Saturday, May 9, 2015

Learning About Learning: Circuit Blocks and Labels

The Museum is partnering with Brown University on a major National Science Foundation-funded project (award #1223777) to study how children develop scientific thinking skills and understand their own learning processes.  Museum researcher Suzy Letourneau shared this project update.

Last summer, the Museum opened the new Mind Lab space, which hosts ongoing research about children’s learning and development by the Museum and its academic collaborators.  When researchers aren’t in the space, there is a self-directed “circuit block” activity with batteries, motors and buttons that can be connected in many different configurations.  On the surface the activity is about electricity and circuits, but the deeper message we hope to convey is the important role of exploration and experimentation in learning about cause and effect.  The activity draws on scientific research that shows that when children make their own discoveries about how things work, they explore and learn more deeply.  Thus, we purposefully did not include step-by-step instructions with the blocks to encourage children to test their ideas and make discoveries.  While prototyping the activity, we found that children often systematically tried the blocks to see how they worked, experimented with different ways of making a circuit, and collaborated or shared their ideas with one another – all evidence of learning.


The exhibits team tested resources for adults to support children’s thinking as they play, including observation tools and prompts caregivers can use while playing with their kids (for example, questions to ask when kids get stuck or aren’t sure how to get started).  Caregivers who tried these resources were more engaged in the activity themselves, either by observing while their children explored and made discoveries, or by helping them work through challenges in different ways.  The team also created labels to communicate how children learn through experience, exploration and play, and offer research evidence to back up these ideas. 

The labels are based on Museum staff’s discussions and knowledge about the ways that play and exploration support children’s learning and development, and are informed by conversations with dozens of caregivers.  We asked caregivers what they noticed about their children’s play, what they thought about how children learn through play, and what questions they had about these topics.  Caregivers often agreed that kids learned through play, were very interested in research on children’s learning (including the research that happens at the Museum), and wanted to learn more.

We created prototype labels and resources using low-cost, temporary materials so we could get feedback and make changes easily.  Some show specific examples of different ways that children can learn through play, and others give illustrated summaries of research studies.  We asked visitors: What did the new materials make them think about or wonder?  Which parts were most interesting?  Was anything confusing or unclear?





Based on comments and suggestions, we revised the labels in the fall to make our messages clearer.  We’re also creating more illustrated research summaries, since they were visitors’ favorites.  And we added a “Guide for Grown-ups” to the circuit block activity to suggest ways that caregivers can support their children’s learning as they play together.  Over the next few months, Mind Lab will continue to be a site for ongoing research and prototyping that will help Museum staff learn alongside visitors.

Visit the Museum’s website and see previous blog posts for more information about the Learning About Learning project.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

PlayWatch: Making Tracks

This story was shared by Experience Coordinator Maggie Dawson  

We had a very dedicated visitor who was so fun to watch. He was about 3 years old and I saw him building a line of blocks. He would place one block at a time and once it was set down, he would step back, place his hands on his hips, shake his head, and run to select another piece.

His mom said that he has done this before and is constantly doing similar projects at home. I told her that it was wonderful to watch him plan this because ThinkSpace, the exhibit he was in, is dedicated to spatial thinking and he is demonstrating his own spatial skills. She told me that his goal was to make it all the way down the ramp!

It was also fun because other visitors watched him and were cheering for him. One father even stopped his toddler from destroying it because he was so impressed. As you can see, he made it pretty far before the Museum closed!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Unicorns Appear at Providence Children's Museum!

Providence Children’s Museum is part of Unicorns in Residence: Providence, an imaginative, interactive art experience taking place across the city this spring and summer.  Designed by New York artist Camomile Hixon and curated by Helene Miller, the project invites families to join a search for a missing unicorn and spot the mythical creatures in different forms at Providence parks, museums, libraries and other cultural organizations.

For its role in Unicorns in Residence, the Museum hosts several playful components from April 15 - May 15:
  • Step into the “PlayPhone” – a life-sized glittered phone booth – to report a sighting to the missing unicorn hotline.
  • Examine posters and photographs of the missing unicorn at recognizable locations around the world.
  • Listen to recordings shared by others about their enchanted unicorn encounters.
  • See two sparkly unicorn figures that are part of a larger “unicorn stampede,” which was recently on view at Providence Public Library.

Credit Ania Simpson
Inspired by the project, the Museum is also offering accompanying activities exploring mythical creatures.  Decorate unicorn horns and dragon scales, draw with unicorn dust, play a unicorn shoe toss game and more in Discovery Studio most days from April 13 - May 1, and meet the unicorn artist on Friday, April 17 from 5:30 - 7:00 PM; visit our web calendar for details.

To learn more about Unicorns in Residence, visit unicornsinresidence.com.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A Time of Change – and a New Strategic Plan

Spring is always a much-awaited time of growth and rebirth, perhaps more so this snowy year than ever before!  And the Children’s Museum is in the midst of our own period of evolution as we search for a dynamic new leader to follow the three-decade legacy of former director Janice O’Donnell and work with Board and staff to shape the Museum’s future.

