Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Snapshots of Children at Play

It’s a great day when I see children chalking the sidewalk, watch a toddler pushing chairs through the airport food court, or catch that exact moment a girl dunks her head in the museum water table. I love to watch children play and hear their conversations in these places. How they use, explore, and amuse themselves in spaces and with objects and materials fascinates me. Whether they are actively engaged in places planned for play, like museums, parks, playgrounds, and back yards; or in places not planned for play, like airports, stores, restaurants, and hotel lobbies is equally interesting to me.

Watching children use pancake turners to play a game of carpet tennis in the living room or straddle two chairs in the museum café to make a bridge grabs my attention. A flurry of questions zips through my mind: What is that child wondering about? What is she thinking? What is he trying to do? What does she make of what just happened? How did they ever think of that? Where between imagination and reality is she?

These are big questions and not easy to answer, but they are insistent. I have no doubt that, in moments of play and exploration of objects and spaces–whether or not adults have provided these objects, materials, and spaces for play–children are generously inviting us to glimpse their ideas, thinking, what intrigues them, and how they are experiencing their surroundings. So very rich, such moments of play, exploration, discovery and reinvention deserve more of our attention than we give.

Snapshots of children at play follow along with some thoughts, afterthoughts, and questions about what these children might be doing or thinking. New possibilities emerge about what might be going on as well as the call to more watching, listening, questioning, and discussion in order to better create experiences, places, and objects for children’s play.

Standing on the Bucket
Two girls are standing on plastic buckets in a sand play area at the Minnesota State Fair. Are they finding ways to be taller or get a better view? Practicing balance or pretending they are on stilts? Perhaps they are testing whether the plastic buckets will buckle under their weight. Thinking about this more, I wonder whether the older girl on the bucket has seen someone else do this and, curious about what it might feel like, follows that example much as the younger girl on her right might be doing. 

Fitting In Between Spaces
Gathering in this small space, these children show an interest in fitting into in between spaces. What is the environment suggesting? Are they understanding these spaces with their bodies, taking a measure of their size in these spaces? Curious about the feel of roundness or the squeeze of small spaces? Do small spaces give them boundaries they can be in charge of and where they can talk easily in a small group? Do their voices sound different to them in that narrow space? Do they find the feeling of being somewhat hidden pleasurable?

Moving Stools, Changing Space
Two boys were very absorbed in rearranging the stools in the Babe the Blue Ox Pavilion at the Minnesota History Museum. They pushed the cubes around, moved them together, lined them up, and stacked them. They walked on top of and between the cubes. Was their interest in moving and pushing the cubes or changing the space? Did they have a structure in mind? How did they imagine the small space that fit just one boy? Were they noticing the graphic image on the top of the cubes? I thought more about seeing this like the toddler pushing chairs in an airport food court.

Seeing, But Not Seen
In some big spaces, children crawl under a chair or a bench. Being underneath, they look out and see others, but are not easily seen themselves. How does it feel to these children to be enclosed in a very small, rather than a big, space? Does the brightly lit space beyond appear different from the relative darkness underneath? Might these children be thinking that they have found a space that fits them, but not adults? Do they imagine they can be seen by others? If I’d been able to listen in, what might they be saying about what they see?


Hats Off
Children stand before a giant fan at the Art Car Parade in Houston. They set their hats on their heads and step close to the fan. Crouching a bit, they hold still until the fan blows their hat off; they chase it and soon take their place before the fan once again. Is this more like a game of chance or an experiment with air? Or elements of both? Do they adjust their hats differently to make it harder or easier for the fan to blow off their hats? Or have they found a particular way to hold their heads? What do they imagine lifts and carries their hats? Are they interested in the feeling of the air blowing across their heads?   

Robot Face Mask
Gabe, who just turned 3 years old, held a pink bike helmet over his face and growled, “Robot.” Animating the helmet, Gabe careened back-and-forth across the front yard and repeated, “Robot, robot, robot, robot….” for about 5 minutes. In what ways did the bike helmet suggest a robot face to Gabe? What did Gabe imagine he looked like? Later, when I looked at the photo more carefully, I wondered when Gabe noticed that he could see through the holes in the helmet? Noting that for very young children, doing is thinking, how did running make Gabe feel more like a robot?

Looking at What’s Going On
Full of playful energy (and slightly risky) these snapshots invite us to wonder whether there is imagination or mischief in these children’s use of materials and objects. Is it creative play? Is it a moment of practice or creation? Is this child testing a theory about the piece of the world he is exploring at that moment?

We might also ask exhibit and program planners, educators and parents whether stepping on buckets or wearing a bike helmet as a robot face leads them to think more deliberately about the features of objects and what they afford a child in play? Can these and other snapshots be inspirations for experience design that supports and encourages children's exploration, working their experience base and imaginations more fully? Are these invitations for adults to play? Can they be a call from our own memories of play?

