Sunday, April 13, 2014

Talking Back: Play Guide Bob Nickles

Bob Nickles has volunteered nearly 1,000 hours since 2011.

What’s your background?
I grew up in New Jersey and went into the Marine Corps for four years after high school.  Then I worked as a laborer, in digital electronics and as a welder and steel fitter.  I went back to school and got a degree in elementary education and taught second grade in one of the poorest districts in San Antonio for four years.  I worked as a handyman and janitor at the Children’s Museum in Pawtucket in 1991, before it moved to Providence.  I fixed exhibits and when kids saw me with the tool belt, they would come and talk to me.  Later I went back to steelwork but, when I retired a few years ago, I knew I needed something to do and came back to the Museum.  I think being involved with kids is the best job in the world for me.

How did you play as a kid?
With anything we could find!  It was a big deal when we got roller skates – the kind that you could put on your shoes – and we skated on the dead-end street in front of our apartment.  For 5 cents, you could buy a big box of chalk and we would draw giants and dinosaurs on the tar street.  It was beautiful – just like a blackboard, it was that smooth.  We’d go into the woods and play anything – we were kids of the streets.  We had a lovely growing up.  When I was 10, we moved to Long Island and lived near the beach, which was great – the beach is always different, the water is always changing, there’s always something for a kid to play.

What ways do you like to play in the Museum?
I play what [the kids] are playing, and I try to expand it in some way.  An example: I came into Water Ways and some of the smaller white pipe was in the pool with the big pipe stuff and I thought to myself, "that’s in the wrong place."  Then I realized I was thinking like an adult, but I should act like an adult and think like a kid!  So I made some structures with the smaller pipes and left them there to see what would happen.  When I came back later in the day, the structures were still there. 

I’m always playing looking for a slightly different angle.  The Water Ways pools are so curved that the waterwheels won’t sit in them.  So I stacked three of them on the floor, on top of the drain.  Two girls were right on it with watering cans, and the water flew out.  By observing kids, I can see what they might need.


What have you gotten from the experience?
I’m thinking more, I’m discovering more, I’m making little inventions at home.  Just practical things.  I’m honestly more creative.  Now when I see a problem, I think up something new, and that’s new for me.  That’s happened because I’ve been here, I’m sure of it.  It’s been an epiphany, and kids are the catalyst.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Talking Back: Play Guide Andrea Wilson

Andrea Wilson has volunteered nearly 900 hours over the past four years.

What’s your background?
I have a bachelor’s degree in communications and worked in insurance for 25 years in Connecticut and Rhode Island.  I was thinking about a career change to teaching and looking for volunteer opportunities to fill my time, which led me to the Museum. 

What have you gotten out of the experience?
It’s a great opportunity to learn after not working with young children in quite some time. I’ve seen that I really have a special connection to children. It’s a great place to volunteer. I love the way the volunteers are supported, that they have training, that there are people around to ask questions. I think it’s a wonderful model for other agencies that work with a lot of volunteers.

What’s your favorite exhibit to play in?
Littlewoods.  Up to age 4, you really get to see the child’s personality develop.  But they all have something special and unique.  There have been so many changes in the time that I’ve been at the Museum – the outdoor space, Discovery Studio, ThinkSpace.  And of course the little changes like the window boxes in the ramp are so great.

What do you enjoy most?
Helping a child up the ladder in Littlewoods for the first time.  The parents hover, not sure if their child can do it, and encourage the child up the ladder.  The child gets to the top with a smile so bright, and then goes down and back up again and again.  I love to see a child so full of joy each and every time.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Talking Back: Museum Play Guides

In celebration of National Volunteer Week, meet some of our remarkable play guides!

Katie Meloro, a Providence College student studying elementary and special education, began an internship last summer.

What brought you to the Museum?
I wanted an opportunity that would give me a chance to work with children without being in a traditional classroom setting.  The Museum offered me an internship that helped me work with the standards I use in all my lesson plans as well as let me engage children in fun play activities!

How might your internship benefit you as a teacher?

At first I thought that being a play guide would just be a bonus to the “real” experience I'd receive by creating a guide to align field trips to standards, but it turns out that has been the most valuable part by far!  Observing children engaging in free play has taught me a lot about how they learn and approach new experiences, which will be incredibly useful when I run my own classroom.

What are your favorite ways to play in the Museum?
I've found that visitors respond most when I engage in side-by-side play and either compare what we're doing or ask them to help me.  Children are naturally curious and so am I, so it's a great combination.

