Saturday, June 9, 2018

There Are Loose Parts, ... and Then There Are Loose Parts

Loose parts, or at least the term, has captured attention and imaginations in museums, early childhood centers, libraries, nature centers, parks, and playgrounds. The assorted, moveable and found materials and objects that spark, enrich, and extend children’s play and imaginations can be almost anything: feathers, pinecones, corks, bricks, shells, spools, or sticks.

In a world where increasingly little is left to chance in childhood and play, loose parts are wonderfully unscripted. These uncategorizable pieces and parts come with no specific directions for what they are or what children might do with them. Tucked into pockets, resting as a sedimentary layer in the bottoms of backpacks, clutched in small hands, or reverentially collected at the shore, children find, pick up, and carry treasured objects. They combine, line up, take apart, exchange, and rearrange loose parts in countless ways. In their play, children are writing the operations manual for shells, a cache of pinecones, bottle caps, or buttons with their play and imagination.

Loose parts, however, are not just stuff, junk, or a jumble of pieces and parts no one else wants or can use. To be sure there are treasures in discards and by-products of households, industry, and, nature. But since children explore the rich possibilities of these objects, meaningful exploration relies on thoughtful selection. Thinking with their hands bodies, minds, and imaginations, they observe, ask questions, and have ideas. They arrange and change objects, their settings, or even themselves. These explorations and creations are beautiful, but they're not necessarily art.

When children build, collage, or trade objects, they are comparing, sequencing, and seriating. They are valuing color, size, shape, and materials. As they lift, move, and occasionally drop glass pebbles, marker caps, or paper clips, they are discovering the properties of glass, plastic, and metal. In building with tubes and discs, they deal with balance and stability, use spatial reasoning, and solve problems three-dimensionally. New words about shapes, texture, designs, and structures are essential to describing how the fabric feels, the certain flat blue disc that is needed, or the delight a child is feeling.

We might think that only young children are inclined to explore possibilities and make discoveries with loose parts. In fact, anyone with limited experience to freely follow their curiosity and ideas about interesting loose parts–and do so often–will be engaged in similar ways. As more and more children of every background have fewer experiences of messing around with “stuff” from the basement workbench, the sewing drawer, or the town dump, they have less fluency with materials, objects, and their own vocabulary of materiality.

What Makes Good Loose Parts?
There are many objects that can be gathered for exploring in a classroom, an exhibit, home, under the bushes, or at the playground. Are all loose parts equal? What makes the difference between materials that foster meaningful, extended engagement and ones that fail or minimally engage children’s delight, imaginations, and experience?

As Without Windows Misha blogger asks, why not just shop at the dollar store? Cheaper materials do save money. But, he argues, their low cost is at the expense of child labor somewhere else. Why not make loose parts from scrap lumber? The measuring, cutting, and sanding are time consuming. Keva Planks/Kapla Blocks probably do it better with greater precision. Besides, loose parts are more than blocks. 

Why not use toys or commercial play objects as loose parts? Usually these are single purpose play objects. Once a child has mastered the key function—pushing the button to make a pinwheel spin—the child is ready for more. Due to their cost, these objects are seldom in great enough quantities to combine in novel ways. Ultimately, however, when children use designed toys, even very well designed ones, they become consumers of someone else’s creativity. With loose parts, children exercise their own.

Rich in Possibilities
While dollar store items and commercial toys may be loose and moveable, they lack other vital qualities that imbue loose parts with powers of attraction, fascination, exploration, and discovery: open-endedness, beauty, and abundance.

As Antoinette Portis’ book, Not a Stick points out, a stick is no single thing in children’s play.
It can be a wand, a baton, a fishing rod, or a snake. Like other open-ended materials, it is responsive to children’s questions, interests, and ideas and capable of changing use or meaning in a flash. Often an object’s very simplicity and its ambiguity lend it versatility and provoke new ideas. Small tree cookies, for instance, are variously stacked into a tower, used for money, or incorporated into a design–all in quick succession.

Features like shape, color, texture, and smell make loose parts even more interesting, suggesting new paths to explore. A child may gather all the red objects or all those that sparkle; arrange keys in a radial pattern and then end-to-end in a train; set pine cones on end to create a forest and arrange them in a spiral. Loose parts sized for small hands allow children to pick up easily, bring close for careful visual inspection, and arrange in many ways. Adding paper and markers to the mix can further extend the exploration and thinking.

