Friday, April 22, 2011

Let kids be kids!

This post was contributed by Kendra Leigh Miller, Museum volunteer.

Let them run, play and make some noise! It’s all part of being a child and learning as they grow, said Dr. William Hollinshead.

Hollinshead is also a pediatrician, Vice President of the R.I. Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and former Medical Director/Chief of Family Health policy and programs for the R.I. Department of Health.

The doctor was the guest speaker at the Museum’s annual meeting held April 11. His topic, so relevant with today’s children, was “Playing with Our Future.” It focused on the importance of children engaging in unstructured, free-thinking play. He and the Museum make a perfect pair, given this is one of the main, most important messages the Museum advocates.

“Grandma always told the kids to go out and play and it turns out, she was right,” Hollinshead said. “Unstructured play is the way children figure out how the world works. It’s not just about human children, but it’s the way all young mammals learn language, math, politics AND they do it without much intervention from parents.”
He said it’s okay to be a little less vigorous in the way adults help children, allow them not be so organized with their play and let them do what comes naturally. Children can be so over scheduled these days with soccer practice, dance lessons, music lessons, school tests and other activities along with the modern marketing of video games (he called it a phenomenon) that simple, thoughtful play gets lost in the mix.

Hollinshead said studies have shown a great deal about how the brain is molded in the very early months by the natural process of learning and experiences children have, good or bad, can certainly have an effect.

“Give them true toys,” he said. “With blocks, sticks and fabric a child can bring their imagination to life and pretend these things are lots of other things, whatever is in the mind of a child.”
Hollinshead mentioned research done by psychologist Peter Gray at Boston College, who also promotes children’s free play. According to Gray’s work, a child will walk for hours if he can. He’ll fall down a lot but he’s learning how to be two-legged. It’s a process where he’s learning about his environment.

A child may pick up an object, turn it over in his hands a few times and probably bang it on the floor or ground to see what happens. Again, he’s testing the objects in his environment.

A group of 5 year olds can and will agree on what a castle will look like if they want to build one. They’ll learn how to listen to each other, designate who will do what, and work together to accomplish the shared goal. Little do they realize these are traits they’re learning for adult life.
Among Hollinshead’s basic points: play needs to be fun and largely free of adult intervention – unless, of course, children are harming each other. Adults should ensure children have a variety of spaces for imaginative play without intrusion.

“If grown-ups meddle or interrupt the free flow of fantasy, it breaks the spell and takes the fun out of it,” Hollinshead said.

Good, productive play is often chaotic and noisy and that’s alright, too. Hollinshead recommended we should “all work for a world in which kids play more,” and keep in mind that learning isn’t just about what children gain from being in school. Some of life’s most important lessons come from play.

Celebrating active play - inside and out!

From the Museum's recent annual meeting, take a look at some of last year's highlights, in words and photos:

Click here to download our 2010 Annual Report and get the full story on last year's accomplishments.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

PlayWatch: Creative Construction!

This post was contributed by AmeriCorps Museum Educator Cassandra Kane, who documented a great play moment that happened at the Museum today.

An avid tree-house builder, 9-year-old Matthew loves a good building challenge. While he and his friends played in Shape Space this afternoon, he ambitiously decided to erect a structure using every wooden block.

With an architect’s eye for detail, the third grader first balanced two long, rectangular blocks on top of three others. He built his four-point foundation by repeating this step three times with the rest of the long, rectangular pieces.

Then, Matthew said, he “just kept stacking.”

After connecting the base with flat, rectangular pieces, he continued to slowly and meticulously pile on blocks of all shapes and sizes, creating jumbled tiers of carefully balanced triangles, arcs, squares, and prisms. He smartly placed heavier blocks near the bottom, and one lone cylinder atop the edifice like a skyscraper’s needle.