Watching children play is a way to follow them, look and listen intently, and think about what's happening. What do you see children in children's play? How do you share it? How do you use your observations to reinvent places and objects that encourage, support, and extend children’s thinking, imagination, and energy in play?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Adult-Child Connections: First Person

Last weekend my husband and I visited the Providence Children’s Museum with our almost six year 6 year-old great niece and just 4 year-old great nephew. It was a rainy Sunday morning; the Museum was full and lively. We explored all the areas of the Museum, inside and out including places you can only get to by climbing up or crawling down on all fours. The children showed us around their Museum, what they liked best, what was new, and what fascinated them. At the end of our visit we spent a long time at the Cardboard Challenge, constructing a colossal castle structure with cardboard and tape. We had a wonderful time, staying until the absolute last possible minute before getting home for a birthday party.

Since then, I have reflected on the visit–one of the highlights of our vacation–and on my role as adult, caregiver, and lucky aunt of these children. I visit a lot of museums as a museum planner, as a member and a tourist, and, less often but fortunately, also as a caregiver. I enjoy the varied perspectives on the museum experience this affords, in this case on the adult role in the children’s museum experience, the questions and possibilities it poses.

Like many museum educators, exhibit developers and designers, and museum planners, I view the adult role as facilitating practical aspects of the visit, extending play experiences, scaffolding children’s learning, and being learners themselves. Some of this is reflected in a research-based tool Adult-Child Interaction Inventory (ACII) developed by Lorrie Beaumont. ACII describes what a set of likely adult-child interaction roles might look like and some supportive design strategies related, in particular, to STEM.

On another front, parent insights into their expectations and interactions with their children at the museums were one focus of an exploratory research project I conducted for 3 Washington children’s museums with Lorrie Beaumont, some of which I wrote about here. In interviewing parents, I was very impressed with how clearly and thoughtfully they were able to frame a children’s museum visit as an opportunity to support specific aspects of their child’s development or to facilitate their interests. 

Finally, I recognized that I also had ideas about what was important to me in our visit, although it took awhile to gather and see them with any clarity. I hoped to get to know my niece and nephew better, observe them as they explored and navigated a different setting, watch them interact with other children, and glimpse what excites and delights them.

Delight and Challenge on the Museum Floor
In spite of, or because of, my experience as a museum planner and museum-goer, I look somewhat critically at my caregiver role and interactions with the children during our visit. I would characterize it as “so-so with a few bloopers.” What did I do and not do? I talked to other adults while Cyrus and Harper played and surely missed a few remarkable moments that I was keenly interested in. I took lots of photos and, even though I knew better, I checked my email once, or actually twice. I asked many simple and yes-no questions and not so many rich open-ended questions. I asked the floor staff whether the almost 6 year old could go into the toddler area and play with her brother even though we were standing in front of the sign that said “4 years and under only.” I sometimes hovered. Rather than stand back while Cyrus explored how to tear the painters’ tape during the Cardboard Challenge, I showed him how to peel the tape and cut it. I surreptitiously added duct tape to the cardboard castle they were building so the structure would hold together.

I didn’t feel pressured or constrained in my choices to behave in a particular way; I just felt very busy. Virtually every moment offered an abundance of options to focus on and consider: watch the children building an arch or climbing into the boat; observe a child; think about the choice he or she made and why; be quick enough to frame an open-ended question about what’s happening; decide whether to step in or stay out as kids crowd together; and soften the landing when the arch caves in under the weight of a 4 year old. The pace of a visit is quick and doesn’t easily allow stepping back or pausing for reflection.

The rewards, however, were great. I saw Cyrus deeply engrossed in filling a small wooden cart with rubber rocks, pushing it across the arched bridge about as wide as the cart, carefully arranging the rocks in the painted stream on the other side; climbing into the rocking boat; and scooping up the rocks. Harper casually explored many areas but focused intently on the soft Soma cube puzzle and how the pieces fit together. She was particularly intent on creating a rambling structure where several children could lounge; and they did.

In the Cardboard Challenge, Cyrus discovered painters’ tape. Peeling, cutting, and wrapping tape became the focus of activity with cardboard and construction a distant second. Harper’s face beamed with triumph each time she returned from forays throughout the room bearing another cardboard shape to add to the castle project. Thank you Harper and Cyrus!

Stepping Back and Looking Out
A week later, I am still thinking about my visit and my role. For starters, I am surprised, amused, and a bit dismayed at how off the mark I was in meeting my own expectations about the adult role and interactions with my niece and nephew in spite of years in museums. It brings to the forefront questions about understanding and negotiating this territory. On the one hand, we don’t want parents hijacking their child’s activities and doing things for them. On the other hand, we don’t want adults ignoring a child. At the same time, museums shouldn’t be scripting parent-child interactions. I have been considering what this suggests about expectations of adults, at least in children’s museums, currently and going forward.

