Monday, July 27, 2009

Wakanheza at Work

Janice O’Donnell, Museum director:
A few years ago, at an Association of Children's Museums conference, we attended a presentation by staff from Minnesota Children's Museum about this idea - Wakanheza - they were implementing at their museum. Wakanheza is the Dakota word for child and translates as "sacred being." The idea is if we regard children as sacred beings and our actions reflect this, our communities would be far more welcoming and supportive of families and children.

My head was nodding enthusiastically as I listened to them explain how they were using the principles of Wakanheza to help their staff better support families in stressful situations in hopes of reducing harsh treatment of children. Wow," I thought, "we knew this but now we have a way to talk about it!"

Of course we want the Museum to be a family-friendly, family-supportive place. And we know families often experience stress while visiting. To help develop empathy, we ask our staff and volunteers to imagine a Museum visit from a parent’s perspective – packing up the kids, diaper bags, snacks, jackets, getting everyone in the car, car seats buckled, traveling to Providence, finding a place to park, finding quarters for the meters, getting everyone out of the car and safely across the parking lot, entering the Museum and waiting to pay while your 3-year-old darts off toward Water Ways.

By lending a hand, by understanding, we can make the Museum – and the community – a better place for families. To support and welcome families is part of our commitment to our visitors.

Megan Fischer, Marketing/PR Manager:
Since learning about Wakanheza, we’ve led regular trainings for Museum staff, volunteers and AmeriCorps members – including one earlier this month. The goals are to share our commitment to supporting families, to get our staff thinking about the types of stresses that families face in the Museum and other public places, to review the principles of Wakanheza, and to talk about typical Museum scenarios and strategies for handling them in supportive ways – with plenty of time for conversations, brainstorms and questions along the way.

To practice the principles of Wakanheza, we must suspend judgment and approach all situations with empathy, consider the roles environment and culture play in the way an interaction develops, understand that parents often experience feelings of powerlessness in stressful situations, and appreciate what is known as THE MOMENT – essentially that we don’t know what led families to that situation and we don’t know what will happen after. We simply have that moment to get involved, to find even a small way to help alleviate their stress. So we train our staff to look for those moments, to see them as opportunities to transform a difficult experience for our visitors.

Brainstorming what makes the Museum family friendly.

Melissa Kline, AmeriCorps Museum Educator, shares a story of how she’s used the Wakanheza training:
A few weeks ago, in Shape Space, a woman began shouting at her daughter for taking down a structure she had just made (I think she wanted to take a picture). It took me by surprise, and I felt nervous and not sure how to respond. The mom seemed flustered and upset, and the daughter was definitely not in a good mood either.

The mom and daughter stayed in Shape Space, the mother sitting at one of the tables and the daughter wandering around, not finding a project that interested her. At this point, I realized that just having a more positive play interaction might be helpful for this family. I decided to start building something with the wooden blocks and invited the daughter to join me. A few minutes later she had transformed the blocks into a castle with several rooms, furniture, and a pool in the backyard. I encouraged her to show it to her mother, and when she came over I said, “Look what she made!” Mom said, “Oh yeah, she’s really creative!” We all talked for a little bit about the imaginary world inside the castle, and the mother said, “You worked really hard on this one!” I moved on to a different exhibit then, but it was really satisfying to leave both mother & daughter in a calmer and happier mood.
Our most recent Wakanheza training.

Wakanheza has definitely entered our vocabularies at the Museum. It’s a rare week that goes by without hearing at least one person preparing to “be Wakanheza about” a higher-stress situation like a busy day or a school group traffic jam. Some people talk about ‘Wakanheza moments’ and others refer to it like a secret weapon or magic wand: “There’s a child having a tough time transitioning out of the Museum, I’ll go see if I can use my Wakanheza with them.”

What I value most about the Wakanheza training is that it empowers me to get involved, even in small ways, to make a tough situation easier. It reminds me that, when I interact with someone who is angry or upset, they may be reacting from any number of stresses, from parking troubles to a child who is having a bad day. Knowing that a small act like offering to assist with an unwieldy stroller can be truly helpful gives me the confidence to offer these gestures.

We’ll continue to share our “Wakanheza moments” – big and small – on the blog from time to time!

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