While saying that beautiful loose parts are more engaging than “ugly” ones may seem obvious, deciding what makes some beautiful is not. In the eye of the beholder will always be at work, but some qualities tend to make loose parts attractive and promising, if not beautiful.

When all of an object’s qualities are not immediately apparent, the objects can become more extraordinary. Up close, tiny sparkles in the stones are apparent, as is the fringe of the Burr Oak acorn caps. The crack in the stone looks like a bird. Objects that are similar but not identical are intriguing; natural variations in color, pattern, shape, carry information, reveal the diversity in nature and invite new language.

Ordinary objects and materials also become more fascinating when combined and mixed. Light interacting with objects shines through, reflects off of them, and casts shadows. Adding mirrors, multiplies objects. Water splashed on objects intensifies colors and makes them shiny. Combining ordinary objects points to new possibilities: shells arranged on an oval mat creating a mandala; sticks alternating with stones in a giant running pattern; a giant star defined by sticks filled with colored leaves; or multi-colored glass beads pressed into a large disk of clay.

Ideas for what is beautiful may be particular to the context. In a nature preschool, for instance, natural and local materials might be a high priority. Without Windows blogger, Misha, is particularly interested in “loose parts from the earth” that “can be disposed of in the earth.” Tree cookies, sand, rocks, and acorns might be valued over cardboard and buttons.

At the same time, manufactured discards and by-products can be compelling when carefully selected. Clear plastic colored shapes, especially when placed on a light table, or multi-colored plastic caps in great quantities can inspire designs, patterns, narratives, and self-portraits. Discarded objects like tubes, reels, and gaskets in similar shapes and sizes, and deliberately chosen in only black and white invite exploration of shape without the distraction of.  

As important as open-ended and beautiful materials are, seeing objects in great abundance jolts us out of our usual mindset. Perceptions of the object itself and what it can do change. Seemingly ordinary objects like buttons, brushes, cardboard tubes, or rubber bands suddenly seem remarkable. The abundance of objects feels contagious, infecting us with a sense of expanding possibilities. Vast quantities seem to confer permission to explore freely, take risks, and make mistakes.

When time is also in abundance–when there is time to look closely at each pebble, feel and compare them, arrange them just so, and rearrange them again–then the possibilities for thinking and creating that loose parts offer also expand. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

32 Years and 25 Linear Feet of Hand To Hand

Hand To Hand editor, Mary Maher and 32 years of
the publication (Photo: Julia Bland)

During InterActivity 2018 in Raleigh (NC), tables stretched across the convention center lobby. Over the 4 days of the conference, participants, presenters, and vendors moved around the tables loaded with stacks of back issues of Hand To Hand (H2H), the Association of Children’s Museums' quarterly publication. Boxes and boxes of back issues, as far back as 1986, had been shipped from ACM’s Arlington (VA) office to allow members to browse and collect issues and hopefully reduce storage for back issues in ACM’s new offices.

Some conference goers passed and glanced; others stopped, browsed, and selected issues to take home. Yet with so much happening during the conference–colleagues seen only once a year; multiple sessions and study tours; and a MarketPlace full of vendors–absorbing what these stacks of issues mean for our field–its growth, change, and increased potential–was a challenge.

Thirty-two years is a long time, more than a generation. When 32 years of a field is explored in 4 issues in each (or most) of those years, countless stories and threads emerge making our field’s interests, concerns, and growth visible. And impressively so. 

Initially Hand To Hand was a newsletter with a mix of long articles and short bits of information about exhibits, museum openings, people. From 1986 to 1993, Linda Eidecken was publisher/editor; she wrote the newsletter in cooperation with the AAYM (American Association of Youth Museums) board. In 1993, what had evolved into the Association of Youth Museums (AYM) bought Hand To Hand from Eidecken. Mary Maher took over as editor and designer and has continued in that role for 25 years. A few other changes came with this transition. The news and information portion became AYMNews and H2H strengthened its focus on substantive articles, case studies, museum initiatives, and reports.   

Scanning the stacks of issues on the tables, H2H design changes were easy to catch. For years, H2H was a duotone (black plus 1 PMS color), tabloid size (11 x 17), and usually 8 pages. Decisions about color and size changed as web and PDF formats gained in use. In 2007, H2H was a 16-page, 8-1/2 x 11 publication. The first full color issue was printed in Spring 2015. The most recent issue, a 32-page double issue, covered the history and culture of children’s museums.  

