Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Play in the Sun

Play is the currency of childhood. It’s hardly surprising then that groups of parents, educators, early childhood educators and specialists, researchers, pediatricians, playworkers, and museum professionals devote thinking and learning to understanding children’s play, enriching it, and creating more play experiences. 

For more than 3 decades, my work has focused on play in in many forms. Through undergraduate and graduate school, teaching, and working in and with museums, opportunities to explore children’s play and the conditions that support have been and continue to be part of my work. As much as I enjoy deepening my understanding of play, sharing resources with others so they can interpret and incorporate it into their work makes any discovery an even better find.

Recently play has been in the sun in books, journal articles, in research and stories, about children and play, and in both current and culturally significant contexts. Four works have stood out for me in underscoring play’s complexity and many dimensions. Moreover, they are particularly helpful in bringing clarity to aspects of play that we struggle to articulate and that we gloss over as if simple or self-evident to others.

  • In Free to Learn, Peter Gray offers insights into the voluntary nature of play.
  • The Story of a Sand Pile, recorded by G. Stanley Hall, highlights the value of time and continuity of play in extending its value.

Play’s Social Benefits: Gray
In Free to Learn, Peter Gray sweeps across the evolution of childhood play, follows the origins of schools today, and explores a radical approach to schooling. In this challenging book, Gray’s evolutionary perspective sheds light on some meaningful dimensions of play often referred to but seldom explored in relation to one another.
Play is often characterized as voluntary or freely chosen, an attractive quality especially in contrast with school. These terms, however, can be interpreted in quite different ways. They can, for instance, suggest a non-compulsory activity or a fluid social exchange among children working to find common ground during play.

Play is voluntary because players are always free to quit. Anyone dissatisfied in play feels entitled to quit; each player knows it. If too many people quit because their ideas are not incorporated or they are relegated to undesirable roles, play ends. Consequently, to keep play going, players must satisfy both their own desires and those of other players through negotiation, listening, flexibility, building on ideas.

Gray adds depth to understanding play’s voluntary nature by providing an evolutionary context. Through play, children learn how to treat one another respectfully, in ways that meet others’ needs and desires. Play is satisfying when children treat each other as equals despite differences in size, strength and ability.

This voluntary aspect of play illustrates another benefit of play. Children learn through play what they can’t be taught by others through verbal instruction. Confidence, choice and control, empathy, being attuned to others, cooperation, and self-control must be learned through experience.

If we want to bring others along in valuing play and if we want to create the conditions that encourage and support children’s social engagement in play, fresh perspectives like Gray’s are necessary.

Pretend Play and Causal Relationships: Gropnik and Walker
Children’s pretend play is often viewed as a function of cognitive limitation–their inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality. In the Fall 2013 issue of American Journal of Play that takes stock of the theoretical frameworks used in play in many domains, Alison Gopnik and Caren Walker take a look at how pretend play connects with learning.

In pretend play children engage in a kind of internal exploration involving objects and play partners. While this play takes place in the real world, children are also constructing unreal, and sometimes very elaborate, scenarios about possible, imaginary worlds. Gopnik and Walker suggest that children’s thinking involving pretense during play is actually grounded in reality thinking. The child imagines alternative possibilities, for instance, how an object might behave. Using various investigations through play episodes, the child revises the idea (or theory) to better fit the causal structures she knows about from interacting with the real world.

Gopnik and Walker have been working to provide empirical evidence of the cognitive mechanisms that supports this idea. Their study looked at preschool-aged children’s abilities to use alternative, or counterfactual, reasoning about the effects of pretend actions on a gear toy that used imagined causal relationships. Results of the study suggest that children can reason about the outcomes of actions on complex causal structures during a pretend play scenario. An ability to imagine possible worlds and alternative possibilities, they suggest, might be contributing to children’s connecting causal reasoning and learning.

Even in settings where play is valued, pretend play seems to be valued less for its learning value than other types of play are. Gopnik’s and Walker’s work contributes an important and somewhat surprising connection. Not only are children engaged in learning during pretend play, they are engaged in complex causal reasoning.

