Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Reggio Study Tour and the Children’s Museum Field

Perhaps the very first blog post in this series about the November museums group study tour to Reggio Emilia should have been about what this extraordinary experience means for the children’s museum field. Instead, it’s one of the last. Reflection takes time as does the appearance of connections and possibilities.

The children’s museum field was well represented in the first ever museums group on a Reggio study tour. Among the 50 participants, 15 were staff  (and 2 former staff) from 11 museums (including an art museum) along with 2 museum trustees. Five members of the ACM board (30%) including past ACM president, Julia Bland, were in the group. Six study group members work nationally with museums in exhibit design, evaluation, education planning, and governance. Museum–and study group–partners in higher ed, public housing, health, formal education, social services, and preschool participated in exploring Reggio connections to US museums.

Growing Connections, Building Relationships
In the last 30 years, awareness, connections, and relationships between children’s museums and Reggio
Museums group members arrive at the Loris Malaguzzi International Centre
schools and their educators have been growing on several different fronts. Many people working in children’s museums have become familiar with the ideas and the connections to museum settings. Some have visited the schools in Reggio Emilia and are active in Reggio-inspired networks and study groups in their own communities. Others read articles, books, and blogs on Reggio pedagogy as part of their professional development.

Three children’s museums, the Capital Children’s Museum, Lexington Children’s Museum, and Minnesota Children’s Museum hosted Reggio Children’s The Hundred Languages of Children traveling exhibit in1990, 1993, and 2004, respectively. In the last 2 decades, the exhibit has traveled to about a dozen cities in the US with children’s museums including St. Louis, Memphis, Pittsburgh, Santa Fe, Chicago, Denver, Boston, Miami, Austin, and Richmond.

At least three Reggio-inspired preschools and kindergartens in children’s museums have opened in the last 7 years, joining the Opal School, founded in 2001 at Portland Children’s Museum (OR): The Woodbury School at The Strong; Children’s Museum Preschool at The Children’s Museum, Indianapolis; and the preschool at the Children’s Museum of Tacoma (WA).

InterActivity 2012 at Portland Children’s Museum with its Reggio-inspired Opal preschool and public charter school and The Wonder of Learning exhibit introduced hundreds more children’s museum professionals and friends to this pedagogy and its connections to children’s museums. That year Lella Gandini, Reggio Liaison in the US, received ACM’s annual Great Friend to Kids award on behalf of the City of Reggio Emilia.

Reggio Children has long had an interest in international cooperation. Annually it hosts international study groups in Reggio Emilia for educators from all over the world. It explores opportunities with groups internationally that could contribute to improving the quality of life through collaborative educational and research projects like the landmark, Making Learning Visible.

Julia Bland introduces the museums group
Over the years, connections between individual children’s museums and the Reggio schools and educators have helped build familiarity and relationships with a type of museum not present in Italy. An important piece in increasing the visibility of children’s museums was Tiziana Filippini, Head of Pedagogy in the Reggio schools, speaking in 2010 at the Louisiana Children’s Museum Investing in Children Summit co-sponsored with Tulane Institute of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health. This connection with Tiziana, facilitated by Wheelock College, helped strengthen a relationship with US children’s museums and helped pave the way for the 2014 museums group study tour.

An identifiable museums group within the larger Reggio study group is an acknowledgement of this growing, active, and informed interest from US children’s museums and its potential. At the Loris Malaguzzi International Centre in Reggio where the study tour was based, Carlina Rinaldi, President of Reggio Children, expressed her organization’s interest in pursuing a relationship with children’s museums to Julia Bland. We can only imagine how this might evolve in the future and prepare for the possibilities.

Filling New Roles
Long considered the “new kids on the block” in the museum world, children’s museums are maturing as a segment, passing milestones of time, size, identity, and impact. Such a new position also affords fresh perspectives, different opportunities, and greater responsibilities to which children’s museums are responding.