Initially overlooked and long-under valued except as drivers and pocket books that bring children to the museum, adults (caregivers and parents) are now seen and valued, although somewhat abstractly as playing roles and interacting with children. Of course they do play roles that are critical to easy, manageable, and meaningful visits. Through their interactions–verbal and non-verbal–adults supervise for safety; encourage, guide, and model. They scaffold and make connections with experiences the child has had previously. They add and appreciate humor and revisit shared experiences over time. While definitely important, I wonder whether this view is limiting and whether it adequately recognizes other significant and on-going factors at play in shaping, impacting, and enhancing a valuable museum experience for children and the important adults in their lives.

If we believe in museums’ capacity to engage children’s potential and contribute to their positive development, we need to place the adult role and interactions in the larger context of an on-going, powerful, relationship between children and parents and caregivers. In rethinking the adult presence, children’s museums could serve the long-term relationship between the adult and the child, one that begins long before and extends well beyond the museum visit.

Until well into children’s tweens, the parent/caregiver-and-child relationship is central in a child’s life, even as it changes with age. A prized and enduring connection for both the child and the adult, it is a dynamic to which each contributes, changing with time through exchanges, collaboration, the child’s development, and a growing set of shared activities, experiences, and memories. Museums are very much a part of this.

Let us pay more attention to the pleasure and possibilities of adults and children in being together in the lively and alive setting of a children’s museum. To what we already know about adult roles and interactions, let us consider and build on the on-going relationship. Let us invite the adults’ view of what they hope to get from the visit, including their hopes for what to learn from and about their child.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Museum Notes Rewind: Building on Strengths

A strong, fundamental connection links children, families, and communities–including museums–that works in multiple, on-going, and sometimes surprising ways and directions. Frequently we assume this relationship flows in a single direction. We are certain that children need to see the community. We say, children should visit the fire station on a field trip, take public transportation, or go to the library. Equally important is that the city sees its children. Bus drivers, fire fighters, parents, librarians, pedestrians, neighbors, and shopkeepers also need to listen to children, hear their questions, engage with them, take notice of their curiosity, and take seriously the ideas and thinking that excite them.

This earlier post explores the relationship between children and the community and considers the community’s and museum’s long-term interest in engaging children’s potential.

Some weeks I want to write about children building with blocks or exploring with loose parts. Other weeks I am thinking hard about how museums build public value or community-level change. Both interest me. They interest me intensely. They may seem unrelated or perhaps even opposite. For me they are inextricably related. Strong children need strong communities; resilient communities rely on capable children who feel connected. Museums have a role in contributing to both.

Seeing Children
Children are inherently capable with great resourcefulness and great potential. Before even entering school where we expect they will start to learn, children have learned to communicate, to walk and talk. They get themselves dressed, help here-and-there around the house, show compassion, and even make jokes. All in just about 4 years.

Yet, we tend not to recognize children’s competence. Rather we describe them as being deficient in some way. Often this is due to their not being older or bigger than we know they are. Have you heard someone say to a 3 or 4 year old, “when you can read…” or “when you can ride a bike…” or “when you are big…”? Our preoccupation with what children can’t do interferes with our appreciation of their remarkable abilities and capabilities at every age. I would love to hear a 3 or 4 year-old pipe up and say, “I am just fine as a 3 year old, thank you!”

No sooner are we pushing children to be older, but we are saying, “when they were young…” or, “oh, when you were little, you were so cuddly.” First we overlook how remarkable they are; then we regret they are no longer that way. In between we have missed their wondering, investigating, and discovering.

So often we remark that children look at things in really interesting ways. Actually, I think we’re surprised by how fully children look at things. A child notices how a bird walks or wonders whether she will see her face in this mirror too. Children are excited to tell us what they see and what they think about it. Their language is fresh, inventive, and expressive. It tells us, if we are listening, of their ideas, understanding of relationships, and theories about the nature of things.

When I work with museums, I frequently hear language such as, “we’ll make the children try…” or “this will let children,…”. I do this as well, in spite of myself. We often speak and act as if children are passive learners, rather than the natural, active learners they are. They hardly need our permission to be curious, touch something, ask a question, or make sense of what is going on around them.

Children don't need our permission to be curious, but they do deserve recognition and support for their fascination with the world, their remarkable abilities, and great resourcefulness. They also need adults to pay attention, listen to their words, observe their response to materials, see their excitement, notice their learning strategies, and think about their interactions with others. They benefit from the experiences and encounters that engage their creativity, knowledge building, and individual action. While I think building towers, structures, and designs; exploring rich and varied environments; and playing with loose parts are really important, these are only a few of the kinds of activities children should be able to experience, enjoy and draw from. 

