Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Rewind: Playing with ... Loose Parts

Inspired by the hand-made felt food I saw in the diner at Madison Children’s Museum, I suggested to my friend Nina who has a family day care with her sister that we make some felt food for their brood’s dramatic play. Nina thought for a moment and politely shook her head. The children, she said, enjoyed such rich play with a changing assortment of objects used for food: pine cones, stones, bottle caps, and knobs. She wouldn’t want them to lose that. The felt food I’d seen was so appealing it was hard to let go of the idea, but I knew Nina was right.

The Theory of Loose Parts
Architect Simon Nicholson first proposed the theory of loose parts in the 1970’s at a time when adventure playgrounds in England were inspiring a rethinking of the aged and static design of American playgrounds. Nicholson believed that the loose parts in an environment offer enormous possibilities and invite creativity unlikely in settings with fixed elements. Environments are richer places for children’s play with loose parts that include everything from sand and water to sticks, plastic crates and buckets, hoses, tubing, and more. I still have my worn mimeographed  (c. 1976) copy of Nicholson's Theory of Loose Parts on goldenrod paper in my archives. Recently the idea of loose parts has begun to catch on with early childhood educators, play experts, and playspace and museum designers.

… and Found Objects
I have an addition to make to Nicholson’s Theory of Loose parts. The best loose parts are objects children find themselves and make their own. Traveling close to the ground, eyes wide open, and fingers outstretched, children notice, pick up, and become proud owners of dropped, discarded, and forgotten objects. Pebbles, sticks, plastic caps, pencil stubs, washers and slugs, wheels from toy cars, keys, and more, become their treasures. Children store and stash them in pockets, backpacks, drawers, and ziplock bags where they can find them, use them, and re-use them in new ways. Just check the bottom of any child’s backpack.

When children find objects themselves, objects adults have tossed or overlooked, they enjoy a feeling of ownership they seldom are able to have about toys or school supplies that are given to them by parents and other adults. No doubt they value their toy cars, doll suitcases, LEGOs, and paint brushes. But they have a special relationship with their very own finds. They are the bosses of pencil stubs, empty thread spools, a rusty bolt, a pinecone, and the very valuable spring from a ballpoint pen. They can collect, sort, trade, forget about, and even lose their found objects. They own them and they decide what to do with them. I imagine this is a sweet feeling of control for someone learning to share and figuring out the rules of property created by others; for someone learning about the qualities, the feel and possibilities of objects and materials.

An Openness to Objects
A child’s deliberate or casual search for found objects is a true child-directed activity, a goal often sought and not necessarily fully realized. Their curiosity about and openness to the potential of materials extends their self-directed exploration. Sticky pine cones, a sparkly button, and a cork bobbing in water deliver first-hand information about the world. As children investigate an object, they wonder why it does “that”, where it came from, and what they can do with it. They have ideas. Children’s questions, imaginations, and previous experiences allow them to make connections, to go further than the information given to them, and to create something new and original for them.

Attractive, enticing, and beautiful, found objects have important attributes–fist sized, mobile, and undefined–that allow children to invent, follow, and finish an experience in personal and unexpected ways. An object can become anything a child wants it to be. Chestnuts can become cooking props, bricks in a dump truck, or boulders in an avalanche. Objects invite conversation, inspire stories, and inform theories. They become game pieces, construction units, a puppet, or a precious addition to a collection of similar objects. 

Found items are not only fascinating to children, but they also stimulate children’s personal interests in rocks, vehicles, stories, tools, and tinkering. Loose parts and found objects lead children everywhere and anywhere on their ways to the future. 

Time, Abundance, and Variety
Children need time and opportunity to become fluent in materials. For most children, the more limited environments of their daily lives, often scoured of loose and "dangerous" parts means more limited access to loose parts and, especially, to found objects. Surely there are treasures to be found between car seat cushions on the way to school. But how do they compare to a daily 15-minute walk to and from school or foraging among the bushes at the park?

Hands-on museums do offer loose parts as props and tools in outdoor environments, and indoor exhibits and studio spaces. They can, and need to, give loose parts and found objects a much greater presence by spreading varied and abundant objects and their benefits across exhibits, throughout programs, and into public areas. Museums might just use some of the interest and imagination children bring to loose parts and found objects in doing this. They can also follow the work of educators from Reggio Emilia (IT), explore how some preschools and museums are exploring and adapting material exploration, and think about some starting points below.  