Children’s Thinking in Play: Paley
Vivian Paley is a teacher, a dedicated and sensitive observer of young children at play, and a storyteller of play. She is interested in and alert to children’s stories though play and shares some of these in Story and Play: The Original Learning Tools. Children, she says, transcribe everything around them into play. A word overheard, a snail in the garden, the marks on a stone, a rising tower of blocks are folded into children’s play. Passed from child to child, they are replayed and replayed through multiple stories to make sense of the new word, the snail’s family, or the balance of a block.

Paley herself is transcribing the world around her as she listens to and watches the children’s many stories in play. She shares, for instance, the inclusive gestures a group of young children make to bring a severely brain-damaged boy into their story; how his husky whisper is picked up as part of the play narrative; and how children recognize the desire of the boy to be part of their story. No curriculum, lesson, or activity could ever teach children, especially ones so young the empathy they showed. But children find their way through play.

Just as children do, Paley replays and replays these episodes, listening closely to the actual sounds of play in order to understand the meaning of the behavior. In unfolding them, stretching and interpreting them, and in going deeper, she finds children’s thinking in their play.

For those of us seriously interested in play, Paley shows us the necessity of closely listening to and following children’s play. In replaying children’s stories in play, we are rewarded with a glimpse into what thinking is like in a child’s head. This work places us side-by side with children in their search for meaning. It deepens our understanding and allows us to support children’s thinking through play where they find it and want to go with it.

Time and Continuity in the Value of Play: Hall
In The Story of a Sand Pile, G. Stanley Hall documents what happens when the mother of 2 boys, 7 and 9, has a load of sand delivered to the yard of their house near Concord (MA) in the late 1890’s. Left to their imagination and ingenuity the 2 brothers along with a half-dozen friends transformed the sand pile into an elaborate and extensive community over the course of a summer. From the first simple lean-to structure made of a board, to the appearance of animals (inspired by a rotten knot of wood), a system of roads, and hay put up in pressed bales 1”x2” for market, the boys shaped the land, whittled a population small figures, and introduced laws and government.

Virtually every aspect of life as they knew it was captured and incorporated into to this complete community: tools evolved, a tiny newspaper (with 7 subscribers) was started, a quarry was founded, stanchions installed in the barn for cows, and felt coins became the currency. The extensive details the boys incorporated were suggested by events such a disastrous shower, found objects, questions the boys raised, and observations of their surroundings.

Great interest, ingenuity, imagination and skills transform a sand-pile
In his unadorned sketch of the boys transforming the load of sand, Hall provides a rich example of the enormous possibilities and varied benefits of extended play. The sand-pile kept these boys busy over the summer and engaged others in the town for several more years. In attending to nearly every aspect of this real and imagined sand-pile community, the boys followed existing and new interests, sharpened their skills in using tools, solved problems, amended decisions, and displayed a spirit of self help. “On the whole,” Hall writes,” the ‘sand-pile’ has, in the opinion of the parents, been of about as much yearly educational value to the boys as the eight months of school.” Even after the sand-pile was removed, Hall notes, groups of boys continued with the enterprise, more proud than envious of it.

 Play is a complex activity one we know integrates several dimensions, each with potentially significant implications for children’s development. It is not enough to simply champion play for children in schools, neighborhoods, backyards, museums, parks, and day cares. Even with many voices chanting play’s benefits to children, we are lacking some necessary pieces.

We need to understand play’s value through multiple and fresh perspectives–research, evolutionary biology, story, the past. Each offers valuable insights and methodologies that challenge our thinking and raise new questions. They model ways we might bring greater rigor to our work in play. At their best, they encourage a spirit of experimentation in us to increase children’s access to play and expand its benefits for children so more children can play in the sun.

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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Musem Notes Rewind: Children at the Center

Because what is at the center is what is important, I am re-posting this blog.  
As obvious as placing children at the center might seem, it's an idea that takes time, imagination, and persistence to work with in meaningful ways: challenging our image of the child, listening to our language, rethinking priorities, and updating what this means for children in varied contexts.

