Thursday, April 20, 2017

An Invitation to Think Together

If you read Curator, and I hope you do, I encourage you to read Play and Children’s Museums: A Path Forward or a Point of Tension? in the January 2017 issue.

The article reviews findings from research on play that is underway by members of the Children’s Museum Research Network, a project of the Association of Children’s Museum  funded by IMLS.  The Network which includes 10 children’s museums is in the process of conducting 3-5 research studies over 2-years to explore and articulate the learning value of children’s museums. Using a case study approach with 5 of the Network museums, the study has focused on learning frameworks, the major vocabularies they share, the constructs they use, and the learning theories that are implicitly or explicitly supported. Play, a defining concept for many children’s museums, emerged as a problematic element for children’s museums articulating their learning value. Three observations have emerged from the study.
• Each of the 5 museums positioned play differently.
• The museums often did not define play in their learning frameworks.
• The museums viewed the connection between play and learning differently.

Recognizing that the study is small, the authors nevertheless suggest that even children’s museums that have articulated their most important ideas about learning and learning value lack a shared understanding and conceptualization of play, internally and with other children’s museums. The authors suggest that individual children’s museums and the children’s museum field as a whole would benefit from developing a common understanding of play and its relation to learning.

The authors readily acknowledge that several aspects of play make it challenging. First, long approached from multiple theoretical perspectives, play is difficult to define and to operationalize. This is abundantly clear from any issue of The American Journal of PlayPlay is variously viewed as the release of tension, mastery over anxieties and conflicts, preparation for life, and consolidating learning already acquired. There is no agreed upon definition for play. Compounding its elusiveness, play is also undervalued. In contrast to the accepted value of learning, play is not highly valued by educators and parents. Even in children’s museums there is ambivalence about play. I was once asked how to advocate for play without using the word play.

Conceptually Messy, Joyous, and Imprecise
The authors are right to look critically at the extent to which children’s museums have defined what is central to their distinct value. They have raised important issues while providing glimpses into the evolving thinking of these museums. It’s not enough to be passionate about play or to have a cherished slogan like play is learning. Diligently articulating what play is, its benefits, and how it is a productive strategy for learning is critical. 

I agree, there is a problem with play. In fact there are, undoubtedly, several problems with play. On the one hand, play is a highly relevant focus for museums that are for and about children, interested in their well-being and potential, and focused on what matters to children. Essentially, play is worthy of attention because of its role in children’s well-being, their social-emotional development, and their entitlement to childhood. 

On the other hand, play is a challenging starting point for rapidly advancing the research interests of a relatively young wing of the museum field. It is conceptually messy, joyous, and imprecise. For centuries it has eluded definition and it is rife with paradoxes inhabiting its very core.
In effect the study exposes what has always been challenging for children’s museums. They are about someone–children–not about something like art, science, history, or natural history. They have lacked the subject matter definition and body of knowledge that art, science, natural history and history museums have claimed, enjoyed, and used to good advantage. Moreover, until about 20 years ago, play wasn’t explored in museums. Play was understood primarily in the context of playgrounds, preschools, day care settings, and the backyard.

Problem or Invitation?
Will the children’s museum field be strengthened by lively discussions about play and its role in children’s museum settings? Absolutely. Yet, rather than viewing the lack of definition of play–internally and across the field–as a problem, I would frame this as an invitation to think together. This represents important, urgent, field-wide work. For children’s museums as a field to inhabit this conceptual territory and increase their value for children, parents, caregivers, and communities, they must address this together, developing shared understandings and language around play.

From my perch working with children’s museums, I see growing capacity. Work is proceeding, somewhat slowly, but at an increasing pace. With perhaps one exception, The Strong, National Museum of Play, this work doesn’t obviously resemble similar work in other museums. Children’s museums are as yet unlikely to hire play scholars, designate a vice president for play studies, or have play fellowships in ways similar to how art museums hire art historians and artists, history museums hire historians, and science museums hire scientists.  

Finding a way to think together is not easy, nor is it linear. Like play, it is messy and joyous with invitations everywhere. Starting points are, in fact, at the very heart of each children’s museum, in situating play in the vision, mission, and values–literally or figuratively, directly or indirectly. Every mission statement need not include the word, play. Play, however, like children, families, childhood, learning, creativity, thinking, well-being, and community are relevant to articulating what a museum aspires to create for its community and why it exists. Many and lively discussions help surface areas of tension and ambiguity among ideas, beliefs, and concepts and generate new insights. Crossing boundaries, leaping over walls, and connecting theory, practice, and research are necessary as is engaging with other children's museums. A shared language around play will emerge from articulating the relationship between play and learning or play and creativity. In sharing insights museums will inevitably rework familiar ideas, uncover new ones, and construct new frameworks.

In this endeavor, it is helpful to view children’s museums as an on-going experiment. Relatively new and focusing on children rather than a subject, children’s museums have been experimenting for decades. In effect, they have been playing with the museum model in response to changing social and cultural contexts related to children. Views of children change; family structures shift. The cities and towns in which children grow up and in which children’s museums live evolve and change. They are taking on new roles in their communities and in the lives of children and families.

In her recent presentation, The Importance of And at MuseumNext in Melbourne (AU) Elaine Gurian explored how museums need to appreciate nuance, navigate uncertainty, and manage complexity in being relevant. Among strategies she proposes is engaging in experimentation in exhibitions. As children’s museums push into new territory around play, an experimental mindset is a great asset to be used deliberately.

Considering the nature of play and its elusiveness, it would be unfortunate to force a definition of play too soon or be too certain about any single theory or definition of play. Much work has yet to be done in exploring different possibilities about the relationship between play and learning, considering age groups or the role of adults in the particular context of children’s museums. Articulating beliefs about play, considering alternative constellations of ideas, formalizing conceptualizations, forging a shared view of play requires time and disciplined thinking. An example of this long-term contextualized work comes from the municipal infant toddler centers and preschools in Reggio Emilia (IT).   

After 40 years of studying various pedagogical thinkers, like Dewey, Piaget, and Vygotsky, the Reggio educators arrived at what they call, “Our Piaget” and “Our Vygotsky.” Emerging from a practice of questioning, these educators identified ways in which these thinkers both narrowed thinking about children in some areas and yet opened other, productive paths for developing a pedagogy for the Reggio schools. Committing to similar diligence, shared thinking, and taking advantage of each others’ work, children’s museums can author a comparable pedagogy, “our play,” that reflects insights into children, play, and museum environments.

An invitation to think together offers the possibility of bringing a children’s museum perspective to play that will benefit children, parents and caregivers, communities, museums, and the study of play. Opening this effort to engage more committed, thoughtful people in working creatively and collaboratively across more children’s museums will help grow a shared language around play. Like play itself, this language and its related vocabulary, ideas, and constructs will express the variety, vitality, and value of children’s museums. 

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