Thursday, January 31, 2019

Learning With and From Objects: Part 2

At one with materials

After thinking about children’s engagement with objects in museums over many years, I returned to some persistent questions as I read Sharon Shaffer’s book, ObjectLessons and Early Learning.

My interest in children learning with and from objects began decades ago and brought me to a career in museums. With each twist and turn in my work, I have recognized new aspects about children’s object-based learning in museums, wondering about the nature of the objects we select for them, the child’s and adult’s roles in exploring objects together, and the settings in which object-based learning occurs.  

My continuing exploration looks into what traditional museums do well with and for young children and what children’s museums do well with and for children. It is intended to both honor and nudge both types of museums to better serve children’s fascination with objects and their eagerness to learn from them.

Museums are public places defined by objects experienced and enjoyed in a wide range of ways by people across the life span, from infants to nonagenarians. Visitors to art museums, historic houses, science centers, zoos, children’s museums, and natural history museums engage and connect with objects. They may enjoy a rare glimpse of Leonardo’s Codex Leicester, join a tour of Hilma af Klint’s paintings, participate in an object lesson at the science center’s wave tank, or add sticker dots to the White Room at the children’s museum.

There are many ways to think about and explore objects in museums. Both traditional museums and children’s museums do. They are interested in and find ways to engage children in exploring objects, as sources of new information about the material world; as containers for stories; connections to another time and place, to home and everyday life; and as sparks to children’s capabilities and creativity.

The Great Beginning
Getting to know the world of things
Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota
The world of things is immediately and concretely available to children everywhere, even newborns. Early exploration of objects even in infancy is responsible for children’s early, spectacular progress in understanding the world and themselves. Simply put, exploring objects is essential to living and learning.

We know developmentally, from watching children play and from interactions with them that they are very interested in objects. Many developmental changes, in fact, are marked by how young children understand, use, and relate to objects. When infants shake, bang, wave, and mouth objects, they are learning about the objects’ properties and what an object does. Babies realize during their first 6 months that an object is present even when unseen. That two-fisted toddler with an object in each fist eagerly goes after a third object. Figuring out how to grasp, release, and pass objects back-and-forth is a major problem-solving feat. Between one and two years, babies use objects for symbolic play. That shoebox is a bed; the shell is a bathtub for a fairy; the cardboard tube is a telescope.

At a very early age, objects are central to all aspects of a child’s life. Everyday objects are labeled, named, and described with glee. An emerging sense of self is expressed in “my” chair or a favorite piece of clothing. Comforting objects—the stuffed animal, book, or blanket—are kept close for assurance. Handing an object to someone creates a social connection. The mirror, a fascinating object in itself, is especially so with a toddler’s face smiling back.  

Objects mark personal milestones throughout early childhood. When the pants are too short or shoes are too small, a child beams at the evidence of getting “bigger.” A hand-made clay bowl expresses a sense of accomplishment in understanding how to work with clay. Learning to ride a bike signifies practiced coordination and greater independence.

Fascination with objects doesn’t end at 18 months, 3, 5, or 8 years. What does change, however, is how children understand and engage with objects. In more actively occupying an expanding world, with a growing knowledge base, increasing ability to think abstractly, and new lenses of meaning, children’s knowledge of and relationship to the world of things grows rapidly.

What might sound like an early childhood development summary, in fact, establishes that objects are fundamentally connected to children’s learning and living. From infancy on, in every domain, children’s interest in objects, playing with and learning from them, is a powerful, nearly unstoppable life force that informs them about themselves, their capabilities, and the richness of the world.

What Objects Say
If objects matter enormously to children’s play, learning, and connection to the world and others, now and in their future, then selecting objects for children in museums also matters enormously.

Noah's Ark, The Skirball, (Los Angeles)
Objects are what define museums and what museums have in great number and variety. With their natural specimens, cultural artifacts, and works of art, museum collections are wonderful resources for beautiful, rare, intriguing, remarkable, striking, and marvelous objects. Many museums are generous in sharing objects in appropriate ways such as on tours and in object-based lessons that introduce children to the stories, beauty, and information they contain. Education collections make less-than perfect artifacts, poorly documented specimens, reproductions and models, and everyday objects and materials available for hands-on use in programs, discovery rooms, and family centers. While objects and materials are increasingly available in more museum settings, in most traditional museums access is generally limited.

