Friday, October 16, 2015

Exploration & Play ... Play & Exploration

A rework of a previous Museum Notes post, Not Just About Play, the following revisits connections between play and learning. We may know that learning occurs through play, but keeping the nature of this connection in mind in planning experiences is challenging. Play like learning is rarely present in an isolated pure form. Learning and play often blend and blur in the messing around, testing, trying, and fun at exhibit activities of all kinds across virtually all museums. While this might not meet the fine print of the exhibit objectives that have been set, the objectives can’t be met at all without some playful meanders that occur. 

"They're all triplets."
“How do we make a window for the giraffe?” a 4-year old girl asked her 8-year old friend as she held up a small stuffed animal. This was part of an extended building sequence and conversation between 2 girls at Scaling Shapes in Math Moves! at the Museum of Science, Boston. Scaling Shapes is about doubling the size of an object in three dimensions, height, length, and width. The exhibit has a large work surface with a one-inch grid, loose one-inch cubes, and several block structures of assembled cubes. A monitor shows a structure being enlarged by doubling all three dimensions.
Their exploration began with one girl asking the other, “Do you want to build a house?” They then swept all the cubes to one side and started building a house for their three stuffed animals, a giraffe, a puppy, and a bear. As they built, they talked about what they were building, and who their animals were. “They’re all triplets,” one said. “They’re watching TV,” added the other. “Where should we put him?” the older girl asked holding up the giraffe. “Let me deal with that!” the younger one replied, grabbing the animal from her. The activity continued, sometimes with more building and problem solving and some times with more conversation and wondering, “How do we make a window for the giraffe?”

Similar activity sequences occur frequently in children’s museums, science centers and museums and probably in every type of museum. Content specialists, advisors, exhibit developers and designers may find this disappointing and feel exhibits are being misused. And for good reason. They have created exhibit experiences to carry particular exhibit messages and concepts and have selected materials, media, and objects to support visitors in making these discoveries. As the activity above suggests, it may not happen, happen right away, or happen in the way the exhibit team has imagined or intended.

That moment of wondering, “How do we make a window for the giraffe?” reveals something about what is happening and might happen at an exhibit. The question involves working with the height and length of the wall; the relationship between the giraffe’s height and the window opening; spanning the window opening; and considering alternative scenarios for the house. This is where the focused exploration exhibit developers hope will occur is most likely to kick in: when exploration has yielded information about objects and what they can or can’t do.

Exploration and Play. Play and Exploration.
Planned for or not, play and exploration are an active, present, and inevitable part of the museum experience for children as well as adults. The problem solving, critical thinking, and planned discovery intended in exhibits require time and opportunity to explore, interact with, develop a familiarity with, and work with an understanding of the materials, objects, tools, topic, and even the social and physical context of the museum.

"What can this do?"
We can look to play for some insights about what often happens at exhibits and, for that matter, in many other settings. What we think of broadly as children’s play with objects and materials has two distinct aspects proposed by Corinne Hutt in 1970. In her play taxonomy, also referred to by Rennie and McClafferty (2002), she identifies epistemic behavior, or exploration, and ludic behavior, or self-amusement, along with games with rules.  

In exploration, a child picks up a ball, block, stick, piece of string, sock, or stone, and begins to investigate it. In eyeing, touching, lifting, squeezing, shaking, pounding, throwing, banging, dropping, rolling, squeezing, stepping on, and for the youngest, mouthing and gumming, the child gathers information about the object’s basic properties. Implicit in the child’s mind during this investigation appears to be: "What can this object do?" Hutt also suggests that exploratory–epistemic–behavior may be further divided into three kinds of activities. In investigation a child uses her senses to gather information. In problem solving she focuses on finding a solution or doing a puzzle. In productive activity she is intent on making changes to the material and–or–acquiring skills.  
"What can I do with this object?"

Play, or ludic behavior, relies on the child having sufficient information about the object to make it familiar and to be comfortable in shifting to amusement, or ludic behavior. Here the implicit question is, “What can I do with this object?” In this realm, Hutt says, children draw on the knowledge gathered about the object and skills acquired in using it to play symbolically with it. A rope becomes a snake; a stick is light sword; a stone is a magic egg; a sock fits over the hand and is a cat puppet; and a pile of blocks are stacked to be a house with a window for a giraffe. A story unfolds. Pretense is often involved.

