Sunday, May 31, 2015

Becoming a Museum With A Strong Image of the Child

Becoming a Museum With a Strong Image of the Child was a session at InterActivity 2015 held recently in Indianapolis. Depending on how you count, the session started taking shape 2 years ago, or 3, 25 or 70 years ago.

The deepest roots of this session reach into an educational experiment in Reggio Emilia in northern Italy that has been evolving over 70 years. For more than 25 years, Reggio’s infant, toddler, preschool and elementary schools have inspired children’s museums, and for good reason. Reggio pedagogy shares foundational ideas with children’s museums: parent engagement, strong community connections, and the environment and materials as teachers. The Reggio experience also rests on an image of the child as strong, competent, curious, and full of potential.  

With increasing diligence, children’s museums have been weaving these ideas into their cultures and experiences. In November 2013 50 participants from 11 museums and partners from community organizations, early childhood and preschools, and higher ed participated in a week-long study tour in Reggio. A pre-conference at InterActivity 2014 offered an opportunity to reflect on and share that remarkable experience with more museum colleagues.

Following the pre-conference which included Kay Cutler, professor at SDSU and trustee at the South Dakota Children’s Museum, exploring a “strong image of the child,” a participant approached me with two questions. How can we find staff with a strong image of the child? How do we become a museum that shares that value in every way?

Those questions inspired the 2015 session and are worth revisiting here for those not able to attend the session–and maybe for anyone interested in these questions. That children are full of potential, are empathetic, and have powerful natural learning strategies is an empty slogan unless supported fully, authentically, and regularly. This is ambitious but important work to which three colleagues brought invaluable perspectives.
• Susan Harris MacKay, Director of Teaching and Learning, Museum Center for Learning and Opal School of the     Portland Children’s Museum 
• Holly Bamford Hunt, Children’s Museum of Tacoma trustee and early childhood educator
• Blake Ward, Minnesota Children’s Museum Programs Manager

Dimensions of becoming a museum with a strong image of the child highlighted below reflect the long-term, broad scope, and collaborative nature of this work.
• Popular images of children as cute, messy, and not ready undermine viewing them as capable, competent, and      compassionate.
• Children’s strengths and strategies unfold from their earliest days, in relationship to others, and in response to opportunities.   
Vision and direction around a strong image of the child should occur at every level of the museum. Yes, every level–trustees, staff, and volunteers.
• The museum’s voice can promote a strong image of the child in the community.
• Daily, shared, and integrated practices support staff in noticing and extending children’s capabilities and natural strategies.

A Strong Image of the Child? 
Even the firmest beliefs in children as capable and competent encounter contrary forces, images, and messages about children. Sometimes unwittingly or in service to another objective or gain, ads, products, and humor focus on children's limitations.
We notice, for instance, what a 3-year-old can’t do–ride a two-wheeler, write her name, share toys. Yet, 40 years of research on children have found out not their weaknesses and problems, but their strengths and capabilities. Our own observations of children reveal how they are curious, solve problems, help others, and have ideas that motivate them. While we work in museums with explicit statements of valuing and respecting children, this value is not necessarily woven into the fabric of our museum.

What does a photo of a toddler wearing this t-shirt on a children’s museum’s FaceBook page say about children? Also from FaceBook is this book cover scrawled with blue marker. I see the marks indicating a toddler’s interest in making meaningful marks. The comment that followed, however, assumes very different intentions. “After drawing this lovely blue picture the toddler probably hit her mother over the head with it and then bit her.”

Expanded Thinking 
Becoming a museum with a strong image of the child depends on more than a list of positive qualities to repeat to like-minded colleagues. Being this museum is a function of expanded thinking about children’s capabilities. Susan began by suggesting a larger context for seeing children, one that considers this moment and the future, and childhood flowing into adulthood.   

To see more of what is possible we must go beyond narrow expectations and small images. When we pay attention to what children are doing we begin to see and appreciate what they are capable of from their earliest days. When we see children in the moment authoring their learning and expressing their ideas, it’s “… as as if we are opening a window and getting a fresh view…,” Malaguzzi says.

Everyday children use strategies–telling stories, asking questions, helping, tinkering, testing ideas, developing hypotheses and theories–that show us what they are capable of doing. In looking closely we can find how to invite, extend, and develop children’s strengths and strategies for the future in the experiences, environments, and materials we offer in our museums and in childhood.

A Community Voice 
Returning from the 2013 Reggio study tour, the Children’s Museum of Tacoma’s (CMT) contingent of 14 staff,
Photo: Children's Museum of Tacoma
trustees, and community partners worked in earnest on a long-term goal to internalize these ideas across the museum and become a voice in the community.

