Monday, March 19, 2018

Children as Placemakers and Worldmakers

Place means something to children discovering their world, who they are, and where they belong. Sensitive to their surroundings, children’s encounters with spaces and places are immediate, multi-sensory, physical, emotional, and full of information. Place, whether it is small or large, familiar or new, invites children to explore, discover, make meaning, and learn; it shapes their understanding, experiences, and ideas. A powerful way for them to know and understand themselves and their world, place calls to them to climb, check out new perspectives, pour water over sand and see what happens, stack sticks, use their whole bodies to measure a space, and hypothesize about what happens here.

Children are natural and active placemakers. Their placemaking is an open, exploratory process of transforming a space through play, imagination, stories, and friendships that brings new meaning to it, builds their knowledge of the world, and expands their sense of self.

Children’s constructions are the most obvious expression of their placemaking and initially what placemaking suggests to us. Images of forts, hideouts, and dens come to mind, hiding places tucked into a hedge or behind the curtain of low spreading boughs. Found across many settings, special places may also be under tables, nestled among sand dunes, in the attic, enclosed by sofa cushions, or deep in the woods. Sometimes ephemeral, children’s places may also be where they return physically and in different seasons. Special places are sometimes enduring and remembered throughout life. 
Seemingly empty spaces­–under the stairs, the corner of a lot, behind the garage, the depths of a snow pile–summon children and invite them to explore their potential; they fill in with their imaginations. Qualities of space–openness, enclosure, height, scale, shape, fragrances, sounds and silences, different textures, even drops of water–suggest possibilities for what a space might become. An old, old tree, a distant view, a rise in the landscape, a remembered story can envelop a space and make an ordinary spot extraordinary. Likewise, something fascinating may call out to a child or pose a question. The blurred pathway that crosses a clearing, a place of brilliant light changing to deep shadow might inspire placemaking.

Placemaking-possibilities may be triggered incidentally: stumbling on an old wooden crate, digging up pottery pieces, discovering a dented hubcap, finding traces of past activities, or remembering the fragment of a story or song. But the power of a place is itself a compelling invitation. Sunlight, lacy shadows, or cool shade can summon placemaking. Subtle, unusual, and capricious environmental conditions–wind, mist, springs, echoes–are qualities that can add drama, mystery, and possibility for shaping space and supporting exploration.

The open-endedness of placemaking supports a wide range of activity. Children hunt for and gather materials; they build and modify their space; and they embellish it with finds and treasures. They climb, chase and challenge one another. Stories live in the dens and hideouts children create. New narratives about events of daily life, movies seen, the lives of dolls, action figures, and cherished animals enter and enliven life inside. Groups form and friendships grow in the shelter of a camp, fort, or snow cave.

Play and placemaking are closely connected in many ways but are also not the same. Clearly the forts, dens, and hideouts created during placemaking become places for play, contexts for pretend play, and backdrops for games. But, at the same time, placemaking is the serious work of children exploring, testing, understanding, and making their mark on the world.

More than Building
Placemaking goes well beyond building forts and hideouts. In this dynamic process of exploration, change, and discovery, children are making a place for themselves in the world. They are mastering materials, building confidence and competence, forging relationships, and shaping a sense of self.

German social intellectual Walter Benjamin noted in 1928,
Children are irresistibly drawn to the detritus generated by building, gardening, housework, tailoring, or carpentry… In using these things they do not so much imitate the works of adults as bring together, in the artifact produced in play, materials of widely differing kinds of new, intuitive relationships. Children thus produce their own small world of things within the greater one.

Children use materials and objects, their knowledge of how the world works, and ingenuity in placemaking. Loose parts, found objects, and discarded building materials are instrumental in transforming a space. They use what’s at hand: bricks, boards, boxes, and blankets; clay, cloths, crates, and cushions; sand, seeds, sticks, stones, string, and stumps; Legos, leaves, and license plates. 

Random as they might be, collected objects and materials contain valuable and actionable information about altering a space and realizing a vision. When they gather, move, and arrange materials; when they dig holes; when they drag a piece of sheet metal, children experience properties such as weight, mass, strength, and rigidity. They discover what different materials can do. Sticks help outline boundaries; some sticks bend while others are brittle and don’t. Blankets and branches span a distance; stones can weigh down a blanket; carefully stacked stones become a tower. 

In exploring places, hideouts, and landscapes, children are constructing an understanding of space and themselves. They measure space, size, and dimensions using their bodies, hands, eyes, and voices. Through their movements, they know the prepositions of space: under, above, inside and out, through, between, and on top of. Being in or out, up, down, or underneath, children encounter distant views and unusual perspectives, uncover new routes, and make connections to another time or place. With playmates, they work to make something big happen together. They share secrets, make-up ideas, negotiate how to work together, make up stories, layer in rules, and take on roles.

Children come to know something about themselves as well through placemaking. They test themselves
against the space, undertake feats, push their limits, and explore their identity. Can I pull myself up on this branch? Can I make my idea happen? Who am I in this space? What can I be here? They search for risk and the promise of challenge perhaps in building small fires, sharpening tools against a rock, or testing the ice for thickness. Moments of fear and triumph sweeten the experience.

As placemakers, children are experimenters, agents of change in charge of transformation. They find a spot that is undefined or open to being redefined and dictate its meaning. As they incorporate new materials and ideas, they continue to modify the space, its qualities, and meaning. This opportunity, ordering the physical surroundings in ways that express their own ideas and interests, is rare for children, but it engenders a feeling of competence and satisfaction. That anonymous patch of dirt transformed into a place with an original identity, yields a tangible, lasting sense of accomplishment.