Children at the center has a ring to it and, at least in my networks, is referenced often enough to be familiar to many. But, is it a powerful tool or an empty buzzword? Yes–and both. With some teams I work with, children at the center sparks an interested, highly engaged response. From other teams the phrase produces a polite, blank or bored look, signaling a readiness to move on. 
A suspiciously attractive phrase, I nevertheless think placing children at the center extends well beyond a professional belief invoked with passion. What is at the center is what is important. Occupying a central position serves as a reference point towards which other considerations and actions are oriented. Children at the center asserts that children, their healthy growth and development; their resilience in the face of adversity, small or large; what is in their long term interest; and their joy are all important.
At its fullest, this idea offers an asset-based approach to building social capital in communities–better day-to-day experiences for children now as well as brighter futures. Children at the center has the capacity to align interests among multiple organizational partners to work towards long-term change for a community, its families and children. Finally, it is a compelling idea with enough gravitational pull to consolidate and focus a shared set of understandings and practices to better serve children in a museum, school, childcare, or community program. 
While placing children at the center can advance these significant strategic, organizational, and learning interests, it does so only with deliberate and steady work among a group, or even an active network, of people. The work starts with developing a deep, clear, shared understanding of what placing children at the center means. 
Seeing Strengths
Seeing children as strong, capable, competent, and full of potential is at the core of placing children at the center. The strengths and possibilities of even the very youngest child refute the easy assumption that children are simple and in need of correction, direction, and filling up with facts. Through movement, thought, reason, and language, infants and toddlers notice, follow sensations, organize information, seek out others to engage with, and make and change meaning. We might even view children as the original hackers, with their innovative customization of their world.
Children’s amazing potential is captured in the recent experiment of delivering a box of tablet computers in sealed boxes to two remote Ethiopian villages. The purpose was to see if illiterate children with no previous exposure to written words could learn how to read by themselves by experimenting with the tablet and its preloaded programs. Within 5 days, children had opened the boxes, figured out how to operate the tablets and were using an average of 47 apps each.  
It is not just children in remote villages with comparatively limited opportunities to spark an eagerness to explore that illustrates their strengths and capabilities. Evidence from everyday moments abounds. Children use others, often adults, as tools to accomplish their goals: to access something on a high shelf, roll the ball back to them and play, decode text, lift them up for a better view. Children observe others doing something they can’t do and then imitate them. Now they do it by themselves.
Our perspective influences what we see in children’s curiosity, expressions, persistence, and successes. If we see a strong, capable child, we see an active agent in exploring and learning. We view a child’s marks, questions, and choices as intention to make meaning–something we value greatly. We notice an extended focus on a purpose a child has invented herself rather than presuming a short attention span. We believe each child has something to say; each brings a narrative to the moment. It might be an observation about time, such as one 5-year old’s chronology of  world events, “Dinosaurs, Baby Jesus, the Knights, and me.” These are some of the magnificent offerings of children.
New Starting Points
Museums that internalize a view of children as strong and competent are in a position to activate the potential each child has. This sounds ambitious, and it is. The careful work of placing children at the center requires a deliberate shift from creating exhibits and programs to fill heads with facts or impress museum peers to centering the museum’s language, thinking, planning, and actions around children.
Learning from, with, and about children offers significant new starting points for a museum’s work. Who are these children? What do we know about them? What fascinates them? How do they explore, think, and make meaning? If children are the focus and what is important, then everyone across the museum becomes interested, patient observers. This is precisely the same as everyone being alert to safety everywhere and all the time.
Focusing on children’s strengths and capabilities reveals their competence as authors of their own experiences. They follow interests, investigate materials, make choices, modify approaches, and express possibilities. Children’s use of their many languages or ways of representing their ideas and emotions comes through in their spoken and written words, visual arts, drama, movement, and more. This focus opens new understandings about children and allows a museum to imagine ways the child’s agenda can be the starting point for explorations that will generate new thinking. Approaches shift to make room for children’s competence in building knowledge and seeking meaning in the environments the museum creates, the interactions it facilitates, and the relationships it nurtures. Rethinking environments, experiences, exhibits, and programs that invite children to wonder and extend their investigations is inevitable.
The sustained work of placing children at the center relies on listening to, being responsive to, and sharing in a child’s world attentively and respectfully. While evidence of children’s thinking and connections and their own words about what they are doing and understanding is rich, varied, and plentiful, it is all but overlooked in most settings. Documentation, an approach that gives visibility to children’s processes and accomplishments, brings together listening, recording, photographing, and reflecting on children’s actions, work, images, and words.
In making children’s thinking visible, documentation gathers evidence of an individual child’s or a group of children’s thinking from their words, drawings, questions, actions, and exchanges. In a program, at an exhibit, during a drop-in activity, and while prototyping, staff may listen to a child’s questions about what keeps a ball aloft; observe a child's repeated adjustments of objects around a light source to change shadows; notice a child’s persistence blowing bubbles; or reflect on a child’s varying the base of block structures. Notes, transcripts, photos, and children’s drawings that staff collect fuel discussion and interpretation about how children approach and think about the experiences the museum has created for them, or that they have created or found. Documentation is an iterative process of reflection, distillation, and sharing. It yields insights into how to support and extend children’s explorations, and modify environments where children will choose to invest their curiosity, imagination, and creativity.
At its best, documentation is a teaching, learning, and research tool. It illuminates children’s thinking and learning to them, to parents, and it staff; it frames new questions, and informs future planning.
Centering the Museum Around Children
There is no straight, short, or simple path to placing children at the center of a museum in a meaningful way. However, when educators, developers, designers, and visitor service staff from across a museum wholeheartedly and collectively engage in placing children at the center, momentum builds and change occurs along many dimensions.
Seeing children as strong and capable readily translates into seeing colleagues across the organization as capable and competent. Colleagues are recognized for bringing varied perspectives and complementary expertise needed to advance a shared vision. Staff working in different departments become collaborators in explorations and documentation that informs and deepens their work. A larger community of learners and partners with and around children takes shape.
Centering the museum’s language, thinking, planning, and practice around children takes hold gradually. New and more ways of placing children at the center begin to appear earlier in planning an exhibition, developing programs, framing the budget, and hiring and training staff. Through each project insights into children’s strengths and capabilities deepen. A shared vocabulary develops. New ways to support more elaborate explorations unfold. Cycles of documentation are tried, shared, and modified. Existing practices evolve and new ones emerge, clustering into an increasingly supportive set of everyday practices with children at the center. Museum-wide practice aligns thinking and links qualities of environments, experiences, exhibits, programs with children’s thinking and knowing. 
All museums have aspirations. Yet few actually translate these aspirations into change at a meaningful scale for a community, its citizens, or even itself. A shared vision and a sustained commitment are required. Placing children at the center of a museum’s long-term interests can be a way a museum matters in the life of its community. This commitment may be adopted as a value, a foundational principle, or a vision statement such as, “We envision a child-centered community that makes decisions based on what is in the long-term interest of the child.” Stated clearly and at the highest strategic level, placing children at the center can inspire, guide, and unify a museum’s varied and complex work across multiple formats and over time. 
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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Stakeholder Engagement Audit