Holly described how staff and trustees have set a vision and a course for CMT around a strong image of the child. CMT’s new vision, mission, and strategic plan center on an image of the child: “Everything we do begins with our image of the child. We believe children are: compassionate, capable, inquisitive, creative, valuable, contributing, and dreamers.”

Recognizing that their work must also be community based, CMT publicly posed a major question, “What if we created a child-centered community?” Its Symposium On Our Youngest Citizens co-hosted with the University of Washington Tacoma in September 2014 invited 300 community-minded adults to listen to thought leaders, Ben Mardell and Alfie Kohn. CMT then engaged participants in exploring their own image of the child and how it is reflected in their actions, creating a platform for continuing work on becoming a museum with a strong image of the child.

Supporting Staff 
Blake’s experienced programmatic perspective on becoming a museum with a strong image of the child addresses critical and practical concerns. How do we find and support staff who see children as capable and possessing natural learning strategies?
Just as we all carry our own image of the child, museum staff do as well. This image invisibly directs them as they approach, talk, and engage the child. Working with staff is an opportunity to support them in seeing children as the protagonists of their own lives and learning. Blake focuses on experiences that support staff in expanding their thinking about children’s natural capacities and noticing the natural learning they use in investigating materials, asking questions, acting out stories, and expressing ideas.

These practices include engaging staff regularly in formal and informal dialogue and providing opportunities for self reflection and reflection with others about their work. Along with playful inquiry and opportunities for risk taking and failure, these experiences encourage a growth mindset, develop creative confidence, and cultivate a culture of relationships and listening.

Equally important as supporting staff is hiring for a strong image of the child. In a thoughtful and competitive interview process, Blake looks for candidates who are playful, innovative, flexible, and reflective; with passion for possibilities; and an interest in pedagogy and a growth mindset. 

In the Spirit of Becoming 
We often talk often about what we put in our museums–our exhibits, programs, a climber, and special events. While important, becoming a museum with a strong image of the child requires thinking about who is in our museums and how we view them: 
… Children who are resourceful, capable of making choices, with many ways of expressing their ideas;
… Staff who are alert to children’s remarkable capacities and create opportunities that are responsive to and engage children’s potential–and who are full of potential themselves; and
… Trustees whose image of the child as capable and strong provides direction for the museum and its role in the community.  

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

10 Lessons from Learning Frameworks

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I was delighted when Robin Meisner and Suzy Letourneau of Providence Children’s Museum asked me to join their session at InterActivity 2015 to deepen the exploration of making learning through play visible. This session was a response to interest from last year’s session and focus on why understanding a institution’s view of learning is important to making learning visible.

In thinking about how to frame the presentations by Janella Watson from NYSC, Amy Eisenmann from Bay Area Discovery Museum and Robin and Suzy, I wanted to do two things. First, I wanted to find out how typical a practice having a shared understanding about learning is and how this compares to other museum areas.  

I began by asking how many of the approximately 80 participants had an institutional view of learning at their museum? About 12 people raised their hands. When asked whether that institutional definition of learning was written, 12 hands remained. About 6 hands remained when I probed whether this definition was part of a larger document on learning. 

The results were quite different when I asked whether their museums had a financial plan, a marketing plan, a development plan, or an exhibit plan. Virtually every hand was raised for every plan. This generated some murmuring! Why don’t museums have a broadly shared understanding about learning as they do about marketing, finance, development? Why isn’t a shared understanding about learning woven into a museum’s fabric? Made visible as accomplishments are in those other areas?

My second hope in framing the session was to share the hard-won experiences of museums that have developed learning frameworks. A learning framework consolidates a museum’s most important ideas about learning and learners, and where a museum will focus its resources, distinguish itself, and deliver learning value. It seems, if not obvious, then extremely helpful, for a museum to articulate the important ideas at the convergence of its strategic and learning interests. Frameworks can focus on global awareness, creativity, inquiry, play, or early language development.

For the last 20 years learning frameworks have been my tool of choice for strengthening and making visible the learning value museums offer in their exhibits and programs and through staff and volunteer interactions with learners. Regardless of museum size or focus or whether it a museum is on its first framework or third update, 10 observations are worth sharing.

1. People who work together and who use the same terms–learning, play, creativity, global awareness–do not necessarily mean the same thing by those same words. These important ideas require a shared and deep understanding about how people who work together understand them.