Children’s museums offer quantities of objects often across virtually the entire museum, inside and out. There are bubbles and bubble wands; scoops, sieves, shovels, and funnels; costumes; balls, race cars, grocery store food (fabric or plastic?). There are Keva Planks, face paints, puppets, and sometimes even a real car, motorcycle, or tractor. There may be a walk-in scale model of a  pioneer cabin or a barn. Many objects are transformed interacting with light, water, and air; light, air, and water become objects to explore. Children’s artwork hangs along with art by community artists. In the early years area are mirrors, wooden vehicles, small foam blocks, shakers and noisemakers.

And often enough, teddy bears are in the restaurant; the wooden cars are in the water; and costumes are underfoot. While plentiful, objects here are sometimes viewed as ubiquitous, lacking in variety, quality, and condition.

Interestingly, both traditional and children’s museums limit children’s access to an array of objects out of concern for keeping objects in specific areas, object condition, and durability—but for different reasons. The rare or authentic object is favored in the case of traditional museums, pushing interesting objects out of the reach of children. Easy access to objects is favored in children’s museums, undermining the value of quality objects for children.  

Telfair Museum, Savannah GA
Yet, in between is a vast expanse of objects and materials that are fascinating to children, possess suitable complexity, and spark questions and ideas. Museums need to know this territory on behalf of children by:
  §  Observing children as they engage with objects, their choices, and language and what objects they collect;
  §  Sharpening their insights into the materials, features, and details of objects that capture and sustain interest, encourage resourcefulness, elicit stories, and invite connections;
  §Exploring the trade-offs between heavy use, durability, and the quality of objects;
  §  Expanding the search for everyday objects, loose parts, tools, expressive media, found objects, real stuff, and unconventional materials; and
§  Building a shared vocabulary capable of describing objects and making meaningful distinctions among terms like authentic, accurate, real, and real life.

Freedom to Explore
In any museum setting, a glorious array of objects and materials that invites and sustains children’s engagement accomplishes little without freedom to explore.

Exploring freely is similar to a dialogue; it builds on interests and capabilities and reveals new ones. Noticing how a prism changes light; crumpled paper resembles a bird; a set of antlers feel to the touch; and metal washers almost fly through the air before landing on a giant magnet activates this exchange.  

Amazeum, Bentonville AR
Time to interact with an object over and over again reveals vital information that extends exploration. The child grasps flexible tubing; wiggles it in different ways; looks through it; bends it into a circle. Touching, squeezing, smelling, seeing, listening (and, yes, sometimes licking) tell more about an object, and what it can and can’t do. Exploring objects might mean taking them apart, putting them together again, and wondering how an object would work if parts were put together differently.
Object dialogues with potential require longer investigations without interruption. Just as two minutes is hardly long enough for a good conversation, it is not enough for a meaningful exploration of an interesting object. New discoveries, new questions, and remixing ideas have barely started. Engagement with peers, their ideas, and previous experiences have yet to enrich this dialogue.

While children can figure out a great deal about objects messing about on their own, adult support and conversation can add a richness to these endeavors. Joining the child’s exploration begins with noticing what the child’s eyes notice, not channeling the interaction to a specific lesson or objective. These are conversations that can support children in making connections between an object and previous experiences with similar objects and materials, answering questions, or introducing new information of interest to the child. They are also opportunities for children to express ideas and new understandings or explore complex ideas like identity, caring, and inclusion.

Freedom to explore opens the door to the kind of experience and transforming of an object into a new way of knowing it that Elee Wood and Kiersten Latham write about in The Objects of Experience.

Context Matters
Sand play in the quarry
 Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota
All objects exist in a context from which they acquire meaning. The setting in which objects are experienced can be simple with little relevant information or rich with information that helps make sense of the object and find connections to it.

Museum spaces, whether galleries, studios, classrooms, or outdoors, convey information about the objects and activities selected and presented. While the contextual approach varies among museums and even within a single museum, the physical setting is, nevertheless, integral to how visitors experience objects, artifacts, specimens, works of art, loose parts, tools, and props.

Because children rely on their senses and relatively limited previous experiences to know objects, context is an important part of how children engage with and know objects. Context offers clues about what a space is about, sparks ideas about how to engage with available objects, creates personal connections, and supports children’s learning. Consequently, children’s museums have emphasized creating a context for objects, sometimes very elaborate and immersive.

In this contextual approach, there are not just pieces of hardware, washers, wing nuts and molly bolts, but there is a wall of hardware, bins, a work surface in a hardware store environment. A grocery store, familiar in many children’s museums, is a familiar everyday context for even very young children who know a great deal about markets from errands with parents, and are also attracted to the many objects on the shelves. These spaces are outfitted with real objects and tools that characterize them. 