 Grow the variety of loose parts and found objects across the museum. Start gathering! Loose parts can be natural and manufactured. They can come from any room in the house, shelf in the garage, or corner of the backyard; from the museum’s fabrication shop or food service vendor. Increase variety by inviting contributions from staff and board; work with local businesses and museum sponsors. As important as quantity is, interesting qualities (textures, shape, rigidity, color, finishes, etc.) are essential. Be selective; consider safety. Be a participant, exploring materials yourself and with other staff. Try a few materials in activities and notice children’s questions and how they use them. Search with new eyes; feel with new fingers; discover with new possibilities.

Be on the look-out for: Spoons, keys, plastic caps, driftwood, beads, cord, paper rolls, ceramic tiles, wire, marbles, postage stamps, bark, shells, feathers, acorns, corks, knobs, s-hooks, puzzle and game pieces, buttons, rubber washers, ribbons, leaves, seeds, pods, fabric, ribbon, etc.

Sort through loose objects around a possible experience. A possible experience is somewhere between casually putting out a bunch of stuff and setting up a structured, supervised activity. Being both intentional and open to possibilities of how children might explore, experience, use, and combine materials is a good starting place. A child may, or may not, use objects as you intend, but may, instead, follow another direction. Some objects might suggest making faces, others building towers, others creating symmetry; others some inner direction towards beauty. To shape a possible experience, imagine what a child might do with a set of objects: arrange, sort or seriate them; build with them or trade them; make up a story or make a game.   

Puff ball explorations. Photos by Monica Malley
A meaningful and inspiring space. Search for a wonderful place for wonderful exploration. Consider unexpected, incidental, places, as well as the usual places like the maker space, recycle center, messy corner, or studio. Children could encounter and explore objects and materials where natural light shimmers and bounces, a window frames a view, or a mobile floats overhead. Places should be out of the traffic and oriented away from distractions. A child might find intriguing objects on a light table in a quiet corner, at a “story table,” laid out under a suspended branch, or in an alcove. Add mirrors for children to view themselves and their creations from different perspectives.

Presentation. Play around with how to present materials so they are attractive and help control mess. Preparation is key as is making adjustments to find the right mix. Create an inviting order: materials that provoke curiosity, help children make thoughtful choices, and make it as appealing to remove objects as it is to put them back. In the spirit of found objects, re-use interesting containers such as baskets, trays, boxes, and bowls. Think through the supplies children will need. Remember, great explorations are possible without glue or scissors. Work surfaces, seating for children and adults, easy reach to containers and shelves, and display of children’s work are central to presentation.  

Reality Check. There are very real challenges in creating opportunities that encourage child’s exploration of and facility with materials. Adequate storage is always elusive; back-up storage will be needed and is always scarce. Also:
  • Great care and good judgment is a must when collecting and using materials with young children because of potential choking hazards.
  • Involve staff. Take time to develop a shared understanding of the value of material exploration with all staff that will be affected: finding, arranging, facilitating, and picking up materials. Respect their concerns and also invite them to find solutions to display, mess, replenishment, and storage. Be sure to engage them to exploring materials to awaken their memories of discovering and delighting in objects as children and  to renew their pleasure and interest in materials.
  • Keep it playful. Keep it playful. Keep it playful. Keep it playful. Keep it playful.
I must admit that I haven’t lost my childhood fascination with found objects. When I work in the garden and come across a forgotten object, I keep it and place it in a bowl on a windowsill. There is a marble, a square nail, a plastic toy figure, a rusty key, and a ceramic tile. It helps tell my garden’s story.

For more inspiration and guidance:

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Consultant’s Role–or Four

Sometimes when I’m asked what I do, I pause to think how best to answer. Of course, I can and usually do reply that I am a museum planner. I also say I am a consultant or an independent professional. Borrowing a term from baseball sometimes I describe myself as a utility player. In addition to being a strategic planner or developing learning frameworks, I step into various roles to help build internal capacity. I coach, train, and sometimes fill in for a senior staff. I sometimes round out a team, as an educator on one team, an evaluator on another, or an experience developer on another. Serving as a utility player works for me and I suppose it does for other consultants as well.

Especially when I am asked what my work is like, I am tempted to reply that I am part lightning rod, part chiropractor, and part editor. It goes without saying that sometimes, I am all 3. This is not in any way a complaint, but an evolving set of insights after 20 years of consulting and what planning with museums involves.

Lightening Rod
Like the lightning rod atop a building protecting a structure from a lightning strike, a consultant often attracts an electric charge in the group, diverting it constructively. By nature of their work and relationship to an organization, consultants often walk into situations with which they are only somewhat familiar and connected. Yet, expectations can be high that this outside specialist’s experience and expertise will not only address the explicit task at hand, but also tackle other issues as well. A mere secondary association with one issue can be enough to attract questions, surface concerns, and set off a reaction. This is hardly surprising because without the strong, on-going relationships among staff and board and with a limited tenure, a consultant’s presence offers a relatively safe discharge of built-up energy.