Often children find something in a space that speaks to them of possibilities invites them to investigate their connection to the world. In working that space, they develop a relationship with it and come to know it, from its smell, sounds, or silences and from what has taken place there. A special place can stay with children when they are not there, over time, into their adult lives. Who doesn’t remember a place from childhood, created or found; a shelter for play, friendship, hiding; visited through changing seasons; and revisited over time in our memories?

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Monday, March 5, 2018

Prelude to a Learning Framework

Conducting the Effektorium at the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Museum   

Recently I was asked a question that I often hear, “How do we start developing a learning framework?” While the question is basically the same from one query to another, the context supplied by the following sentence varies.

• In the past we’ve had educational philosophies that we talked about, but that deep focus on what learning is and how the museum supports both has been missing.
• Our learning framework was developed as part of planning our new museum (or during a growth spurt); so much has changed since then and we know so much more about what happens here.
• We opened recently and our exhibit master plan which guided us through the expansion isn’t relevant in going forward.
• We developed a learning framework awhile ago. Its advocates have moved on and we have new staff who don’t feel a sense of ownership in that framework.
• We do have a learning framework that we have used heavily. It’s no longer current and we need to update it.
• We recently completed a strategic plan; it calls for our becoming a leader in learning in our community.
• We have a new Executive Director who had a learning framework at the previous museum and thinks we need one too.
• We’re gearing up for a major project (i.e. expansion, renovation, move). Our internal team will grow and we’ll be working with advisors and consultants. We need something that can guide all of us.
• Our community has changed and we’re not as relevant as we should be.
• We have grown a lot recently in attendance and staff; now our internal culture needs work around shared ideas about what learning is at our museum.

In spite of the noticeable differences among the museums described above–new museums, established museums, museums embarking on change, museums consolidating recent gains–these museums have something important in common. They are navigating the changing realities in which they operate: shifting societal issues and concerns, changing population, growing expectations of the museum, and an evolving learning landscape. Changes occur internally as well in organizational priorities, culture, and practices.

Whether planned or unplanned, external or internal, these dynamics impact a museum’s long-term learning value to its community. As the comments above indicate, such changes require action including new advances around a museum’s long-term learning interests. The need for a learning framework may be readily apparent or may take time to come into focus. Once a museum decides it needs a framework around learning, how it proceeds will vary according to its mission, audience, and perspective on learning. It will also be informed by how it works internally and engages its community in its work.

Many, if not most, museums are likely to take some preliminary steps as they decide on their approach to consolidating their most important ideas about learning and increasing their value as a learning resource. An informal prelude to a more formal process is a prime opportunity to prepare, to start slowly and build momentum towards a full effort when the time is right.

Build internal interest and support. A learning framework that will serve a museum’s long-term learning interests will have meaning for the entire organization. Developing it will actively engage some and will require the support of virtually all. Make time to talk informally with staff and trustees. What do they think a learning framework could accomplish for the museum? How would it help advance other priorities?  What do they think it should cover? What are their concerns about the process and the framework itself? Growing the circle of interest and support will be helpful during development of the framework and its implementation.

Take stock of how the museum’s learning interests are currently expressed. Whether a museum’s long-term learning interests are clearly articulated or not, they are present in some way. Assess what these interests are, how and where they are expressed, and how aware others are of them. Gather and read over grant proposals that describe the museum’s approach to learning and its impact. What do they say (and not say) that a learning framework might address? Gather articles, books, white papers, blogs, and research reports referenced within your museum or recommended by staff. Who are the theorists referred to most often? Ask staff about whose ideas around learning informs their thinking.

Learn from colleagues. Because more museums increasingly have developed and are updating learning frameworks, they are great sources of information. Contact colleagues at other museums about their learning frameworks; the various processes and approaches they have used; sections they have added and deleted; and different formats they have used. Ask about how they use the framework–and how much. Find out what they would do differently next time to strengthen their framework and make it more user friendly. Check out the work of Children’s Museum Research Network and the Spring 2016 issue of Hand To Hand.

Leverage strengths: Every museum has learning assets that relate to areas of expertise where it invests resources and intends to have visible impact. For one museum it might be strong community partnerships, for another a large and well-prepared docent cohort; it could be making as a learning strategy or a commitment to interdisciplinary learning. Look into how those areas might be incorporated into the process of developing the framework. For instance, could the museum hold conversations with partners and community leaders about how they view learning and the museum's role? Which of the museum’s strengths are most relevant to the community’s challenges and promise? Where are the best opportunities for advancing the museum’s learning interests?

Think outside the framework. The most important thing for a learning framework to accomplish is to develop a cohesive outlook across the organization on how the museum matters as a learning resource to its visitors and community. Arriving at this shared understanding should come from an engaging, productive process with lively discussion and deepening understanding. Prepare chewy questions: what is informal learning in our museum's context? What kind of learning is important here? Consider different ways to explore, capture, and communicate ideas and the relationships among them. Is a mind map of learning processes more helpful than a list? How does visually representing the relationship between learning processes, activities, and impacts help convey learning’s complexity? Perhaps the final framework is actually a giant illustrated poster rather than a thick, or even a thin, report.

Do any of the museum situations described at the top of this post resonate with the situation your museum is in? If so, you may be poised to develop a learning framework with and for your museum. Taking time early on to prepare will make a helpful difference along the way and in the framework you create. Additional resources below might be of help.

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