When the object is the context
Fewer traditional museums outside of historic houses provide a relevant information-filled context for object exploration. Period rooms in some art and history museums show objects in an accurate historical and cultural context. In discovery rooms, hands-on spaces, discovery carts, and family centers, traditional museums increasingly take setting into account to provide contextual information for meaning making. Hands-on exhibits, however, in an otherwise non-interactive museum are quite different from hands-on access to objects all across a hands-on museum.

Contexts and situating the object in a supportive and relevant environments serve children well. Beyond the familiar grocery store exhibit is a wide range of inviting contexts.

• The object and the context are the same inside a bus or the Japanese House 
• Swaying in a textile playground
• Thousands of sticker dots transform the white room, shifting foreground and background 
• Environments that invite exploration of color, light, objects, and materials
• Outdoor gardens, forests, sculpture gardens
• Object Theaters such as Mill CityMuseum’s Flour Tower 

Access and Availability
Ultimately, children's engaging and meaningful encounters with objects relies on access and availability. Children benefit from more opportunities to engage with a wider variety of compelling objects and materials, across more museum settings.

For both traditional and children’s museums, increasing access to interesting objects relies on resources and resourcefulness around this priority. If a museum intends to be object centered for children, then availability is a question of how, not whether. 
Museum of Math, New York, NY
In more museum settings, availability of objects and materials is increasing. Some of the popularity of maker spaces in museums is, likely as objects-rich settings with materials, supplies, tools, resources, and machines. More art museums like the Twin Cities' mia and the Denver Art Museum make hands-on materials available to children in family areas. Discovery rooms and touch-and-see labs, spaces set aside from traditional museum galleries in many natural history museums, feature objects and artifacts for children’s hands-on exploration.

As object rich as they are, children’s museums nevertheless have significant opportunities to increase the variety of object-based experiences in exhibits, programs, and facilitated moments across the museum. Opportunities and possible directions for both children’s and traditional museums come from both fields including:
        • A teaching collection where objects are handled under the trained eye of a museum educator.
• Sharing stations such as Nature Exchange at Kidspace in Pasadena where children bring and trade nature objects
• Incorporating object explorations into programs and exhibits by prepared staff and volunteers: hidden objects; collections of everyday objects like wheels, "I Spy" tours.  
• Guided exploration of artwork already displayed in many children’s museums—an artist in residence, children’s artwork, etc.
• Finding quantities of unconventional materials. Bubble wrap has fascinating qualities especially in large quantities which invite wrapping, dancing, and popping.
• Recruiting and training docents in children’s museums to facilitate engagement with objects.  
• Exploring the possibility of ecosystems of objects: grow gourds, collect and dry seeds, make shakers and containers; explore along with gourd containers from different cultural groups.

Reimagining Children’s Object Exploration in Museums
If children’s engrossing, enriching experiences with objects is a value for museums, then thinking about what this looks like in deep and informed ways is necessary. Meaningful child-object engagement relies on: 

• Believing in children’s capabilities to learn with and from objects from a very early age;
• Creating a collection of objects recognized for their compelling qualities for children’s engagement;
• Allowing for time and freedom to engage and connect with objects;
• Support from a more knowledgeable partner, peer or adult, who follows the child’s interest;
• Rich, relevant context that creates connections; and
• Access and availability to objects across the museum.

       I hope my interest and concern about how museums create opportunities for children to engage with objects and how they might do it better will encourage others to explore further.

• Steven Conn. (2010) Do Museums Still Need Objects?  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press
• Rebecca Schulman Herz, Museum Questions:
• Rebecca Schulman Herz. “Where are the objects? Why is this a museum?” Curator (May 2017).
• Eugene Dillenburg “What, if Anything, Is a Museum?” Exhibitionist. Spring 2011.
• Hilde Hein . The Matter of Museums. Journal of Museum Education, Vol. 36, Number 2, Summer 2011
• Phillip Kennicott. “Is it a museum or not? The question is worth asking.” The Washington Post. October 2018.
• Scott G. Harris. 2002. Perspectives on Object-centered Learning in Museums. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlenbaum Associates Publishers.
• Elizabeth Wood and Kiersten F. Latham. (2016) The Object of Experience: Transforming Visitor-Object Encounters in Museums. New York: Routledge.

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