These stacks are more than a “fire sale,” more than a publications list, and more than cardboard boxes in storage. These approximately 120 issues of Hand To Hand tell something about where we started, where we are, where we are going, and how we are getting there.

In scanning issues of H2H, some consistent areas of interest come through, as do the evolving ways in which children’s museums–and increasingly other types of museums–work and engage to address them.

An enduring interest in children and their wellbeing is evident in issues on play (Summer 1998, Fall 1999, and Winter 2008), humor (Fall 2000), health and wellness (Fall 2006), and cognitive development (Fall 1990). Strong roots in early childhood are reflected in a research review on young children in museums (Summer 1996) and a Great Friend to Kids Award to Head Start Founders (Summer 2007). From the beginning Hand To Hand has served as a way to look reflectively and critically at what a children’s museum is (Spring 1987, Fall 1992, Winter 2014/2015) and has given us the opportunity to be a community of learners around topics like these.

Several topics such as planning, exhibits, research, visitor services, and play appear in the very first issues
The most recent issue of Hand To Hand 
chronicles the history and culture of
children's museums
and again over the next decades. This is not simply repeating a topic with new titles and authors. Rather, topics are reframed and reflect greater understanding of a topic and how to address it.

Following one topic, research, across 32 years shows the focus recurring and shifting in how it has been addressed and what it suggests about the field’s maturation. In the Spring 1989 issue that explored research and evaluation in children’s museums, Mary Worthington wrote, “Who Should Do Evaluation?” The Winter 2004 and Spring 2005 issues focused on research, in particular, integrating it into museum practices. When the Fall 2014 issue, Revving up Research, came out, the focus was on composing a research agenda for the field. By Spring 2016, an entire issue was dedicated to the Children’s Museum Research Network that has been active in conducting research across 10 research network member museums.

Early on, themes and articles in H2H focused internally on the museum, an understandable interest of museums that were just opening, growing fast, and figuring out what a children’s museum was. Some articles such as “Running a Non-Profit” (Winter 1991) were nuts-and-bolts. Others looked at setting up a children’s advisory board (Winter 1988 and Winter 1989) and conducting self-studies (Spring 1992). Profiles of exhibits and museums in most issues offered information and examples of exhibit topics and design to staff hungry for ideas.   

Over the 32 years, more articles and issues have reflected the complex nature of children’s museums’ interests. Topics that may have initially seemed well defined, like play, programs or audience, have been increasingly understood in greater depth intersecting with other interests, like culture, partnerships, leadership, and sustainability. This awareness comes through in issues on Enhancing the Visitor Experience to Increase Revenue (Summer 1993), Planning for Change (Winter 2002 and Spring 2003), and The Cultural Meaning of Play and Learning (Winter 2008).

Just as a museum makes a journey from self-interest to a common good, so has the children’s museum field. This is apparent in an increasing focus on the larger environment in which museums operate. World events came to the forefront in 9/11 Response (Winter 2001) and After The Disaster following Hurricane Katrina (Winter 2006). With time, the global stage assumes a higher profile in Children’s Museums Around the World (Fall 2008) and Global Issues Impact, Local Impact (Spring 2013).

This journey towards a common good, of being useful in their communities is increasingly noticeable across 32 years of Hand To Hand. The Summer 1990 issue, Museums in Downtown, was the first to place children’s museums on the community landscape. A growing sense of responsibility to be engaged with the community and a deepening understanding of their potential impact are evident in the focus of somewhat more recent issues. Do The Right Thing: Children’s Museums & Social Responsibility (Winter 2000); Shared Values, Many Voices (Summer 2002); a double issue on diversity (Spring and Summer 2007); Declare Your Impact (Summer 2009) and Social Justice (Fall 2016) have probed these topics from more perspectives and emerging contexts.

The first issue of Hand To Hand
featured a profile of
Elaine Heumann Gurian
In “Looking Back 23 Years” (Spring 1988), Mike Spock reminded us that our field is for somebody, not about something. His insight has been invaluable in understanding who we are as children’s museums. It is equally helpful in recognizing the source of children’s museums’ strengths to which every single issue of Hand To Hand attests. Our field is defined by people, their collegiality, and generosity. By-lines, photos, and interviews amplify the centrality of people in this enterprise whether it is an interview with Brad Larson (Winter 1997), Elee Wood’s by-line (Fall 2016), or Elaine Heumann Gurian’s photo on the first issue of Hand To Hand (Winter 1986-87).

