Sunday, November 22, 2015

Executive Function: Completing the Connection

Executive function is getting a lot of attention these days particularly in schools, museums, and libraries. Located in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, an area that keeps track of goals, engages in abstract problem-solving, and moderates appropriate behavior, executive functions weave, mediate, and integrate both cognitive and social capacities.

While developing early in life and rapidly during the preschool years, executive brain functions are not important just for children. Throughout life, we need to regulate emotions, delay gratification, and make plans. During adolescence some executive functions improve, becoming more efficient and effective with increased mastery over thinking, emotions, and behavior. During the 20’s, executive function skills are at their peak and begin to decline in later adulthood.

Models for executive function break down and describe them with some variation. The executive functions explored in Ellen Galinsky’s book Mind In the Making: The Seven Essential Skills Every Children Needs are: focus and self-control, perspective taking, communicating, making connections, critical thinking, taking on challenges, and self-directed and engaged learning.

Evidence of executive function is apparent in the focus and inhibitory control displayed in persistence in following an activity to its natural conclusion or sticking with something after a setback. Taking another perspective and putting oneself in another’s shoes involves cognitive flexibility. Making connections is critical to making sense of a situation and relies on recognizing similarities and differences, using rules and applying and recombining elements in various and inventive ways.

Involved in language, play, learning, and social interactions, executive functions have a definite place in museums. Recently, IMLS released Brain-Building Powerhouses: How Museums and Libraries Can Strengthen Executive Function Life Skills with Mind in the Making and Families and Work Institute. A study on executive function skills in museums and libraries, it explores what they are, why they are important, how children develop them, and how museums and libraries promote them.

The report identifies 6 assets museums and libraries can leverage to support executive function skills from Family Engagement to Community Partnerships. Museums are incorporating information on executive function skills into programs for parents, programming where children practice science skills, and kits. Portland Children’s Museum has developed a handbook summarizing 7 skills.

These and other efforts to deliberately incorporate executive function skills cluster into two general areas. First, handbooks, webinars, text, and handouts focus on and summarize the content of executive function skills. Print materials in text panels and handouts provide explanation, tips, and prompts for parents and caregivers. Materials cover recent research, developmental information, and examples about how activities and experiences can support development of specific life skills.

The second cluster of museum efforts to incorporate executive function skills is around programmatic tools and strategies. Kits, programs, research-based exhibits weave executive function skills into museum experiences. Some museums offer informal play-and-learn groups and formal parent training to develop parent and caregiver awareness and skills.

Both areas of activities are good and necessary for encouraging executive function skills in museums. They serve as groundwork in bringing the content into the museum, building awareness of how and why these skills are important, and supporting parents and caregivers in valuing and encouraging these skills in children as they explore and play. Both help in building a case for support around a museum's intention and potential to make a difference in the lives of visitors and the community.

Most museum efforts to encourage development of executive function skills, however, overlook the enormous and indispensible asset of prepared and engaged staff. In fact, in Brain-building Powerhouses, staff are not identified as one of the 6 assets that museums and libraries can use to promote executive function life skills.

Gallery guides, museum educators, on-floor educators, docents, and volunteers who interact with children and adults–daily and hourly, from arrival to departure–have the potential to make connections to these life skills that even the best signs, tools, and media cannot. Informed, practiced, and on the spot, staff are able to customize a response, gesture, or comment to a child or adult and the situation. Moreover they can model and scaffold for parents and caregivers, augmenting and making visible what is in the text and what it looks like in reality.

Because experiences are often planned to be self-guided, museums may not recognize the steady stream of  opportunities for knowledgeable and well-trained staff to support and advance development of executive function life skills. Virtually every visitor encounter is an opening to model or respond in helpful, focused ways. Children wait in line at admissions, use a new tool in the maker space, scale the climber, or monopolize the green screen. Getting separated from a parent or jumping the line at the crane may be a self-guided experience; it can also use informed guidance.   

Clearly parents and caregivers play a critical role in fostering a child’s focus, self control, persistence, and keeping information in mind during a task or activity. Is it realistic, however, to expect adults to read text, absorb relatively complex content, and respond accordingly as their child abandons an activity? Grabs a tool from someone else? Faces a meltdown? What about when their hands are full with 2 or 3 children?

Well-prepared staff who are familiar with the research on executive function and the related life skills serve a function nothing else is able to. Not supervising a child, they can observe and notice related behaviors, identify opportune moments for engagement, and scaffold these skills. They can reflect on the interactions and discuss later with other staff. Modeling and scaffolding for parents and caregivers is a powerful way for them to understand what self-regulation or working memory looks like and what they might do in situations when prompts aren’t present. Even brief follow-up conversations with parents and caregivers can help make these connections.

Admittedly, the investment in preparing staff well is considerable. Furthermore, not all staff may have the capacity to engage with visitors around brain development and executive function skills. In fact, only half the museum respondents to the IMLS study felt staff has the capacity to converse with families and children about brain development. 

If this is where museums hope to have a positive impact on their visitors and, ultimately, on their communities, they need to take action on multiple fronts. Text, handouts, posting information, and weaving experiences into exhibits to support these important skills are only part of an approach that can be considered comprehensive and potentially effective. Without staff prepared to engage, respond to, and support executive function life skills, the approach remains a well-intentioned museum interest. Fortunately, some training in this area beyond introductory is occurring in museums. Mind in the Making and Boston Children’s Museum are developing training for museum staff. Museums can also conduct small-scale experiments with trained on-floor educators in a particular exhibit to interpret messages and model interactions. These results would provide informed guidance in expanded staff engagement.

A wholehearted approach is what I think is intended by one of the action steps in Brain-building Powerhouses: Embed a priority to develop executive function life skills into all aspects of the operations: planning, facilities, staff training, communications, guest services, etc.

In my mind, that's the top action step if museums are serious about delivering results for executive brain skills and–in fact for any area museums consider important such as creativity, the importance of play, science learning, early development, literacy, etc. 

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Now Playing … At the Store

“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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