Networks of Relationships
The same qualities children bring to accomplishing their greatest learning feats are those that make a difference in school, the workforce, families, neighborhoods and civic life. Taking initiative, being resourceful, asking questions, listening, acting on ideas, and communicating with others prepare children and youth to have relationships within their community and to become contributors and thoughtful critics in their communities as adults. Developing these qualities happens in the context of strong relationships with caring adults in many roles from infancy through young adulthood.

Strong children mean strong communities. This may sound like a cliché, but it’s not. Evidence of this connection comes from several areas.

The Search Institute’s research-based work for 50 years has focused on strengthening how citizens and communities raise children and adolescents. The Institute has identified 40 Developmental Assets for healthy development. Assets are positive experiences and qualities that help influence choices children and youth make and help them become caring, responsible adults. The more assets young people have, the more likely they are to thrive and the less likely they are to engage in a wide range of high-risk behaviors.

The Search Institute’s work and their Healthy Communities • Healthy Youth initiative recognize that raising strong and successful children takes more than just one single family or a school. An entire community must be engaged. This requires many people—educators, faith community leaders, parents, aunts and uncles, governmental figures, and others—to come together and nurture strong, active relationships with children and youth.

An interest in children and youth brings members of a community together. Examples readily come to mind of informal “mom’s groups” that meet and connect around childbirth, the playground, or other parenting interests. Parents and neighbors working together have made preschool coops, scouts, and children’s sports run. They have been vital to starting children’s museums all across the country.

A landmark study of civic engagement, Working Together: Community Involvement in America, sponsored by the League of Women Voters reinforced this when it concluded that, “A focus on children and youth is key to engaging Americans… children and youth registered among people’s top concerns and [the subjects] most likely to motivate community involvement.”

The Habits of a Community Develop the Habits of Children
Several years ago the Kettering Foundation produced a report on why some communities work. Research presented in Communities at Work pointed to many factors. One, in particular, stood out: “One of the characteristics common to communities that are able to manage, if not solve, their problems is that citizens take responsibility for their future.”

Neighbors, parents, or citizens who come together to solve a problem, address a concern, or realize a hope initiate a cycle of reciprocity. First they change or improve conditions by sharing ownership and taking action. Then they create a lasting example of community engagement and believing in a positive future for their children. Children grow into the lives of the people around them; they will renew the community in the future.

One city’s remarkable educational and civic project has been evolving in the infant and toddler schools in Reggio Emilia (IT) over the last 60 years. Based on an image of the child as strong and capable and of relationships among children, teachers, parents, and citizens at the heart of learning, the schools have become known worldwide for integrating theory and practice to work at the intersection of strong children and a vibrant community.

A sense of co-responsibility for children’s education and their futures is deep and wide spread. In fact, in June 2010, Pedagogista Tiziana Filippini was honored by Louisiana Children’s Museum with one of its Great Friends to Children Award. In acknowledging the award, Tiziana also made a polite yet important clarification when she said, “My city is the great friend to children.”

In St. Paul (MN), a group of neighbors and organizations has been involved since 2004 in creating the West Side Neighborhood Learning Community. Their vision for All Around the Neighborhood is “a community alive with learning where youth develop their potential and become productive, contributing adults.” Children and youth are involved in planning and co-creating learning experiences as they learn in and about their West Side neighborhood. Parents, neighbors, and businesses are actively involved as planners, teachers, learning sites, and in documenting learning activities.  One result of these activities is that West Siders have been engaged in rethinking and designing new public play spaces.

Strong Children, Strong Museums, Strong Communities
Where do museums fit in? Along with libraries and schools, museums are part of a civic infrastructure that is critical to vibrant, resilient communities and to the well-being of their citizens including, of course, children. While schools have a particular civic function–to provide basic education–museums and libraries do not. They do, however, have a responsibility to use their resources to contribute to a rich, shared, public life.

Museums also have a tremendous opportunity to leverage their knowledge, assets, and relationships to deepen connections with the community and to enrich and expand their understanding of its children. Contributing to strong children and strong communities as museums also strengthen themselves is a decidedly rich, complex, and long-term process. A few dimensions and the interactions among them interest me, in particular.
  • Take the wealth of children’s potential seriously. Involve people from across the museum in actively pursuing ways to make children’s thinking visible. Develop, adapt, and practice documentation. Develop museum-based practices for observing, noticing, responding to, scaffolding, extending, recording, and revisiting evidence of children’s learning.
  • Use the museum’s growing knowledge of learning and learners in informal settings along with its expertise in creating learning experiences with objects and materials to design encounters for children to follow their interests, pursue their explorations and extend their thinking.
  • Pursue the considered and deliberate thinking required to develop public value and explore the authentic give-and-take dialogue to define what a stronger community means to a particular community that Nan Kari encouraged in her comment on that blog.