What’s one of your most memorable play moments?
A few children created an entire kingdom using the Imagination Playground blocks and other materials.  They hadn't known each other prior, but these children collaborated with their adults and with everyone who entered to create a new world.  I love that combination of resourcefulness and imagination!


Nakeecha Roberts and her children Lionel (16) and Heaven (14) have volunteered as a family since last fall.

What inspired you and your family to start volunteering at the Museum?
It’s required for Lionel’s school and I’m a single mom, had been out of work for a year, and wanted something I could do while searching for a job.  Heaven and Lionel have gone to the Children's Museum since they were very young and we’ve always enjoyed spending time there as a family.  We were so excited that this would not only show our support and love for the Museum but was a way to learn something new and have fun doing it.

What have you gotten from the experience so far?
The value of family. Whenever we greet a visiting family, it means a lot to us that we make their visit fun, safe, lively and gratifying, [and filled] with learning, creativity and bonding.

What are your favorite exhibits and ways to play in the Museum?
Our favorite exhibits are ThinkSpace, Discovery Studio and Coming to Rhode Island.  We like building with blocks to see if we can create something new.  We also love to dress up and pretend we’re princesses or pilgrims!

What else do you all like to do together as a family?
We enjoy being outdoors when it's warm and sunny. We go to the park to play basketball, badminton, ball, frisbee, and enjoy remote control planes and cars. We love going out for ice cream or out to a restaurant. We love to visit other museums out of state, like Massachusetts and DC.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Celebrating Our Playful Volunteers

April 6 to 12 is National Volunteer Week, a time for us to recognize the extraordinary individuals who play an essential role in serving the Museum’s mission to inspire and celebrate learning through active play and exploration.

The Museum simply couldn’t open its doors without the support of a dedicated, playful and diverse team of volunteers.  In 2013, over 300 committed volunteers, interns and college work-study students served more than 13,000 hours.  They engaged children and caregivers in hands-on exhibits and activities and greeted visitors at the welcome desk each day.  Behind the scenes, interns conducted research and evaluation projects and volunteers assisted with fundraising events, prepared mailings, provided office support, and cared for the Museum’s collection of children’s books.


The majority of Museum volunteers are play guides – the playful people in yellow aprons who welcome visitors in exhibits and programs and encourage positive play and learning experiences.  Play guides are adults, college and high school students, and families who expand and deepen visitor engagement by offering challenges, sharing favorite tricks, and inspiring them to consider new ways to play.  Family volunteers (usually adult/child pairs) play together, share their enthusiasm, and invite visitors to get involved, all while modeling ways to play.  Play guides get to know and build relationships with regular visitors, enabling them to encourage individual interests and spark kids’ and adults’ curiosity.

“Volunteers are an essential part of the Museum,” says Volunteer & AmeriCorps Coordinator Julie Burkhard.  “They help us extend our work with children and families and bring their amazing set of individual skills to all aspects of our work.  We have high school and college students, families and community members in our exhibits.  We have students interested in child psychology, retired teachers and even people who want to build their skill set for when they become parents.  Our volunteers not only do good work, but they help the Museum connect to the community we serve.”
Interested in volunteering?  The Museum is always looking for play guides and family volunteers.  Click here or contact Julie to learn about other current opportunities.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Learning About Learning: Parent Interviews

The Museum is partnering with Brown University's Causality and Mind Lab on a three-year 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 is investigating how to make kids’ learning through play visible and shared this project update.

Over the last few months, we conducted interviews with nearly 90 parents and caregivers of children ages 3 to 11, asking what they think about when watching their children play, and what they think their children are thinking about. We also asked them to describe the specific behaviors that they noticed in their children’s play, and what these behaviors showed them about their children’s thought processes.


Parents reported playing many different roles during their visits. They supervised, taught, helped, encouraged, played along (or nearby), or just relaxed and watched their children having fun.  Many parents reflected on how their children played – what captured their interest, where they spent a long time, and what they were trying to do. Parents also thought about how their children have changed as they’ve grown, or how their children have particular strengths, quirks, and learning styles that showed up in their play.


A lot of parents noticed their children thinking while playing.  Nearly half (45%) reported seeing their children focus or concentrate on something – looking serious, being in their own worlds, and not being distracted by anything around them.  Others noticed their kids purposefully trying to accomplish something (23%), describing what they were doing (33%), or using trial and error to test things they were working on (20%).  Some parents also noticed their children being persistent and independent – not wanting help from anyone, even when things were difficult (25%), or being determined and not wanting to leave until they were “done” (38%).