As I am gearing up for a strategic planning project, I have been thinking about some of the usual planning steps and how they might be charged to do more work both as a part of the planning, as well as in moving the museum forward.

Every museum has stakeholders whether or not it recognizes them, serves them well, or enlists them in the life of the museum and community. Stakeholders are the people, groups, constituencies, and institutions who are likely to affect or be affected by a museum, its vision, plans, or projects. Not every museum is deliberate about identifying, understanding and engaging its stakeholders; some approach stakeholder engagement in a generic way, without considering stakeholders and their interests in relation to the museum and its interests. This is a missed opportunity.

Along with many museums, over the years I have expanded my view and appreciation of stakeholders, ways of engaging them, relating that engagement to the museum’s long-term strategic interests, and integrating stakeholders into the museum’s culture.

Especially when a museum anticipates significant change, careful examination of its stakeholders is critical. Strategic planning is an opportunity for a museum to think realistically and deeply about its stakeholders as it sets its future course. In preparing for a major expansion–an addition, renovation, new construction, or relocation– a museum must think about expanding its stakeholders and how to activate them around its vision. 

A stakeholder engagement audit advances a museum in becoming more magnetic like the museums described by Anne Bergeron and Beth Tuttle in Magnetic: The Art and Science of Engagement. In all these situations, a stakeholder engagement audit involves the museum in listening and responding to and being inclusive of its closest partners.