Through play–informed by the initial exploration–a child gathers and consolidates additional information to develop greater familiarity, knowledge, and understanding about the object, gadget, or material and to acquire greater skill in using it. This is not a predictable, linear process, however. In fact, exploratory behaviors can alternate quickly or blend with play. Occasionally, the accidental discovery of a novel feature discovered through play can generate new data and prompt a new round of exploration. This, however, is incidental rather than a learner’s goal for an activity.

A new feature calls for another round of exploration
The need to explore to develop familiarity with something does not disappear with childhood. Furthermore, it is not limited to toys, loose parts, found objects, or play. While adults bring more information to each encounter, the material (and even social) world is not static enough to remain familiar for very long. When a new gadget or piece of equipment enters our life or we walk up to the rocket launcher at a science center, we are like children. We take time to investigate it. We adjust our grip, test how much effort is needed, look and listen for cues about how this operates, and try different movements before wholeheartedly committing to its use. In fact, Rennie and McClafferty suggest a paraphrase of Hutt’s two questions: “What can this exhibit do?” and “What can I do with this exhibit?”

Museums, Exhibits and Time
In developing and designing museum experiences, most of us, most of the time, do so as if exploration, play, and planned discovery are one and the same for accomplishing our objectives. They are not. In fact, the distinctions among them are both important and often relevant to the objectives museums have for learners in an exhibit or program.

When a learner encounters objects, gadgets, or materials at a maker table, math exhibit, harmonograph, or building platform, exploration usually begins. It is likely to be relatively brief if there is some previous experience and familiarity with what is being explored. With new objects or novel combinations of materials, however, investigation is likely to be both longer and more necessary for gathering information. Perhaps then, the learner can start finding solutions to a problem, make changes to a material, and develop skills.

But other factors are also operating. Museums are not the highly familiar, everyday environments of the kitchen, car, grocery store, or coffee shop. They are, in fact, an intentionally constructed mix of familiar, unfamiliar, and often rare objects, materials, and mechanisms, presented in engaging, intriguing, and often surprising ways. Because variety, novelty, and something out of the ordinary typify museums and their exhibits, it’s reasonable to expect that many visitors will need time to become oriented to, inspect, get to know, and take in a museum and its exhibits. A certain level of exploration, or epistemic behavior, is likely for children and adults to become familiar or reacquainted with an exhibit.

A tendency to play, amuse, or imagine may also arrive unexpectedly. Three small stuffed animals may show up at the Scaling Shapes exhibit in the pockets of 2 girls. The face of a clown may be playfully imagined as the target of the rocket launcher. Adding a silly spin or a playful punch to the floating ball on the Bernoulli Blower may produce new effects, launching another round of testing.
At many exhibits, exploration is likely to focus on what Hutt calls productive activity that is concerned with changing the material, mechanism, or gadget or the user’s skill in using them. Changing a material may involve altering it by tearing, folding, cutting, applying pressure, or dissolving; changing another material by cutting, pounding, piercing, or illuminating it; or making something with it by attaching, assembling, connecting, or sewing it. Combinations of these processes are likely to expand, interrupt, or redirect the investigation.

Another aspect of productive activity is developing a skill in using or working with a material, object, or tool, or becoming more precise in using that skill. Through extended use, multiple tries at one’s own pace, and increased familiarity, the explorer acquires skills and develops competence. With time and opportunity, she will engage in behaviors, actions, and sequences that lead to what exhibit planners (teachers, educators, parents) hope she and others will learn, for instance, solving specific problems like doubling the size of an object in three dimensions in the Scaling Shapes activity.  

Lessons and Starting Points
Exploration, play, and productive behavior contain many of the very elements an exhibit intentionally brings together in order to meet its specific objectives, offering useful insights and strategies for planning exhibit experiences for children and adults. While related to one another, they serve distinct purposes for the learner. Through exploration that often informs–and is informed by–play, children and adults develop a familiarity with the materials, objects, tools, topics, and context. As exploration and play alternate, merge, and combine, they nevertheless provide the learner with skill in using the materials and a degree of preparation and confidence that is valuable in pursuing and accomplishing objectives.

Less mindful of an exhibit's objectives, the explorer-player-learner’s tendency to explore and play follows his own objectives. This too offers insights and opportunities into additional ways exhibits might accomplish their objectives by:  
  • Recognizing the learner as someone inclined to explore, play, and pursue her own objectives;
  • Providing for–even welcoming–the mix of exploration (investigation, productive activity and problem solving) and play that is inevitable;
  • Channeling, but not forcing, these activities towards the exhibit's objectives;
  • Providing for these activities in exhibit design, material selection, layout, and images;  
  • Incorporating strategies that prolong engagement to provide the time necessary to both explore and play. 
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