Increasingly, more children’s museums view their enduring purpose and public role in a larger context of their communities and around children and childhood. Defined to a great extent by their young audience, an age group squarely at the center of remarkable discoveries in brain research, children’s museums serve an age cohort during a critical period when personal and social prosperity is developing. The recent report Growing Young Minds from the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and the Institute of Museum and Library Services reinforces this and highlights the role for museums and libraries in making the most of young children’s skills and talents.
Because they serve young children, children’s museums–as well as other museums–see themselves as partners with parents and other early care and learning settings.  While navigating a somewhat fragmented early childhood landscape, children’s museums are also forging more extensive, varied and robust networks that cross contexts and connect researchers, and practitioners through more bridges and better advocacy. Children’s museums are often conveners in their communities around children and their well-being; recognized for expertise on play, kindergarten transition, and early literacy development; and creators of supportive experiences and environments. In expanding learning resources and platforms beyond exhibits and programs to include preschools, schools, and afterschool programs, children’s museums are drawing on evidence-based practices around early learning, knowledge related to development and the value of learning and play experiences for children.

Constructing Futures
As settings for informal learning, willing partners with connections to national networks, and a growing interest in what makes a positive difference in the lives of children, families, and communities, children’s museums have remarkable, if not fully activated, opportunities to help shape futures. Three major endeavors have been serving as field-wide efforts to look openly and critically at children’s museums future.

In 2011, the Association of Children’s Museums launched Reimagining Children’s Museums (RCM), a 3-year initiative to explore the question, What does it mean to experience a children’s museum in the 21st century Assisted in this process by four design teams, RCM is bringing new lenses to museum assumptions, spaces and relationships that affect choices and strategies. RCM has been encouraging its members to consider new ways to serve their audiences and create community impact by looking beyond usual networks and spheres of influence in forming new strategies for serving children and families.

On a parallel track, ACM’s board has revisited its strategic framework, recently formulating a vision for the field: Every child and family has access to a high quality children's museum experience. This vision is accomplished through: accessibility programs, professional development, and public awareness campaigns.

While Reimagining Children’s Museums is taking a more design-related approach, children’s museums have been exploring other ways to understand and communicate their value to children, families, and communities. Like other segments of the museum field, they have been developing a field-wide research agenda with which they can challenge, advance, and communicate an understanding of children’s thinking, the value of parent engagement, and the role of environments in play and learning to stakeholders as well as inform and update practice

At the Convergence
Benefit of the Reggio study tour sits squarely at the convergence of children’s museums’ long-term interests with these major efforts to shape many vibrant futures for children’s museums.

An unusually extensive professional development experience, the study tour immersed dozens of staff, trustees, consultants, and partners from across the USA and multiple museums in exploring a rich, comprehensive, and cohesive pedagogy. Significantly, this educational philosophy emerges from many of the same theorists that inform and ground children’s museums: Piaget, Vygotsky, and Dewey,  

This vibrant educational project (as the Reggio educators describe their work) aligns solidly with four main
Bringing Reggio home from the book store
pillars that support children’s museums: children at the center, a strong commitment to parent and family engagement, grounding in the local community, and a value on the environment as a teacher. Documentation, a way of working and researching that gives visibility to children’s thinking and learning serves as a robust and valuable connection to ACM’s research agenda. Furthermore, it advances children’s museums as both consumers of knowledge about children as well as generators of new knowledge about children. 

The shared professional development experience in Reggio is helping to support a community of learners across our own communities. Energized by the experience, fueled by word-of mouth, and supported by social media and documentation, this is a community that will continue to grow through professional outreach and support and personal expertise and shared interest. Throughout the course of the study tour, faculty and videographers from Wheelock College and its documentation studio interviewed  participants, capturing their impressions, questions, and their intentions for moving ahead on returning home. This record will serve as a tool for both individuals and their museums to share, revisit, and interpret their study tour experience. 

Also coming up is a session at InterActivity 2014 and in the project pipeline are multiple proposals to IMLS. The Wonder of Learning exhibit will be in Greenville SC  (January 24 – May 14, 2014) and in Albuquerque (June – December 2014) during the Visitor Studies Conference, July 15-19.

Very likely, children’s museums will look back on this period of time as significant in both their history and their future. By investing in the hard work of change on multiple fronts, the course of individual museums will shift, the impact of the field will expand, and the contribution to community level change will grow. Signs of the Reggio study tour will be evident in this changed landscape and viewed as contributing to, valuable to, and enhancing these changes. 

Making meaning of the study tour facilitated by the video project

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