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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