2. A museum’s most important ideas about learning, creativity, or play must be defined by people in that museum, for that museum, for its audience, and taking its community.  into account

3. Identifying key ideas, defining them together, collaborating on a written framework, and distributing it makes these understandings and intentions open and public. They are available for others to examine, discuss, challenge, revisit, reflect on, and change as needed.   

4. Clarifying the meaning of learning, inquiry, play, or creativity is a negotiation. It brings together various interpretations and perspectives. Dialogue among colleagues makes the ideas and their meaning clearer, stronger, and shared. Wholesale adoption of a particular pedagogy or model defeats the purpose. One person’s passion cannot dominate. There’s a higher value than having your idea triumph. It’s having the right ideas clarified. 

5. As important as it is to be clear about individual ideas, it’s critical to understand how they relate with one another. What is the relationship of play and learning? Fully understanding the meaning of an idea includes clarity about how it engages with other muscular ideas. Connect the dots.

6. Whether or not we’re trained as educators or our position descriptions say we are educators, we all are engaged in some way in providing rich learning experiences for children and adults–no matter how we define learning. Everyone has a role to play and must play it well.

7. A framework around learning–or inquiry, play, creativity–is a framework for the entire museum. It’s not just for educators. A framework is an expression of how a museum values and views learning and learners; how it sees its value to its community; and how it sees itself as a learning organization.

8. A learning framework pushes well beyond an intention to contribute to positive changes for children, adults, and staff. It is a working tool for finding ways to make the learning that is occurring visible to learners staff and trustees, and to museum supporters.

9. This is hard work and demands rigor. Every museum may not be ready to make learning visible to children, parents and staff. But every museum can clarify and connect its most important ideas about learning that are embedded in its mission, related to its audience, and in service to its community.

10. A framework is a use-dependent tool. The more it’s used, the more it generates new insights and gives clearer direction for where the museum can accomplish more.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Starting on a Higher Rung

Partial view of the Tree of Forts
Not so very long ago, when a new museum opened, it looked, well, not quite ready. Hand-made exhibits occupied a small left-over space. Passion, pride, and excitement somewhat compensated for what the exhibits lacked. Friends and optimistic supporters kindly acknowledged that, “given some time, this museum would get a few more things right.” This was certainly true for Madison Children’s Museum when it opened at its first site in the early 1980’s. We were scrappy, inventive, good with duck tape, and hopeful.

I began noticing a change when Milwaukee’s Betty Brinn Children’s Museum (BBCM) opened in 1995. From its exhibits, programs, staff, and even visual identity, this new children’s museum seemed as though it had been operating for several years. This wasn’t entirely surprising. BBCM’s founding executive director, Mary Ellyn Voden, drew on her significant museum experience as Director of Exhibits and Education at Children’s Museum of Houston that had been operating for 10 years and had opened a new building in 1992.

A new museum starting on a very high rung opened May 1st in Mankato, MN, located 75 miles south of the Twin Cities. The Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota opened in a converted City of Mankato bus garage after 10 years of planning and growing.  I first met the two founders, Linda Frost and Mary Jo Hensel in 2005. Early childhood educators and friends, they
formed a board, joined ACM, and incorporated in 2006. The next year they invited me to facilitate a planning retreat and develop a case statement with them. In early 2009, CMSM hired Peter Olson as executive director. Peter brought 6 years of operations, marketing, and exhibit experience at Minnesota Children’s Museum to CMSM’s start up efforts. In 2011 I worked with a board committee to develop a master plan that served as a framework for exhibit and experience planning.

While most new museums follow similar steps, this museum has done so while thinking big, building community connections, being very intentional about the small and the beautiful, and keeping children at the center of their vision. 

Mankato is a community that believes the prosperity it has enjoyed comes from the regional resources–the river that connects towns and people, sandstone quarries, and productive agricultural land–and the resourcefulness of its inhabitants. This narrative threaded through the city’s 2007 economic development plan. It has informed CMSM’s vision and framed its approach to funders. It has become infused throughout the Museum and its experiences.

Thinking Big
CMSM has been thinking big from the start–not expressed in inflated language or high square footage ,but as a roomy vision that fits its community. CMSM has seen itself since the beginning–and more so with time–as extending the community’s prosperity to its children through a childhood rich in play and opportunities, as a children’s museum.

When CMSM decided how to build local awareness and learn to operate a children’s museum, it opened its first Play Lab in 2010 in a temporary, long-term space. Play Lab was a location, a state of mind, and an expression of the Museum’s interest in learning how exhibits and experiences play with the Museum’s audiences and how audiences play with exhibits. Play Lab was also where CMSM premiered TapeScape in 2011. A twisty, tubular crawl-through landscape, Tapescape is constructed from plastic shrink-wrap and packaging tape stretched and woven around an L-shaped steel pipe structure (32’ L x 24’ W x 9’ H). CMSM’s Tapescape was the first of this type of temporary installation that has since been installed in several other museums.