One hour later – after overcoming challenges like a younger child wanting to sit on the base during the construction phase! – Matthew proudly stood next to his sturdy structure and eagerly asked for more blocks. I think we’ve witnessed the early work of a future famous architect!

Monday, April 18, 2011

THANK YOU to Our Volunteers!

Last week was National Volunteer Week, and the Museum celebrated with a special volunteer recognition board and festive dress-up days, planned by AmeriCorps Museum Educator Julie Burkhard.

Below, some volunteer facts and quotes compiled by Julie:

Did you know...?
  • Museum volunteers gave 11,698 hours of service in 2010 alone
  • The Museum has volunteers ranging from 1 - 69 years young
  • The Museum currently has over 30 regular volunteers, not including college work-study students
  • The Museum would not be able to open its doors without volunteers
Why we volunteer...
“I love working with kids.”
–Claudia, Play Guide

“I like being creative, I like helping out, and I like having FUN!”
–Allyson, Graphic Design Intern

“Because I love children. Their positivity truly influences me! They are magical!”
–Rachel, AmeriCorps Museum Educator

“As an AmeriCorps volunteer, I am able to do satisfying work, have fun, and be inspired every day by the children, by the professional staff, and by my fellow AmeriCorps volunteers.”
–Bonnie, AmeriCorps Museum Educator

“Because I love to make kids smile.”
-Amy, Education Intern

“We volunteer for a few reasons. We wanted to give our daughter a better connection to other children in the community, since she is getting older. We want her to understand volunteerism and what it means to give back to others. And we wanted to play at the Museum more! This gives us time as a family to focus on each other, as well as those around us."
–Amy, Family Volunteer
Why the Museum appreciates its volunteers...
“I love the fact that volunteers are here at the Museum because they choose to be. And (a big AND) we could not take care of our visitors without them!”
–Mary, Early Childhood Programs Coordinator

"Our volunteers are the BEST! I love their playful spirit and that we hear from visitors again and again how memorable our Play Guides and desk staff are!
–Carly, Education Programs Coordinator

"Volunteering is not easy. You must have a big heart and willing to serve people without expecting anything in return. That's why we love volunteers, because they are a special kind of people."
–Diana, Experience Coordinator

"Museum volunteers share their passion for play. They make exhibits and programs even more fun!"
–Cathy, Director of Education
“They remind me of how amazing it is to give your time to something you really enjoy, and this place couldn’t run without them!
–Lyndsey, AmeriCorps Museum Educator

“They help us ensure a quality experience for everyone who enters our building.”
–Joanna, Communications & Membership Assistant

“I enjoy chatting with the volunteers and saying hello when they are coming in to start their day with us. Thanks for the smiles!”
–Shannon, Visitation Specialist with Families Together

“They are ALWAYS willing to help!”
–Barbara, Office Manager

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Unplug During Screen-Free Week!

Shut down the video games, turn off the TV and step away from your screens – April 18-24 is Screen-Free Week! This national celebration, which coincides this year with school vacation, is presented by Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and encourages children, families, schools and communities to turn off screen media for a week – to unplug, play, read, create, explore.
Excessive screen time has long been an issue, but the problem is growing as more kids have individual devices and near-constant media access. A national survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 8-18 year-olds average more than 7½ hours per day in front of screens and consuming entertainment media, which adds up to more than 53 hours a week – nearly twice as much time as they spend in school.

And although the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen use for children under 2 years, very young children also spend an astonishing amount of time at screens. According to Nielsen, preschoolers average more than 24 hours of television viewing each week.