When lightening does strike during a consultancy, it is likely to strike around what board and staff don’t talk about or won’t address. Serving as a lightning rod means listening for what is not being talked about, noticing who is quiet, who interrupts, or who dominates the discussion. It means registering what information is easy compared to seemingly impossible to come by. Along with glowing reports of grants received, fantastic new board members, great attendance numbers, there might be little mention of long-overdue raises, lack of meaningful follow-through on diversity and inclusion efforts, or an overly active and less-than-transparent executive committee. There might be a disproportionate mention of the past and how things were back then.

Being a lightning rod is also helpful when there is a boardroom bully, internal cliques, an unpaid founding director who will not leave, or a board that has decided to dismiss the executive director–the one who has arranged for the consultancy. Issues related to a capital project, a compressed timeline, an unrealistic campaign goal, or casually taking on debt, definitely attract a charge.

The first time and often the second time of carrying the charge come as a surprise. Gradually, however, knowing that the charge is likely and defusing it to help the museum, team or individual move forward feels more like an opportunity. A well-placed question, a few sidebar conversations, a new timeframe, rethinking the agenda, or calling the question can open up dialogue, create a sense of relief, or allow a graceful exit for a needed departure.

When circumstances change, when an organization grows, when pressures in one area of an organization mount, an organization and its people can feel off-kilter and out of alignment. Lack of alignment can place a drag on an organization’s performance and put a drain on its resources. Its organizational efforts feel uncoordinated, difficult, and frustratingly unproductive.

At times like these, a chiropractic yank can be what a museum needs. A good yank engages and aligns parts of an organization, from guiding ideas, to organizational structure, audience, staff and skills, resources, processes, and relationships with the community.

Museums, like any organization, are complex and changing. Different aspects of the organization are affected by and respond differently to various pressures and trends. Growth occurs at different rates. Mindsets change more slowly than policies. The organizational culture may be at odds with its current leadership style and community expectations. Staff allocations in some departments may reflect 2003 workloads or a mash-up of responsibilities added over the years.  

Not surprisingly, the need for a chiropractic tug often becomes apparent around periods of growth, decline, and transition, whether planned and unplanned. This could be a sign of healthy growth or an early warning signal of trouble.

In some cases a consultant may help identify the need for rebalancing and identify what kind of tug is needed and where. In other cases, a consultant’s work with a team or group provides new skills and a nudge towards more coordinated action. Often, the consultant’s work with the museum, developing a long-term plan or reimagining the museum, activates the big yank and a ripple of adjustments.

Relatively small adjustments like remixing teams and working groups will sometimes refresh and realign work and energy. A strong new lens might be needed to jettison outdated programs and partnerships; activities may still be cherished but have low relevance and place a demand on resources. Larger adjustment, like a new vision and mission, a strategic plan, restructured departments, and shifts in internal operations can activate bigger change. Finally, for a museum facing a critical juncture, a turnaround may be the organization-sized yank that is needed with restructured programs, finances, management, and marketing strategies.

When key pieces are in place, priorities clearly communicated with related accountability and incentives, there’s alignment. When plans make sense and staff see their part in the museum’s work and when teams work in a common direction towards a shared purpose the chiropractic yank is accomplishing its goal.
Museums are dynamic, productive settings, rich in possibilities. Ideas flow for exhibitions, fundraisers, projects, strategies, partnerships, programs, and marketing strategies. Museums translate their ideas and aspirations into multiple forms; they design, write, share, publish, post, and send e-blasts. An exhibition opens and there are programs, events, a social media campaign. A strategic plan takes shape and there are 7 goals.

Nevertheless, there can be too many ideas, too many priorities, too many words, images, and goals. The fact is, not all ideas are worth pursuing, even ones held passionately. Not all big ideas can be driving ideas. Not all ideas are right for a museum and work well with other ideas connected to its broader purpose. Not all ideas are the right size.

Sometimes the density of ideas simply gets in the way. This can happen when group think rules, a team chases every new idea, an idea won’t die, an organizational culture insists more-ideas-are-better, or frank assessment of ideas is risky. Sorting through the quality, quantity, and relevance of ideas, tasks, and language is an enormous challenge.

Enter the consultant as editor. A consultant can help trim, prune, prioritize, and sometimes take a weed whacker to a thicket of ideas and goals. Removing the excess begins to clear the view of what is important and what can be done well. Does a museum need different gallery activities everyday? Does it even have the bench strength to carry out this schedule? Are attendance projections overly optimistic? Are there strategies for getting there? Are they clear? Realistic?

