Monday, May 31, 2010

Up There and Under WHERE?

That’s what our new play spaces, The Climber and Underland, are affectionately known as by Museum director Janice O’Donnell. (She tried to convince us that Underland should actually be called “Under where?” because kids would love it. I'm sure she's right, but it doesn't have quite the same effect...)

It was another action-packed week in The Children’s Garden with a lot of progress made. Here’s what’s been going on:

The Climber’s platforms were added one by one

And its colorful “hat” arrived on Saturday.

Now it’s just the detailed finishing touches: meshing the interior and exterior cabling with tiny rings to make it extra safe. (Fun fact: there are over 2 miles of cable in The Climber, which will be joined by more 20,000 rings!)

In Underland news, the crew finished the cave painting and sanded down the exposed “roots,” which gives the environment even more of an underground feel.
Crew member Kinga hard at work

Chris and Zach hung one of the Underland signs

and intricate chandeliers created from tree roots wired with LED lights. They look like roots poking in from above ground and illuminate the cave with a gentle, twinkling light.

AmeriCorps members helped by sorting natural materials – some of the “loose parts” that kids will use in their pretend play.

And today, sculptor Chris Kane’s giant bronze bunny arrived and was put into place at the cave’s entrance, where it will greet visitors as they venture into Underland.

Check out this Providence Journal video by Sandor Bodo for a look at the process of finishing the bunny and for a behind-the-scenes look at Underland from Exhibit Designer Chris Sancomb.

More detail work to Underland over the next few days – stay tuned!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Forest Stories

This post was contributed by AmeriCorps members Turenne Beauvais, Annie Blazejack and Jess Fields, creators of the new Forest Stories display in the Museum’s atrium walkway. They interviewed one another about their inspiration and process.

What materials did you use? Where did they come from?
A: We took a trip to Moonstone Beach and Trustom Pond in South County to collect natural materials; it was mid winter so we found lots of stones and dried plants.
J: Our original focus was on natural materials, but as we became immersed in our storyline we decided to craft more and more.
T: The boat in the water scene is made from bark stripped off a dead tree; the banjo in the singing scene is a carved almond.

What was your relationship to nature as a child? Do these boxes relate to your own childhood memories?
T: I grew up in an urban area but there were play spaces in my neighborhood like a park, an open lot, or the schoolyard. I also spent a lot of time at the beach and on my dad’s boat –I learned to sincerely appreciate the times when I could enjoy nature.
J: I spent a lot of time as a child stealing flowers from neighbor’s yards, making poison dirt potions, and digging intricate tunnels. The books “Children of the Forest” and “Peter in Blueberry Land” by Elsa Beskow played a large role in the way that I imagined these ramp boxes.

What is the goal of your ramp box exhibit?
A: We wanted these scenes to be open ended like everything else in the Museum. We wanted to create a beautiful space for kids to use their imaginations. The new Underland exhibit will open while the ramp boxes are on display. There, too, kids can imagine what it would be like to be super small and underground.
J: We called this series Forest Stories; while we made them, we had stories in mind, but we want children to create their own story lines. I think children exist in a world that is constantly playing with scale... I feel that children will view our ramp box characters as children like themselves.

Do you have a favorite box?

A: I love the scene in which a boy is playing his banjo and singing with two birds. I like the way they’re suspended in the box – with space all around them.
T: My favorite scene is the one with a little boy is reaching out and offering a pomegranate seed to a raccoon. He’s got red juice dripping down his face. He’s not afraid of this huge animal – he sees it as a friend, and he wants to share his treat.
J: I really love the scene in which a small boy is curled in the tail of a sleeping squirrel. They both look so peaceful and warm; it’s one of the few scenes where there’s no sense of action and time seems to stop.

How did you work together? Who made what?
T: First we built the children. We worked together, crafting them with wire and clay. I focused on landscapes for each box and very small details such as the banjo. Annie’s efforts were put into sketching our original visions and then creating the small woodland creatures from paper maché. Jess painted, worked with fabrics and textures, and drew the landscapes for the sides of each box.

What did you enjoy most about this process?

J: There was a kind of magic working with Annie to create the sketches. Even though we all worked separately on very different things, watching Annie articulate our thoughts confirmed that we all had a similar vision, and made the world that we were imagining very real.
T: I love that we didn’t ever divide up jobs– it just happened naturally. We each knew our own jobs, but we could help each other a lot because we were all in tune about what we wanted to make.
A: I love using paper maché; it’s wonderfully slimy.

How have kids talked about these stories?
T: A young girl mentioned that her favorite exhibit was Water Ways. I told her to check out the ramp boxes on her way downstairs. About an hour later, she told me that the ramp boxes were now her favorite part of the Museum!
J: A 2 year old pointed to the girl in the bee scene and say, “she’s scared.” We worked hard to make the facial expressions and posture of our characters just right, so it was nice to know it paid off.

Forest Stories will be on display into the fall – be sure to check it out next time you’re at the Museum and let us know which is your favorite box!

Friday, May 21, 2010

What's Going On in the Garden

This week was a flurry of activity in our Children’s Garden in preparation for the opening of our new play spaces on June 11 – just a few weeks away! Some of the highlights:

The steel frame of The Climber arrived on Monday and was put into place.

Then the supporting cables were attached – climbing platforms will be added next week.

The cave structure went from a surreal white carved foam environment….

to having a layer of concrete applied to give it texture and durability.

Then there was cave painting! Underland is taking on such an earthy, underground look – so very much like the drawings we’ve seen for so long.

We also got to see the work commissioned for Underland from some local artists: this chipmunk by sculptor Marly Rogers, which will be part of the burrow wall,

and one of the sculptural steel sand flowers by metal smith Lu Heintz.

The beginnings of the worm tunnels were laid out in our shop,

and staff got to leave their mark!
Coming this weekend and next week: rubber flooring around The Climber and in Underland, construction of the sandpit, curvy green climbing platforms added to The Climber frame, installation of individual Underland components…and so much more.

Click here AND here to learn more about the process of creating Underland. Also check out this article by Museum director Janice O'Donnell for the big picture of our plans and stay tuned for more photos and updates!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Field Trips – Not Just For Kids!

This post, about a recent staff field trip, was shared by Carole Ann Penney, assistant to the director of education.

Here at Providence Children’s Museum, we’re used to groups of kids arriving on school buses, excited to play and learn. But a few weeks ago, it was our turn! A big yellow bus pulled up and a group of 30 staff and AmeriCorps members loaded up for a field trip of our own.
We made the three-hour drive up to the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich, Vermont. Montshire is a hands-on museum with exhibits that focus on the natural and physical sciences, ecology and technology. We explored their engaging exhibits and nature trails and met with staff members to learn more about the museum’s programs, environments and audience.

All of our staff love a good chance to:

Play and learn (of course)!

Get new ideas and inspiration for how to engage visitors.

Get a look at what other museums are working on.

Learn about how other museums design and maintain their exhibits.

And with our two new learning environments opening in The Children’s Garden soon, we especially enjoyed exploring their outdoor exhibits and trails, designed to get kids to play and discover outside!

All and all, it was a day of learning, fun and inspiration. Thank you, Montshire!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

ECs are Everywhere!

This post was contributed by Experience Coordinator Annemarie Bruun.

Have you ever come to the Museum and run into the same person everywhere you go? First, she greets you at the Admissions Desk, processes your credit card, explains the different types of memberships and directs you to the coatroom and the map of the exhibits.
As you head into Play Power, there she is again, tapping the big tubes with a long stick until the huge wad of scarves breaks free and comes shooting out over the crowd of waiting kids. After playing with the pipe organ and heading toward the funhouse mirrors, you see her popping out of one bathroom and then another, turning off lights and picking up stray paper towels.

You head up the ramp to the second floor and there she is yet again, discussing the FETCH! board and hunts with a child and her mother. Her walkie talkie squawks some unintelligible message and she heads back downstairs.

Next, she appears shepherding a school group into the Assembly Space, and five minutes later she’s wiping down tables in the lunchroom. Suddenly, she’s sitting by the gate in Littlewoods, advising a visitor that 6 year olds are too big to play there, but the ship is super fun for bigger boys.

At your last stop (Water Ways, of course!) after a full afternoon , you hear her voice over the loudspeaker, reminding visitors that the Museum will be closing in 30 minutes. Finally, as you go out the door, she’s waving good-bye and asking you to come play again soon.

Who is this person who is seemingly everywhere at once?

She's an "EC" – one of the Museum's five Experience Coordinators. The Experience Coordinators are the staff responsible for ensuring that every aspect of your visit meets – or exceeds – your expectations. We are in charge of everything happening in the exhibits, programs and public areas during open hours. From lunchroom spills to boo-boos requiring a bandage, ECs are the first responders. When a Play Guide or Admissions Desk clerk is out sick or on a break, we replace them until a substitute arrives.
We are responsible for opening and closing the Museum, getting change for the Admissions and Gift Shop desks, and for greeting birthday parties and school field trips. We set up for programs, parties and meetings and clean up afterward. We make sure toilet paper, soap and hand sanitizer are stocked. We train and supervise the volunteers, work-study students and AmeriCorps members who staff the exhibits, programs and Admissions Desk. We also work behind the scenes to help develop daily programs and do many of the more mundane tasks necessary to keep the Museum running smoothly. We are the last frontline staff here after closing, and only leave after all the exhibits are properly in order, all doors and gates locked, lights off, and the building alarmed.

In the end, the single most important function of an EC is to be the person you can go to with problems, suggestions and compliments – we're happy to help with the former and we always love to hear the latter! We are here to listen, mediate, explain, and to enforce our most important rule. As any school kid who has come here on a field trip can tell you, our number one priority is to “Have fun!” and we do our best to make sure that everyone does.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Playing (and Working) in Minnesota

Some more inspiration from last week’s Association of Children’s Museums conference:

Carly Loeper, exhibit & program developer:
• In a session on Play and Risk, Aaron Goldblatt made the argument that risk is the ingredient that keeps us in play and it's the challenge that makes the action worth doing. That risk drives people into intense social experiences. I love to witness families taking risks together. When kids, and even parents, hold a worm for the first time in our worm programs the interactions are intense and families so supportive of another in the shared joy – and disgust! I can't wait to see risk-taking reach new heights when we open The Climber in June.

• We heard Peter Benson of Search Institute talk about "spark." In Peter's research into what makes kids thrive, he found they have a common connection to their spark - the quality, skill, talent, or commitment that gives life joy, energy and purpose. I deeply agree that instead of guiding children in any one direction or simply telling them "you can do anything" that we can serve this generation best by helping them find and nurture their spark from the inside out.

Megan Fischer, marketing & public relations manager:
• I was excited to hear an update on a national museum survey we participated in, organized by Reach Advisors. They’re working to understand a group they’ve named “museum advocates” – people who have a life-long love of museums and early “sticky memories” of museum going – and what the museum field can do to work together to ensure we keep growing this group. Their research is fascinating!

• Dan Palotta, author of Uncharitable, talked about the double standard we have for nonprofit vs. for profit organizations – that we’re essentially expected to operate by different rulebooks in terms of staff compensation, marketing and revenue development. “The nonprofit sector is in extreme disadvantage to for profits on every level…We need to get back to our wildest dreams and the courage to pursue them and put THAT out to the public.”

• Martha Erickson from the Children & Nature Network spoke about how “Children’s museums are in a position of power to influence policy makers, other informal educators and parents” – something that resonated since it’s what we’re trying to do. She also talked about how children have an innate attraction to natural things and we need to nurture it, something I hope will happen with all of the natural materials in our new Underland exhibit.

Minnesota Children’s Museum presented about expanding community engagement and their Reggio-inspired approach to documentation – using photos of kids’ processes to generate new questions and to involve parents. It’s something we’ve been talking about and experimenting with lately, too – more on that later.

Cathy Saunders, director of education:
• Keynote speaker Dr. Johnnetta Cole, director of the National Museum of African Art, reminded us of the important role that children's museums play in promoting and modeling diversity and inclusion.

• I watched videos of families playing at two museums - Science Museum of Minnesota and Boston Children's Museum. Researchers are using these videos to better understand shared learning between children and adults and to learn how to design better exhibits. I love that there is a growing body of evidence of the learning that happens in informal settings like museums!

• I worked at the Science Museum of Minnesota for eight years and it was a lot of fun to visit again and catch up with my old colleagues. They even helped me out with one of the sessions I presented at - one co-presented with me and another provided us with fun materials like magnets and pattern blocks to play with. All the folks from the exhibits department were very excited to hear that we will be opening a climber designed by the Luckeys. The museum field is very supportive.

Museum adventures!
Megan: Carly and I visited both the Science Museum of Minnesota and Minnesota Children’s Museum. I loved the children’s museum from the moment we walked through the door – open space with lots of light and I appreciated the beauty of their environments and their attention to detail. We especially liked an art studio room with tabletop areas for exploring materials of different textures.

Carly: Crawling through the multi-level system of ant tunnels was a total transformation of environment - I felt like an ant! It was fun to experience a startle when I turned a corner on my hands and knees face-to-face with a giant ant protecting her larvae babies behind her.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Whys & Hows of “Where Do the Children Play?”

Carly Loeper (exhibit & program developer), Cathy Saunders (director of education) and I (Megan Fischer, marketing & public relations manager) just got back from St. Paul, Minnesota, from the Association of Children’s Museums’ (ACM) annual conference. We always look forward to this opportunity to be with our fun and creative colleagues, hear what they’re up to at their museums, and just be inspired by lots of new ideas and great conversations. We know we’ll leave with our heads buzzing with thoughts and visions, eager to get back home to share with the rest of the staff and put our new ideas in to play.

On Thursday, Carly and I were excited to present about the work we’ve done to raise awareness of the critical importance of children’s unstructured play in our community. We talked about the creation of our Play Power exhibit and the outreach efforts we’ve taken on, including community screenings and discussions of the documentary “Where Do the Children Play?,” which explores why children’s opportunities for unstructured play are increasingly limited, especially outdoors.

And Friday, during a “Nature, Nurture and Play” salon, Dr. Gil Leaf (husband of Dr. Elizabeth Goodenough, originator and outreach coordinator of “Where Do the Children Play?”) shared a 7-minute clip of the documentary. It was fun for us to see the film we know so well (well enough to quote extensively, in fact!) in this context. He spoke about how children’s museums can “become the locus in your community of getting the dialogue going” about the need for play and used US as an example for using the film for community organizing and to inspire conversation about play.

So because of that, I thought we should share a quick overview of why and how we’ve used the film to involve the community in advocating for children's free play:

The Decision
A few years ago, we took a newly directed approach to play, deciding to be much more deliberate about why children’s self-directed play is important, especially with our message to parents and caregivers. In addition to our new play exhibit and play-focused public programs, we also felt it was absolutely necessary to advocate beyond the Museum’s walls. We first screened “Where Do the Children Play?” for our staff and immediately saw that it was provocative, would inspire conversation, and decided it was an ideal tool to convey our message. We also knew it was important to screen the film with community partners to reach a broader audience than we would just at the Museum, to ensure that this movement was shared.
The Screenings
We began showing “Where Do the Children Play?” in winter 2009 and have since hosted eight community screenings and discussions with partners including schools, libraries, PTAs and other community groups – our ninth is coming up next week! Each time we’ve followed the hour-long film with an audience conversation, moderated by Museum director Janice O’Donnell and panelists that we call conversation “instigators” because it’s their job to spark the discussion and keep it going. We’ve had a wide range of panelists – educators from preschool through college, pediatricians, developmental psychologists, children’s policy advocates, urban planners, and environmentalists. Panelists have looked at the issues affecting children’s play from many different angles and have drawn audiences of parents, teachers, after-school program providers, parks and recreation and planning personnel, and other community members into incredibly lively, thought-provoking discussions about the importance of giving kids more opportunities for free play and outdoor play during the school day and in out-of-school-time activities.

The Follow Up
Each screening has been so different, powerful, inspiring that we’ve had to share the highlights on our blog to make the conversation more visible and keep it going:
Temple Beth-El, Providence (March 2010)
St. Michael's Country Day School, Newport (January 2010)
Pennfield School, Portsmouth (October 2009)
Audubon Environmental Education Center, Bristol (June 2009)
Highlander Charter School, Providence (May 2009)
Lincoln School, Providence (February 2009)

From these discussions, it was apparent that many people are concerned about the lack of time and space for children's play – and that they were eager to keep talking. We wanted to find a way to continue the rich conversations electronically, to continue to connect people and grow the dialogue, and we launched a community discussion listserv called “PlayWatch: Connecting the Community to Promote Children’s Play” last summer. The listserv now has more than 330 members and has fostered an active, enthusiastic exchange of ideas about a variety of topics. We’ve passed the tipping point in our community’s awareness of the importance of play and the conversation is growing!

Please contact me at or (401) 273-5437 ext. 126 if you’d like to know more about our use of “Where Do the Children Play?” and our other play outreach and advocacy efforts.

And stay tuned for another conference-inspired post!