Hand To Hand fully relies on the people who contribute to every issue. In fact, without them, there would be no Hand To Hand. The publication has benefited greatly not only from the contributions of colleagues in our field but also from many outside the field. They have shared personal insights, professional knowledge, organizational lessons, and sometimes, personal loss. They have also generously shared their time and writing talents. While the circle of authors keep widening, there are many who have written several H2H articles.

Thirty-two years of issues also demonstrate that children’s museums have a wealth of friends who have helped the field and enriched Hand To Hand. Loyal friends like George Hein, Professor Emeritus at Lesley University, have written on many topics for Hand To Hand over the years. The voices of researchers like Karen Knutson and Kevin Crowley, UPCLOSE (Spring 2005); museum professionals from outside the field like Kathryn Hill at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Winter 1993); and museum planners like John Jacobsen (Summer/Fall 2017) and designers like Peter and Sharon Exley (Spring 2008) have extended the range of expertise and perspectives covered. Countless authors including Jim Collins, Richard Florida, Tom Kelley, Richard Louv, and Neil Postman have shared their work with the field through InterActivity presentations highlighted in Hand To Hand.

Hand To Hand would not have grown and evolved, guided and reflected our maturing field were it not for its steady-handed, word-loving editor, Mary Maher. Working closely with ACM staff she frames issues, finds writers, and works with each one. She designs each issue, and transforms an often fuzzy but promising idea into a quarterly publication that goes to museums, members, and authors, across the U.S. and the world.

So, when the next issue of Hand To Hand arrives, spend some quality time with it. In the meantime, pull out some of your favorite H2H back issues or go on-line and have a look. Take time to reflect, enjoy, and appreciate the contributions of so many in our field. And think about contributing yourself.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Rewind: Children at the Center

Children at the center has a ring to it and, at least in my networks, is referenced often enough to be familiar to many. But, is it a powerful tool or an empty buzzword? Yes–and both. With some teams I work with, children at the center sparks an interested, highly engaged response. From other teams the phrase produces a polite blank or bored look, signaling a readiness to move on.

A suspiciously attractive phrase, I nevertheless think placing children at the center extends well beyond a professional belief invoked with passion. What is at the center is what is important. Occupying a central position serves as a reference point towards which other considerations and actions are oriented. Children at the center asserts that children, their healthy growth and development; their resilience in the face of adversity, small or large; what is in their long term interest; and their joy are all important.

At its fullest, this idea offers an asset-based approach to building social capital in communities–better day-to-day experiences for children now as well as brighter futures. Children at the center has the capacity to align interests among multiple organizational partners to work towards long-term change for a community, its families and children. Finally, it is a compelling idea with enough gravitational pull to consolidate and focus a shared set of understandings and practices to better serve children in a museum, school, childcare, or community program.

While placing children at the center can advance these significant strategic, organizational, and learning interests, it does so only with deliberate and steady work among a group, or even an active network, of people. The work starts with developing a deep, clear, shared understanding of what placing children at the center means. 

Seeing Strengths
Seeing children as strong, capable, competent, and full of potential is at the core of placing children at the center. The strengths and possibilities of even the very youngest child refute the easy assumption that children are simple and in need of correction, direction, and filling up with facts. Through movement, thought, reason, and language, infants and toddlers notice, follow sensations, organize information, seek out others to engage with, and make and change meaning. We might even view children as the original hackers, with their innovative customization of their world.

Children’s amazing potential is captured in an experiment of delivering a box of tablet computers in sealed boxes to two remote Ethiopian villages. The purpose was to see if illiterate children with no previous exposure to written words could learn how to read by themselves by experimenting with the tablet and its preloaded programs. Within 5 days, children had opened the boxes, figured out how to operate the tablets and were using an average of 47 apps each. 

It is not just children in remote villages with comparatively limited opportunities to spark an eagerness to explore that illustrates their strengths and capabilities. Evidence from everyday moments abounds. Children use others, often adults, as tools to accomplish their goals: to access something on a high shelf, roll the ball back to them and play, decode text, lift them up for a better view. Children observe others doing something they can’t do and then imitate them. Now they do it by themselves.

Our perspective influences what we see in children’s curiosity, expressions, persistence, and successes. When we see a strong, capable child, we see an active agent in exploring and learning. We view a child’s marks, questions, and choices as intention to make meaning–something we value greatly. We notice an extended focus on a purpose a child has invented herself rather than presuming a short attention span. We believe each child has something to say; each brings a narrative to the moment. It might be an observation about time, such as one 5-year old’s chronology of  world events, “Dinosaurs, Baby Jesus, the Knights, and me.” These are some of the magnificent offerings of children.

