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, 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.



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