Thursday, August 11, 2016

Habitot, So Long

Minnesota Children's Museum's HABITOT
Minnesota Children’s Museum recently announced it will replace 3 iconic galleries as part of its $30 million expansion and renovation. After 20 years, Earth World, World Works, and HABITOT will close and be replaced by new galleries.

Since 1989, HABITOT has been Minnesota Children’s Museum’s area for very young children, first at its Bandana Square location and then at its downtown St. Paul location. Designed as a learning landscape for infants and toddlers, 6 to 36 months and their caregivers, it followed Boston Children’s Museum’s PlaySpace as one of the early spaces designed specifically for the youngest museum visitors, their parents and caregivers.

When HABITOT was being planned I was head of exhibits and education at the Museum. My background in early childhood and children’s environments and the Toddler’s Nest I had created for Madison Children’s Museum were helpful in working with a team of Museum founders and board members. Karen Dummer, then Executive Director, had advocated for a dedicated early childhood space. Her question, “What does babies parked in strollers and perched on hips say about how a museum values children?” became the rationale for the project.

Doing is becoming 
At 900 square feet, HABITOT was not large. It was, however, a safe, engaging environment where infants, toddlers, and caregivers could feel comfortable actively exploring together. More like a landscape than a playpen, its research-based, developmental-design approach recognized that, especially for very young children, physical development is cognitive development and social-emotional development. A new walker careening down a ramp is walking, moving from here to there, dealing with gravity, and motivated by the sight of a parent nearby. What that toddler is doing is what that toddler is thinking is what the toddler is becoming. Even at this small size and squeezed into a narrow slice of space near the Museum’s entrance and the bathrooms, HABITOT was large enough to signal a firm intention to serve young visitors well, share information about children's developmental potential, and support a range of related activities.

Three abstract landscapes–canyons for peepers, creepers and crawlers, islands for toddlers, and caves for increasingly independent preschoolers–were designed and built in the Museum’s fabrication shop. Ramps, steps, a wavy walk, crawl-in caves, changing surfaces, a birdcage-climber along with loose parts, sensory tubes, and busy boxes supported a range of experiences for moving in different ways, testing new motor skills, playing games, and mastering new feats.

Before opening, a group of toddler sons and daughters of staff and board, affectionately known as the HABITOT babies, explored and tested the spaces with their parents. Their activity and enthusiasm was a clear endorsement soon to be played out repeatedly by families with very young children and small groups from childcare programs.    

The year HABITOT opened, attendance increased 40% over the previous year. In 1988 attendance statistics were rudimentary, recorded by cashiers with paper and pencil. While the precise percentage increase might be off, the magnitude reflects the impact on the Museum in recognizing and serving this young age group.

Over the next few years, HABITOT was a site for staff observations, University of Minnesota student internships, and an academic research project by the Kinesiology Department. Also a hub for programming, weekly programs for parents were presented by Museum partners. Parents shared anecdotes about their child first rolling over on the Canyon cushions, taking their first steps, and overcoming hesitation to crawl into the texture caves. Caregivers reported they found the brochures useful and liked chatting with other parents and caregivers. Some families visited weekly, a pattern that has since become familiar in many museums among members with very young children.

Evidence of the need for more museum space was reinforced by the attendance growth that followed HABITOT’s opening and plans for moving to downtown St Paul began taking shape in 1991. The 10 focus groups conducted confirmed a high interest for an updated HABITOT. Valuable lessons from HABITOT’s first 4 years guided us in many ways. A focus group with HABITOT parents allowed us to explore family experiences in greater depth. Input from these groups informed the 1992 Programmatic Master Plan and launched gallery planning.    

Jane goes ice fishing in the Forest 
Parents, caregivers, and educators were emphatic about a larger HABITOT with amenities. We were able to double the size of HABITOT to a still modest 1,800 sf. that also included a resource alcove, nursing room, bathroom, and stroller park. When parents talked about experiences they wanted for their very young children, they mentioned positive experiences in nature. This fit with the place-based context suggested by the name HABITOT, originally constructed by Director of Development Kristin Midelfort. It also fit with conceptualizing the 4 new galleries as Worlds. Landscapes became less abstract and more local. Each of the 4 areas, Pond, Prairie, Woods, Bluff Caves, were specific Minnesota locations in a different season. 

Both parent input and the availability of a resource space for books, articles, and information sheets allowed us to rethink caregiver messaging. In this version of HABITOT, adults’ supporting and extending infants’ and toddlers’ exploration was a high priority. Graphics used a playful, conversational-style with questions and prompts to invite exploration. Paired with bold, picture-book style images and sandwiched between clear Plexi panels, they were easily visible from two sides as adults kept up with toddlers. A short video starring a new group of HABITOT babies and their parents focused on how children at different ages explore each landscape and its features supported by parent engagement.     

HABITOT inspired more programs and events geared to this very young group of children. Weekly HABITOT Tuesdays designated for children 4 years and under offered story, movement, and sensory programs. HABITOT Halloween grew and eventually evolved into HABITOT Holidays throughout the year. 

In A HABITOT Generation
These days, when I work with a museum to develop a vision statement, I typically frame a question asking, “What changes does the museum believe are possible in the next generation for children and families in our community?”

The generation since HABITOT opened has been a good one for very young children and their caregivers in museums. Museums have broadened their view of their audience, now serving the full life span from the early years to the elder years. With a boost from research on early brain development and national conversations on the critical role of early experiences in the first 5 years of life, museums have stepped into larger supportive roles around early childhood. Publication of the 2013 policy report, Growing Young Minds: How Museums and Libraries Create Lifelong Learners by the Institute for Museums and Library Services, both reflects and encourages this trend.

Spaces planned for very young children have taken root and grown in museums. They have spread from children’s museums to science centers, art museums, history museums, and natural history museums. Less likely to be squeezed into a small, unused space, they are increasingly among the core experiences a museum offers. Often as designated totspots distributed throughout the museum, early childhood spaces make it easier for families to explore galleries together. In some museums, the early childhood space is one part of a comprehensive resource for serving young children, parents, educators, and the community along with supporting programs, professional development, a research agenda, or preschool.

Iterations and updates of design for these spaces have generated other changes. Increasingly the distinctive needs of this young audience are being recognized. HABITOT and PlaySpace environments are not just smaller versions of other exhibits in a museum. Experience rather than content-driven, sensory exploration and play are at the heart of these developmentally- calibrated and responsive environments. Playing a crucial role in their child’s everyday and museum experiences, parents, grandparents, and caregivers are a high priority audience in these spaces. Making it easy for them to get into the act requires considering their comfort, interests, and expectations. Multiple strategies for involving caregivers need to be incorporated into the complex choreography of the experience.

The “HABITOT babies” of 1989 and 1995 are now parents themselves. Soon they will be bringing their sons and daughters to Sprouts, a new and larger space for very young children opening in 2017 as part of Minnesota Children’s Museum’s expansion. Designed by Gyroscope,Inc., Sprouts continues to explore the concept of young children’s physical development as social and cognitive development with a fresh, engaging design approach. At 3,000 s.f. and a wider range of experiences including water play and more amenities, the spirit of HABITOT continues to grow. 

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