

Just for starters, here are 3 questions that move away from drilling children on their colors and, instead, engage them in color conversations and explorations.
    • What colors do you see?
    • What color do you need that is not here?
    • How much can you stretch this color?
    What colors do you see? invites children to observe trees, bark, grass, stone, sand, water, or sky on a walk, at the park, through the window, or at a table with a big bundle of flowers or fall leaves. Looking closely, a child notices the different parts of an object or variations across its surface, in a fold or a shadow. Following up and asking, What other colors do you see? encourages a closer look, comparisons, and distinctions as well as the possibilities of original and expressive color names. The conversation and the activity expand with the question, Where else can we find this color?

    What color do you need that is not here? is a question that invites a child to think. The child might think about what colors are in the line up of small cups of paint. How could she describe them? Which colors are similar to the color she is hoping to use? How similar or different are the colors closest to the color she is thinking of? The child observes, compares, matches, and perhaps sequences paint colors.

    Floral Gradient by Jack Evans
    How much can you stretch this color? allows a child to consider variations in color, from light to dark or from one color to another. Successively diluting colored water or adding more and more white paint to red stretches the color. A child can think about how much red is present so the color is still red. How might she arrange the colors in a sequence from lighter to darker? How would she change one color, for instance orange, to another, perhaps blue?   

    I wasn't sure how to wrap this up, but a blog posting from Tom Bedard (aka Tomsensori) just arrived and solved it. He writes about and shares videos of young children painting snow showing just the kind of joyous exploration of color more children should have more of the time.

    “Color and I are one. “ Paul Klee