Stakeholder Engagement Audit At-a-Glance
A stakeholder engagement audit is a deliberate process for studying the individuals and groups across the community who share the museum’s interests and value its work and how it involves them. Strictly speaking, this is not a plan, but it does guide planning and decisions across the museum. Through gathering information, identifying common and consistent themes, and framing initiatives, the audit assists the museum in activating a stakeholder community around a compelling idea with positive outcomes.

Each museum has its own particular emphasis for a stakeholder engagement audit: widening its circle of stakeholders, better understanding community organizations, becoming more relationship based, or sustaining involvement. Depending on how formal or extensive the audit is, it can be done by an in-house team, strategic planners as part of their scope, or a firm specializing in this work. And, whether a museum takes this on in a big or small way, doing it is more important than doing it in a particular way. Conducting a stakeholder engagement audit addresses four broad questions.

• How does the museum currently view its stakeholders and how does it engage them?
• Around what significant, strategic idea does the museum hope to engage its stakeholders?
• What can the museum learn about its stakeholders to serve them and enlist their interests?
• How can the museum move forward by activating a stakeholder community?
How does the museum currently view its stakeholders are and how does it engage them? A practical starting step is developing a current and realistic picture of the museum’s stakeholder engagement. This background work looks at the stakeholders, both internal and external, who are engaged with the museum and benefit from its efforts. Board, funders, members, and visitors usually lead the list, but there are also partners, policy makers and gatekeepers. Push for 360º engagement. Stakeholders with shared interests who don’t (yet) fit in an obvious group can be carried forward: advisors or research partners from past projects or vendors and service providers with related interests. Capture regional and national as well as local stakeholders.

As part of identifying current stakeholder groups, the museum will also note how it currently serves and engages them through events, activities, communication, benefits, etc. Keep track of these along with opportunities for increasing their involvement at each step. Typically, this set of discussions shifts between what the museum currently does and what it could do in the future. The museum may gain insights in exploring what stakeholders of peer organizations look like–a museum of comparable size in its city or another city. This can introduce fresh perspectives including new ways to look at, cluster, and engage stakeholders.

In wanting to activate a stakeholder community around a compelling idea, a museum must explore the significant idea–or ideas–around which it currently engages them. Typically this is the mission, a slogan, or what the museum considers to be its brand. Often this conversation reveals that the museum lacks clarity around the set of ideas and what it represents or it has a limited way of talking about them.  

Around what significant, strategic idea does the museum hope to engage its stakeholders?
Most museums know that its stakeholders are motivated by its focus, track record, the population it serves, or personal relationships with top leaders. But most museums are not clear about what, in particular, this means given its community, mission, audience, and peer institutions.

Clarity about its own public value precedes communicating it and aligning around it. A compelling, strategic idea that is more than a slogan serves the stakeholder audit directly; it is also critical in making the museum’s case for support, coordinating messages internally, writing grants, hiring the right staff, and achieving museum-wide alignment.

Perhaps memorable and succinct, a tagline is generally not sufficiently compelling to activate and engage groups of stakeholders. It neither lends itself to a powerful agenda nor gives the museum traction to be a catalyst for action. Generally museums must look deeper into what they bring to their communities that others also recognize and value. A compelling idea is often located at the convergence of: the mission and vision with which it currently engages stakeholders; emergent opportunities pursued with greater rigor; and community priorities.

A helpful discussion at this point focuses on how the interests it shares with stakeholders could be more focused and relevant. Stakeholder interest might be framed around: strong families; learning through play; connecting art and the creative processes; transformative experiences through art; children’s potential; or authentic experiences related to place.

Realistically, most museums will refine this focus throughout the audit process itself: starting with an idea, framing questions for stakeholders, listening for what’s important to them, and following themes and threads. If a museum is fortunate, this work will continue beyond the audit because more staff will be attuned to big, resonating ideas that connect with stakeholders.

What can the museum learn about its stakeholders to serve them and enlist their interests? Now, get ready to listen to stakeholders and think about the relationship between them and the museum.
Individual interviews and facilitated conversations incorporate stakeholder perspectives and convey the museum’s willingness to listen. While there is no set number or mix of interviews, clearly, not all interviewees should be insiders-board, staff, and good friends. Varied perspectives and voices, including outliers, generate the rich information and new insights capable of providing strong direction. Typically these interviews are not confidential so interviewers can be selected based on warmth, clarity about the purpose and message, and good listening.