New Starting Points
Museums that internalize a view of children as strong and competent are in a position to activate the potential each child has. This sounds ambitious, and it is. The careful work of placing children at the center requires a deliberate shift from creating exhibits and programs that fill heads with facts or impress museum peers to centering the museum’s language, thinking, planning, and actions around children.

Learning from, with, and about children offers significant new starting points for a museum’s work. Who are these children? What do we know about them? What fascinates them? How do they explore, think, and make meaning? If children are the focus and source of what is important, then everyone across the museum becomes interested, patient observers. This is precisely the same as everyone being alert to safety everywhere and all the time.

Focusing on children’s strengths and capabilities reveals their competence as authors of their own experiences. They follow interests, investigate materials, make choices, modify approaches, and express possibilities. Children’s use of their many languages or ways of representing and expressing their ideas and emotions comes through in their spoken and written words, visual arts, drama, movement, and more. This focus opens new understandings about children and allows a museum to imagine ways the child’s agenda can be the starting point for explorations that will generate new thinking. Approaches shift to make room for children’s competence in building knowledge and seeking meaning in the environments the museum creates, the interactions it facilitates, and the relationships it nurtures. Rethinking environments, experiences, exhibits, and programs that invite children to wonder and extend their investigations is inevitable.

The sustained work of placing children at the center relies on listening to, being responsive to, and sharing in a child’s world attentively and respectfully. While evidence of children’s thinking and connections and their own words about what they are doing and understanding is rich, varied, and plentiful, it is all but overlooked in most settings. Documentation, an approach that gives visibility to children’s processes and accomplishments, brings together listening, recording, photographing, and reflecting on children’s actions, work, images, and words.

In making children’s thinking visible, documentation gathers evidence of an individual child’s or a group of children’s thinking from their words, drawings, questions, actions, and exchanges. In a program, at an exhibit, during a drop-in activity, and while prototyping, staff may listen to a child’s questions about what keeps a ball aloft; observe a child's repeated adjustments of objects around a light source to change shadows; notice a child’s persistence blowing bubbles; or reflect on a child’s varying the base of block structures. Notes, transcripts, photos, and children’s drawings that staff collect fuel discussion and interpretation about how children approach and think about the experiences the museum has created for them, or that they have created or discovered. Documentation is an iterative process of reflection, distillation, and sharing. It yields insights into how to support and extend children’s explorations, and modify environments where children will choose to invest their curiosity, imagination, and creativity.

At its best, documentation is a teaching, learning, and research tool. It illuminates children’s thinking and learning to them, to parents, and to staff. It frames new questions, and informs future planning.

Centering the Museum Around Children
There is no straight, short, or simple path to placing children at the center of a museum in a meaningful way. However, when educators, developers, designers, and visitor service staff from across a museum wholeheartedly and collectively engage in placing children at the center, momentum builds and change occurs along many dimensions.

Seeing children as strong, capable thinkers, planners, and doers readily translates into seeing colleagues across the organization as capable and competent. Colleagues are recognized for bringing valued perspectives and complementary expertise needed to advance a shared vision. Staff working in different departments become collaborators in explorations and documentation that informs and deepens their work. A larger community of learners and partners with and around children takes shape.

Centering the museum’s language, thinking, planning, and practice around children takes hold gradually. New and more ways of placing children at the center begin to appear earlier in planning an exhibition, developing programs, framing the budget, hiring and training staff, forming partnerships. Through each project insights into children’s strengths and capabilities deepen, revealing new insights. A shared vocabulary develops. New ways to support more elaborate explorations unfold. Cycles of documentation are tried, shared, and modified. Existing practices evolve and new ones emerge, clustering into an increasingly supportive set of everyday practices with children at the center. Museum-wide practice aligns thinking and links qualities of environments, experiences, exhibits, programs with children’s thinking and knowing.

All museums have aspirations. Yet few actually translate these aspirations into change at a meaningful scale for a community, its citizens, or even itself. A shared vision and a sustained commitment are required. Placing children at the center of a museum’s long-term interests can be a way a museum matters in the life of its community. This commitment may be adopted as a value, a foundational principle, or a vision statement such as, “We envision a child-centered community that makes decisions based on what is in the long-term interest of the child's well-being.” 

Stated clearly and at the highest strategic level, placing children at the center can inspire, guide, and unify a museum’s varied and complex work across multiple formats and over time.