If anything indicates that CMSM thinks big, it’s probably the new Tree of Forts climber introduced at the opening. This multi-story tree supports numerous tree forts of different designs and materials that are connected by vertical, horizontal, and angled rope climbers and ladders. The tree bursts through the building’s roof, opening into a kind of tree fort high aloft and with a view of the river and city. The Tree of Forts rolls fantasy, childhood memories, physical challenge, and surprise for children and adults into one amazing structure. Climbing through it myself, I met toddlers and grandparents and every age in between climbing, sliding, slinking, and discovering.

A Strong Sense of Place
CMSM has deeply and thoughtfully grounded itself in southern Minnesota. In making choices, it has infused experiences and environments with a strong southern Minnesota flavor. Massive sandstone blocks from a local quarry enclose the Quarry Zone creating a very real sense of being in a quarry. Mounted on the wall inside, an historic 12’ circular quarrying saw blade seems to be poised for cutting stone. The combination of stone and blade creates a feel of authenticity with a hint of danger.
Play Porch, for infants, toddlers and preschoolers to 3 years, is completely at home in Mankato. The detailed ornamental scrollwork, porch posts, and creamy yellow clapboard are copied from the childhood home of Maud Hart Lovelace, author of the Betsy-Tacy children’s books. The books, the house, the map of Deep Valley–Mankato in 1905–are part of the town and the childhoods of parents and grandparents visiting with their children today.

Local references are integrated throughout the building and exhibits. They are embedded in the expansive farm scene mural showing local crops and in alternative uses of farm materials like stock tanks, corrugated metal panels, and barn board. Regional crafts such as quilting and sewing are visible in the hand-made quilt that features southern Minnesota landscapes. High up in the rafters sits one of the recognizable millions of cats taken from an illustration in another local children’s book author, Wanda Gag. In every area of the museum, placed-based and historic references help tell their own stories. They invite conversations and elicit memories from parents and grandparents about quarrying, farming, and building tree forts.  

Visible Community Contributions
The importance of place is also reflected in the visibility of community connections, forged through the Museum’s planning and now contributing to what it offers. Like the hand-made quilt that traveled to the very first fairs and festivals CMSM attended, connections started early and have become integral to CMSM’s identity. The Toddler Committee made up of area early childhood educators has worked on the Play Porch for 7+ years.  Community carpenters built prototypes for the market and the quarry at Play Lab. Four hundred pieces of produce hand sewn by volunteers fills the wheelbarrows and bins of the farm and the market.

Indications that CMSM intends to continue to engage the community are apparent. A sign in the Ag area invites input for an indoor/outdoor new ag exhibit with, “What do you want to learn about modern agriculture?”

Worth Discovering
A wholehearted commitment to giving children something worth discovering is apparent throughout the Museum. There is not only the Wanda Gag cat in the rafters, but there is also a secret passage into the farmyard through the crawl-through log in the farm mural.  A message that wood comes from trees is carried by the steps spiraling up the Tree of Forts. Each tread is made from a different tree, its name burned in–Boxelder, Ash, Elm, Poplar, Maple.

CMSM knows children scour their world for information, are fascinated by small details, and notice often-overlooked features. The Museum has been deliberate and generous in making sure there are abundant opportunities for play, exploration, and discovery. Multiple mailboxes stand at different heights. Because children will feel and see details, the mailbox interiors are textured and patterned. Mailbox doors open and open-and-close at both ends suggesting games and extending exploration and play with others. 

Beauty as well as interesting details and novel materials invites investigation. Area artist Malia Wiley painted the farm scene mural in Grow It and included a mother and child and recognizable flowers and herbs. Liz Miller’s mixed media installation Preternatural Prairie Mirage floats overhead among the rafters. Children working with fabric artist Amy Sinning sewed and dyed 2,100 fabric willow leaves that hang–and detach from–the tree in the Play Porch yard. Laser cut steel railings carry a prairie grass motif designed by Ellen Schofield along the mezzanine where the Whiz Bang STEAM area is located.

CMSM has opened with a loud, wonderful, and long-awaited roar. I have no doubt that planning and refining will continue. This is a museum that knows how to discover ways of engaging children and their families, enriching childhoods, and strengthening connections with southern Minnesota.

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