All of these behaviors are indicators of children’s thinking; they show that children solve problems independently, articulate their ideas, keep their goals in mind, maintain their attention, and reflect on what they are doing. These skills are foundations of “metacognition” – mental processes that allow us to reflect on our own thoughts and knowledge. Although as adults we have accumulated a lot of experience thinking through unpredictable situations, children are still mastering these skills, and play offers many opportunities for them to practice.

Check back for future Learning About Learning project updates, and look for Museum researchers prototyping tools for visitors this spring.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Unplugged: Celebrating Healthy Children and Strong Families

Next week is the Museum’s annual gala fundraiser, Unplugged – The Way to Play. This year, the fun and festive event celebrates healthy children and strong families and honors community leaders who support the well-being of kids and families. Three of these leaders shared the ways they liked to play as children, and their reflections on how those play experiences contributed to the work they do now.


Elizabeth Burke Bryant – Executive Director, RI Kids Count
My favorite ways to play included paper dolls on the back porch (the paper doll folders were the houses for the paper doll inhabitants), wiffle ball on our street with neighborhood children, sledding in the winter, and hide and go seek in the summer.

All of the neighborhood games taught me how to get along with others, how to get organized, and how to give it all I had. The other kinds of games like paper dolls were played with individuals who became life-long friends, and that taught me the importance of finding friends and colleagues that are a joy to be with, because the journey through life and work is best when you can share it with wonderful people.

Dr. Rajiv Kumar – Founder/CEO, ShapeUp
I was lucky to grow up in a safe and spacious neighborhood chock full of other kids my age. We spent our days after school, on weekends, and during summers riding bikes, roller-blading, building forts, playing kick ball, and swimming at the local pool club, which was just a short bike ride through the woods behind one of our neighbor’s houses. On summer evenings our favorite activities were running around trying to catch fireflies or playing hide-and-seek in the dark (yes, we were scared!). We looked forward to winter so we could go sledding, ice skating, skiing and build igloos in the snow. When I have kids one day, I truly hope that they can experience the same kind of magical and carefree childhood that I did, centered around outdoor activities and social games.

I benefited from a playful childhood, and that experience that has stuck with me and lies at the very heart of the work that I do. I truly believe that the pathway to a healthier nation – starting with a healthier generation of young people – lies in an approach to well-being that puts fun activities, healthy games, and social support front and center. That’s what we do at ShapeUp, and it appears to be working!


Wendy Nilsson – Executive Director, Partnership for Providence Parks
As a kid I played by creating. I made make-believe worlds out of anything. I nailed planks to apple trees to make an arboreal world high above the everyday, using the rotten apples to defend my lair; turned a deep snowfall into a village of snow pods connected by narrow paths and surrounded by spent cat o’ nine tails; led a kingdom where the castle was under the protection of the arching boughs of a willow tree, and I am quite certain, an alien. I loved to make or transform stuff more than playing with things as they were intended. My Barbies and Sunshine Family were the first to get pierced ears with push pins, have their hair dyed pitch black with mascara and sport newly fashioned outfits from crochet and fabric scraps. I loved to make art and articulate the worlds and characters that amused me, and I enjoyed inviting others to be a part of the play.

As a kid, I was making places out of spaces, which is what I do now for parks. Along with an incredible team, I bring together neighbors, businesses, schools and others to help revitalize the amazing array of parks and green spaces in Providence.  Just as when I was a child, we do our best to use materials and resources creatively. We make communities where children can gather and play out roles that are limited only by imagination. I guess I have been in training for this job a long time!

Monday, March 24, 2014

New in Play Power!

Check out the most recent addition to our Play Power exhibit – a playful building activity that invites visitors to invent imaginative creations. Using flexible and brightly colored pieces that stick to surfaces and to each other with suction cups, kids and families can connect and stack to form intriguing sculptures and other creative constructions.


We’re committed to providing a range of activities that promote different types of play and to keeping fresh by frequently changing elements of our exhibits.  This addition enhances existing Play Power activities with more opportunities for creativity, artistic expression and tactile exploration. 

Says Exhibits Director Robin Meisner:
“The exhibits team often experiments with new activities for children and their grown-ups, and we love to hear your opinions about them.  We think these add a nice "pop" to Play Power - what's your impression?  After you test them out, please share your thoughts with one of our Play Guides or Experience Coordinators.”

Experience Coordinators Katie and Seth gave it a serious test and made some impressive “suction constructions”!

“In the three years I've been visiting, the exhibits have changed, making it new each time.” 
– Museum visitor

Updates to Play Power activities are underwritten by Dominion Foundation.