Face-to-face interviews and group conversations are opportunities for understanding how the museum’s strategic idea resonates with stakeholders; whether it is clearly expressed; and how it is meaningful to them. The museum will also hear how stakeholders see themselves as partners; who they view as other stakeholders and why; how much engagement they are interested in; what a fulfilling relationship involves; and the degree and source of the museum’s credibility in its area.

Organizing and distilling information from the interviews occurs in successive steps, looking at groups and approaches; themes; strengths and challenges. Forming stakeholder groups is more than sorting by demographic or external attributes. It involves finding and articulating meaningful distinctions among groups related to mutual interests, shared connections, and preferences for engagement so the similarities within and differences between the groups are easier to see and plan for.

Clustering stakeholder groups by internal (staff and board) and external stakeholders (i.e. visitors, members, community-based partners, civic leaders, donors, media, peers, gatekeepers) is a good first sort. Readiness to play with clusters, however, helps find meaningful groups and a manageable number. Interview material and the museum’s strategic idea for engagement are tools for customizing groups around relevant and specific interests. For instance, every museum has enthusiasts, but a museum may find designating enthusiasts for the riverfront is helpful. 

Interviews also reveal recurring themes such as a lack of clarity about the museum’s strategic idea, other community priorities, perception of the museum’s track record, concern about advocacy, or interest in the work of peer institutions. These themes can add definition to stakeholder groups, inform communication, or help shape engagement.

In effect, the interviews have tested the museum’s strategic vision and how compelling and clear it is for the stakeholders it hopes will invest in it with interest, time, and resources. This feedback should guide the museum in strengthening the idea, making it more tangible or relevant, or sharpening intended outcomes.

How can the museum move forward by activating a stakeholder community? Museums typically view stakeholder engagement as broad categories of involvement supported by a variety of activities and events. Participation occurs through visiting, volunteering, and attending events; learning through training, web content, or accessing resources; sharing through word-of-mouth, media coverage, or social media; support through funding or endorsing; and networking by opening doors, or social media. While stakeholder involvement very likely presents itself as these activities, activating a stakeholder community is more than assigning stakeholder groups to types of involvement.  

Developing a strategic-level framework can help the museum consolidate the audit’s information and insights and integrate it into its work. The framework also helps build alignment among its strategic idea, approaches to serving and enlisting stakeholders, and the internal capacity needed to support stakeholder engagement. A framework might include:

An institutional statement of the museum’s strategic idea around which it intends to activate stakeholders. This becomes helpful in messaging to stakeholder groups.

A working definition of stakeholder engagement. Consistent with the museum’s strategic idea, it also identifies what stakeholder engagement helps accomplish for the museum, and highlights characteristics of the museum’s approach to stakeholder engagement, such as relationship-based, interactive, reciprocity; etc.

Three-to-four stakeholder initiatives for serving, engaging, and enlisting stakeholders. Initiatives focus on how the museum will activate engagement: opportunities it will provide; how it intends to build and sustain relationships and retain stakeholders; and the benefits it hopes to give and receive. A single initiative may involve multiple stakeholder groups.

A logic model for each initiative to lay-out activities, resources, and short and long-term outcomes. A logic model also helps adjust the museum’s internal capacity to support, implement, and monitor stakeholder engagement considering: needed expertise, responsibility for implementation, coordination, communication channels, digital resources, etc. The logic models become action plans for stakeholder engagement and tools for monitoring progress.

Just More Work?
Is an audit just more work or does it put a museum ahead strategically? Museums can’t do well for themselves or their communities without investing in their stakeholders. Any time a museum focuses on its stakeholders thoughtfully, from a variety of perspectives, and in the context of long-term interests, it will be better off. There are other benefits as well. A stakeholder engagement audit can give a sense of how large and active the museum’s base of support is; surface new questions to explore about its stakeholders; identify new stakeholder groups; strengthen relationships with stakeholder groups; and identify stakeholder activities to drop because they are not valuable.

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