That future is founded on the Museum’s new strategic plan, developed over the last year with input from Board, staff and volunteers and adopted this winter.  Our road map for the next three years, the plan outlines major goals and the strategies for achieving them, in addition to and in support of the work required to run the Museum on a daily basis:

  • Ensure excellent visitor experiences – in our exhibits, environments, activities and facilities, and through interaction with staff and volunteers – that deliver on our mission to inspire and celebrate children’s learning through active play and exploration.
  • Go beyond the Museum’s walls to reach underserved children and families, continuing and deepening our outreach to out-of-school time and early childhood programs, community centers and parks in urban neighborhoods, as well as through therapeutic visitation for at-risk families.
  • Advance the Museum’s leadership role as a strong and visible advocate for children’s right to and need for self-directed free play.
  • Ensure an active and engaged Board of Directors that reflects the community and furthers the Museum’s mission.
  • Ensure a well-qualified, highly motivated and diverse staff to provide excellent programming and management.
  • Ensure the Museum has the financial resources to accomplish its goals through diverse sources of income.
  • Ensure the Museum’s successful future growth and that it continues to meet community needs.


While we have important work ahead of us to make sure the Museum remains a vital and growing community resource, the Museum is solid, fiscally strong and poised for positive change. We look forward to sharing the next phase of our journey with you – our members, donors, partners and friends – and welcome your ideas as we navigate the challenges and opportunities the future holds.

Megan Fischer, Interim Executive Director

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Research Update: Data Collection and Prototyping

The Museum is collaborating with Brown University on two major National Science Foundation-funded projects (award #1223777, 1420548). In the first project – Learning About Learning – Museum researchers are investigating how to make kids’ learning through play visible. In the second, researchers are examining the role of exploration and explanation in children’s causal learning. Museum researcher Suzy Letourneau shared this project update.

Since the start of the year, the Learning About Learning team has been prototyping two new activities that aim to reveal the learning that happens through play:
  • Photo Mission: In February and March, we challenged caregivers to capture photos of their children problem-solving while they played at the Museum.  The idea was to focus families’ attention (and lenses) on kids’ powerful thinking and learning.
  • Play Memories: Remember playing dress-up or building a tree house as a child? In March and April, we are inviting adults and kids to record their favorite memories of playing – past or present – and reflect together on the power of play.


In both activities, Museum researchers invite visitors to try the activities and then collect their feedback through a short interview. Our prototyping helps us understand how Museum activities can encourage families to think about the ways that play can support learning – while still being fun, too! (Click here for previous Learning About Learning blog updates, and visit the Museum’s website to learn more about the project.)

The research team is also embarking on a new three-year project in collaboration with Brown University and two other university/museum teams: the University of California, Santa Cruz and Children’s Discovery Museum in San Jose, and the University of Texas at Austin and the Thinkery.  Together, the three teams will investigate how open-ended exploration and parent-child explanations might affect children’s causal learning in the museums.

In the next few months, researchers will be observing how families use different exhibits and will ask permission to video record as they play together.  The videos will help the teams learn more about how children and their caregivers naturally explore how objects in museum exhibits work, and how they explain their ideas to one another.  Studying learning in a busy environment like the Museum can be tricky, and this initial part of the project will help the teams think together about the questions we’ll be asking and how we can best learn about the ways that museum exhibits, educators and caregivers can support children’s learning.

Monday, March 23, 2015

PlayWatch: Rigamajig

This story was shared by Experience Coordinator Maggie Dawson  

I was setting up Rigamajig and began building a contraption to use as an example. I started assembling what I thought could be the sides of a car. One of our Play Guides, Josy, came in and eagerly said that she would love to add to it. I told her that I couldn't wait to see what she created.

When I came in a half-hour later to see how the activity was going, I saw Josy working hard with two boys, approximately 5 years old. My simple car had turned into an elaborate cart with a tall pulley system affixed to the top! The boys were having so much fun and were excited about making it taller and adding ropes and more wheels. Josy was wonderful and enthusiastic about their creation as well.

I loved seeing how adding more minds and creative ideas resulted in a completely different structure than what I initially imagined. Moreover, it was impressive to see how one of our Play Guides could foster imagination and encourage two young visitors to build something awesome!

Friday, March 13, 2015

What-a-majig? Rigamajig!

This article, by Museum Interim Director/Communications Director Megan Fischer, was also posted on Kidoinfo.

This month at the Museum, invent creative contraptions with Rigamajig, an intriguing large-scale building kit featuring wooden planks, wheels and pulleys plus rope, nuts and bolts. Conceived by our friend and RISD Industrial Design professor Cas Holman, Rigamajig inspires kids’ imaginative hands-on play, encourages engineering exploration, and cultivates collaborative construction.


Since we first introduced Rigamajig, we’ve seen kids tinker and build with tons of wonderful results, including countless forts, a mobile movie projector, small sleds and larger transport vehicles, and plenty of clever creations that defy definition!

See some great examples in this video of Rigamajig:


One of my favorite Rigamajig moments illustrates perfectly why we offer this activity especially for the Museum’s older visitors. Last summer, when we took Rigamajig out to the Museum’s annual play at the park events, an 11-year-old boy and his 10-year-old sister spent an hour constructing a wide cart, precisely placing each piece. When they were done, the boy pulled his sister a few feet in the cart – and one of the wheels popped off!


The resilient duo regrouped and remedied the dilemma to ensure the rebuilt cart was even better than before. This time, they decided to add a few decorative touches. Choosing from a selection of interesting “loose parts,” they added fabric to pad the seat, long plastic strips to circle the steering column, and some puffballs for good measure! Working together cooperatively and seamlessly, they negotiated the different ideas each sibling introduced and solved engineering and aesthetic challenges to come to an end product they were both quite happy with. Throughout their design project, their mother watched with a smile but gave her focused engineers plenty of time and space to achieve their vision.

Join us to devise your own Rigamajig creations on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, March 17, 18, 24 and 25 from 1:00 to 4:00 PM; check the calendar for future dates and times.

Learn more about Rigamajig: