Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Mind Lab at the Museum

This post was contributed by Museum Exhibits Director Robin Meisner.

At Providence Children’s Museum we’ve teamed up with developmental psychologists at Brown University and Providence College to create Mind Lab, a research partnership exploring how children learn – what our young visitors know and how their understanding develops and changes as they grow.

We’ve been hosting researchers at the Museum for almost a decade and are pleased to work with such active and engaged scientists.  To celebrate her first anniversary with Mind Lab, Dr. Jennifer Van Reet, assistant professor of psychology at Providence College, shared the results of one of her studies.
"Every week, my students and I look forward to our time in the Mind Lab. With the generous help of Museum visitors, we have been exploring the development of pretend play in preschoolers.  One project we recently completed had some really intriguing results!

All of my research is focused on discovering how people are able to pretend and figuring out in what ways pretending is beneficial. One way I do this is to find what other important abilities are related to pretending. In this project, I looked at an ability called inhibitory control, which we all use to control our minds and bodies. And we use it all the time! Every time you stop yourself from saying something you know you shouldn’t, or wait until after dinner to eat dessert, you are using your inhibitory control.

After measuring the inhibitory control and pretending abilities in a lot of different ways, I discovered that 3- and 4-year-olds who have the most inhibitory control are also the best pretenders. I also found that playing a particular type of game – games just like “Simon Says” – caused better pretending!  This type of game is special because it requires a certain kind of inhibitory control that helps you switch back and forth between two different rules (like when Simon says to do something versus when he doesn’t).  Other types of games, like waiting games or follow-the-leader games, did not have the same effect.
This project revealed quite a bit about pretend play that we did not know before. Now we know how important inhibitory control is for children’s pretend play, and we know that exercising children’s inhibitory control can help them to be better pretenders. This new information can now be used by people who work with children – like the staff at Providence Children’s Museum."
Dr. Van Reet models an activity from one of her studies.

Working with scientists gives the Museum an opportunity to learn about current research and create more meaningful, developmentally appropriate child- and adult-focused learning experiences, including hands-on activities for children, workshops for caregivers, and exhibits and environments for all visitors.

From Jennifer’s study we might consider…
  • Incorporating an appropriate inhibitory control game into our greeting for groups visiting the Museum;
  • Including such a game in take-home materials that compliment our programs; or
  • Designing an exhibit component that encourages the use of children’s inhibitory control skills.
Further conversations with Jennifer also suggest that there’s good reason to think that the inhibitory control/pretend play connection works both ways – that good pretend play has a hand in the development of strong inhibitory control skills.  And, like anything else, many children need practice at pretend play to become “good” at it.

Visitors to the Museum have lots of opportunities to engage in and practice pretend play.  All of our exhibits have components specifically designed to foster such play – for example, the bridge and crane in Iway, the underground kitchen in Underland and, perhaps less obviously, the casts in Bone Zone or blocks in Shape Space.  Museum Play Guides are trained to spark, seed and join children’s play – to help create richer, deeper play.  From the Museum’s perspective, an interesting future research study might investigate whether such play experience do indeed contribute to building a child’s inhibitory control skills.

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