“Look! This is a hiding place,” a 6 year old says pointing to a narrow opening. Two small barefoot boys climb on top of a scale model of a tent and slide down. Four girls join hands, move in a circle, sing and kick their feet. Two girls flop down on the wavy chair and pretend to swim along its curves. A boy drags benches into an alcove and starts telling jokes.
Where is this? The Backyard? The playroom or playground? The museum? No, these children are playing in stores: a fabric store, an outdoor recreation gear store, a clothing store, and a bookstore.
Perhaps as a child, you remember standing inside the hinged mirrors and closing them around you to create your very own infinity box. Did you cruise the shoe department looking for high-heels? Then sling a purse over your shoulder and clomp around? In bookstores did you gallop up and down the long aisles between towering bookshelves? Did you bounce on mattresses? Were the nuts and bolts coins and treasure?
Adults typically view stores as places to do errands and attend daily tasks. They buy groceries, pick-up gardening supplies, take screens for repair, purchase books, and look at furniture. For store owners, managers, and cashiers the store is a commercial setting, designed to display and sell merchandise, answer customer questions, and move them through check-out.
For children, however, stores are natural places to play. Yes, there are some stores like LEGO, Kapla blocks, and American Girl dolls designed for children to play with and hopefully buy toys. On the other hand, as multi-sensory environments full of props and intriguing spaces, stores offer attractive possibilities for play. The spatial cues, fixtures, lighting, and objects that entice adult shoppers are often interpreted differently by children. Furthermore, children are taken along on innumerable shopping trips that involve lots of waiting. Children sit in grocery carts while pushed up and down aisles; they hang around as a parent compares products; and they wait some more while items are scanned and bagged. It’s not surprising that children find play opportunities in stores.
What does this tell us about children’s play?
While found play experiences in stores are, admittedly, short play episodes, they nevertheless possess key qualities of rich, authentic play. We see children claim the space, fixtures, and props and direct their play in stores. With shelves and racks of clothing, these settings surpass the box for costumes and dress-up. Networks of pathways meander and intersect hinting of maps, roadways, rivers, or escape routes. Aisles lead to racks loaded with multi-colored clothing, bins are chock full of giant sponges, and low platforms are stacked with rugs. Enclosed and semi-enclosed spaces are perfect for ducking into and hiding in a quick game of hide-and-seek. Relatively movable fixtures like benches can be dragged and arranged to serve as a stage or an obstacle course. Mirrors punctuating the walls add special effects. Distinctive lighting spotlights the action.
Children play where they find themselves. While stores afford many opportunities to play, they have few, if any, rules about play. Adults are otherwise engaged or have simply not given thought to children playing in the store. Left on their own and inspired by displays, clothing racks, aisles, enclosures, and accumulations of merchandise, children enter new worlds, invent games, escape from imagined bandits, and fashion adventures. Imaginative possibilities open as coiled hoses become snakes, bolts of cloth become mummies, pillows are icebergs, and tents are slides.
The play flows and shifts. A fine game of monster may pick up a story thread suggested by shopping routines, a piece of merchandise, or a chance phrase heard from a shopper. Is this pretend play? Building play? Exploratory play? A musical game? Like much of the best play, it is a mix, quickly shifting from pretending, to making up rules, to large motor exploration that involves crawling under sales tables.
In store play, children come together with other children similarly expected to wait. Playmates are siblings, friends, and, often, new acquaintances. Even in short play episodes, issues about who can play, roles, and rules arise, are hashed out, and resolved. Play is reconfigured with the departure of a child called by a caregiver.
While perhaps not obvious, learning as well as fun is part of these found play experiences in stores. In negotiating play rules and spaces, children use social skills, solve physical problems, interpret spatial cues, and test memory. They incorporate categories of things displayed together into their play. They use vocabulary to name and describe objects; they listen and speak in discussing rules, and are they likely to read an occasional label and price tag.
What does children’s play in stores suggest about places for play in museums?
Unwittingly hospitable to play, store settings offer clues about appealing spaces for play and exploration in museums. It’s not that museums should create more store-like environments or more store exhibits. Rather, museums may do well to look at stores (and other settings) where children play spontaneously to identify qualities that are often missing in spaces planned for play. Features and qualities that are present–and absent–in store settings are needed to support children in directing play, using their imaginations, engaging in open-ended activities, and problem solving.
Children take charge. A largely unscripted environment is a powerful companion for fashioning worlds and concocting adventures. As children shape experiences by and for themselves, their ideas, motivation, and competence are apparent. They are masterful at taking advantage of features such as height, movability, form, texture, and color to advance and extend their play.
Too much adult-driven design interferes with children discovering ways to rearrange, recombine, and repurpose elements for their exploration and amusement. The flexibility and movability of shelves, rolling racks, carts, and benches that facilitate changing displays also allow children to experiment with forms and modify spaces in meaningful ways–sometimes working together to manage bigger and bulkier items.
Imaginations at play. When a rack of clothes becomes a spaceship and the narrow space between two hanging jackets becomes an arrow slit in a castle, we know children’s imaginations are alive and lively. Simple, suggestive forms invite multiple interpretations and reflect many opportunities in contrast to the overly-defined forms typical of many designed play environments. Literal forms like trees, castles, and houses dictate the meaning of a form, substituting a dominant idea for yet-to-be-discovered possibilities.
Novelty unleashes imaginations as does juxtaposition and complexity. Children’s imaginations are inspired by unfamiliar objects and materials, enormous quantities, and unusual combinations of objects typical of stores. Hundreds of light fixtures, towering racks of jewelry, yards of chain, and an ocean of mattresses spark fresh ideas compared to several of one thing or almost anything at home.
Engaging in open-ended activities. In play, children are unlikely to give themselves a defined outcome, seek rules from adults, or give themselves a test. Right answers are virtually irrelevant in most types of play. Children have ideas that they are interested in exploring and play suits their purposes. Play confers a kind of freedom to experiment. In a setting like a store that is unconcerned with (and unintended for) children’s play, children follow and negotiate their interests and ideas.
The “what if” possibilities of store shelves bursting with books, pegboards loaded with whisks, a wall of paint samples, and tables with bolts of fabric are unlimited. And so are any spaces that are rich with information about the world, open to changing and modifying through play, and limited by few rules.
Perhaps this reflection suggests an opportunity beyond observing play and play environments. Less than obvious settings and everyday places are sources of useful information, lessons, and insights on delivering services, experiences, environments, and interactions to museum visitors and communities. What places are truly welcoming? Where do people feel in control? Where is customer service excellent? Where does inclusion and access feel authentic? Where are barriers to participation low? In what settings are processes efficient, warm, and personal? How can we extend our curiosity and awareness about what we care about that is done well and differently by others?
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