Editing not only trims the number of strategies or goals to a manageable number, but also helps right-size them, their objectives, and impacts for the museum.

As a consultant reflects back what’s more and less important, a museum begins to find its own path forward. Are these words in the museum’s voice? Is this where the museum can do an outstanding job of delivering value because it has a record of achievement–not just ambition? Editing exposes the strong ideas, links efforts that engage powerfully with one another, and helps someone see their work, their role, or their accomplishments in a new light.  
If editing doesn’t work, a chiropractic yank might do which illustrates a truism about these 3 roles. They easily work together. Sometimes all 3 roles play out in quick succession. While consultants frequent this territory, it is not exclusively theirs. When a consultant isn’t around, anyone can and should step forward to move things along. Anyone can be on the alert for questions that need to be asked, ideas that need to be explored, lists that need to be trimmed, and voices that need to be heard.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Play and Playground Resources: Recent Finds

As the conversation around play in children’s lives expands and gets livelier in schools, in the media, and in museums, new resources and approaches to play appearing on the play landscape are worth noting. I am familiar with and appreciate resources like the American Journal of Play, U.S.Play Coalition, PlayCore, and KaBOOM! among others.

And I’m always on the look out for more play-related resources that inform, extend, and challenge my understanding of play. Of particular interest are resources that consolidate sources of information; relate play to broader issues like community engagement, well being, and learning; look at play across the lifespan or cross-culturally; incorporate international perspectives; connect theory, research, and practice; and contribute to a visual vocabulary for play environments

With any resource, familiar or new, I am interested in recent research, in better understanding how play and learning connect, and in promising strategies for supporting and extending a wider range of play in museums. Finally I simply enjoy the pleasure of play well-explained.

Even as I am pleased to keep encountering new resources, I am also surprised I have never heard of them before. Below are several resources I have come across recently. 

AnjiPlay, an internationally-recognized early childhood play curriculum developed by Chinese educator Cheng Xueqin, has been tested over the past 15 years in 130 public kindergartens in Anji County (China) serving more than 14,000 children from ages 3 to 6. A play curriculum in Chinese preschools may not seem to translate readily to museums. When described as “sophisticated practices, site-specific environments, unique materials and integrated technology,” however, AnjiPlay does seem to have something in common with museum environments for children. In fact, many of the guiding principles of AnjiPlay, love, risk, joy, engagement, and reflection could be found in a list of values for many children’s museums.

Play & Playground Encyclopedia is where you will find a Child’s Outdoor Bill of Rights; books like American Playgrounds, Revitalizing Community Space; descriptions of types of play, toys, and play environments (including children’s museums); and profiles of play advocates like Lady Allen of Hurtwood. The Encyclopedia is a collection of over 600 listings that relate to issues around children’s play, playgrounds, health and safety, including the people, organizations, and companies that contribute to children’s play and well being. The listings include links and citations to make P&P a veritable portal to the world of play.

Voice of Play is an initiative of IPEMA (International Play Equipment Manufacturers’ Association) that promotes the benefits of children’s play by providing information and resources to encourage the quality and quantity of children’s play and the use of playgrounds. Its coverage of the benefits of play, playground safety, the science of play, and its checklist for access are most relevant and helpful to museums. Results of its 2017 Survey on Play provide information on parents’ attitudes towards play behavior and frequency and is also a resource for building public awareness about play in communities and with stakeholders.

• Dezeen's Pinterest board on playgrounds From 2013 – 2016, Paige Johnson posted about interesting and varied play environments on Playscapes, from playgrounds on New Yorker covers to futuristic playgrounds of the past. (http://www.play-scapes.com) Without her posts, finding play environments that reflect an experimental mindset about children’s play environments and that break the mold in their design is sporadic. While not everything I could wish for on children’s play environments, Dezeen’s Pinterest board fills a noticeable void and will hopefully grow in the range and variety of what it highlights by artists, exhibit designers, architects, and landscape architects.

The Association for the Study of Play (TASP) The broad focus of this academically-oriented organization of play scholars reflects its interest in interdisciplinary research and theory construction related to play throughout the world. Mirroring the multi-disciplinary nature of play itself, TASP brings together perspectives on play from an impressively broad range of areas including anthropology, education, psychology, sociology, cultural studies, recreation and leisure studies, history, folklore, dance, communication, kinesiology, philosophy, and musicology. The Association’s annual conference and its publications (a newsletter, 3 issues of the International Journal of Play, and an annual volume of Play & Culture Studies) focus on sharing and disseminating information on the study of play.

More to add to the list? What resources on play and play environments would you like to share? In what ways are they valuable to you?