Dr. Susan Linn, director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and author of Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood, notes that while not everything on screens is bad, in general screen time encourages passive media consumption and limits the time children spend engaged in creative play. “Unlimited access to miniaturized screens means that even when children are out and about, we are depriving them of opportunities to engage in the world,” explains Linn. “They learn to look to screens rather than to their environment for stimulation, to expect to be entertained rather than entertaining themselves.” Among other implications, screen time can also make kids less physically active and more prone to attention problems, poor school performance and sleep disruption.
So take a break during Screen-Free Week and see what you and your kids can do without. Worried about screen time withdrawal? Here’s a list of fun-filled, playful alternatives, contributed by Providence Children’s Museum educators:
  • Go on a nature walk in a park or around your neighborhood. Take paper and crayons and do rubbings of the bark of different trees. Collect leaves and twigs for a nature art project.
  • Have a family game night. Make popcorn and play fun games like Uno or Cranium. With a deck of cards, learn how to shuffle and try building card houses.
  • Hold a family talent show. Plan a few days ahead for practice, props and costumes. Don't tell each other what talent you're going to perform so everyone's act is a surprise!
  • Take a dark walk – bring flashlights and explore your neighborhood at night.
  • Have a book-a-thon. Go to the library in the afternoon. Then, after supper, climb into bed and read aloud to each other. Don’t limit the number of books or chapters – just keep reading for as long as everyone stays awake!
  • Design a mini-golf course inside or outside using toys and things found around the house. Take turns with a real or plastic putter and golf balls.
  • A different hide-and-go-seek challenge: take turns hiding and searching for something small, like a stuffed animal.
  • Make outside obstacle courses using jump ropes, balls and chairs and have a relay race. Take turns designing new courses.
  • Have a toy carwash. Bring out cars and any toys that need a scrub and gather sponges and soapy water.
And don’t worry if kids whine about being bored without screens – let them figure it out! It’s amazing how boredom can inspire creativity if you allow the space for it to happen.

Have a wonderful UNPLUGGED week!

Other resources:
For more unplugged fun, visit the Museum during school vacation! Meet llamas, lambs and other Fleecy Friends. Fold and crease paper to create fabulous flying contraptions. See performances by the Pumpernickel Puppets and the State Ballet of Rhode Island. In celebration of Earth Day, watch No Time to Waste, an interactive family comedy about recycling. And for adults, get tickets to Unplugged, the Museum’s 2011 gala fundraiser, and support the Museum and child-directed play!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

An Interview with Heidi Brinig

This year, the Museum celebrates the 20th anniversary of Families Together, its therapeutic visitation program for court-separated families. Heidi Brinig, the program's director, came to the Museum as a volunteer in April 1991, working to launch the renowned program. She spoke about her inspiration and the program’s evolution.

What’s your background?
I have a bachelor’s in early childhood education and a master’s degree in human development and family counseling. I previously worked as a community mental health therapist, for a teaching hospital in Pennsylvania. My work was focused around children in foster care and mentally challenged adults. I was also working on a certification in play therapy, how to use play in a very clinical setting.

What was your inspiration for Families Together?
As a therapist, we spent all this time with kids, teaching them better coping practices, but we weren’t teaching the parents anything. We returned kids to families who were unprepared. The system didn’t help me understand the needs of the family and how to support them – and why they came back into the foster system so quickly. I didn’t believe it was helping people – they needed a better way to heal.
How did the program start?
With work in play therapy and early childhood education, and as a hands-on learner myself, I was fascinated by children’s museums. I went to Boston Children’s Museum and it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. To see kids’ learning process and joy just does something for my soul.

In the spring of 1990, I researched cities with children’s museums across the country to see if I could develop an internship. Rhode Island was my third phone call, and I was invited to visit to talk about the idea further. The Museum had already been thinking about engaging the social service community more formally, so by late fall they said, okay, we’ll do it. They offered me an internship researching the needs of the social service community and how the Museum could be helpful.

Family and friends questioned how I could go to a place where I knew no one and I thought, what an adventure! I was so taken by the care and the love that people at the Museum had for children and their welfare.

What were the early challenges in starting the program?
Working with DCYF to identify what the program should look like, I had to do lot of research on something that didn’t exist – there was very little written on visitation at that time.

I had to engage the Museum community in a way that supported the families. The staff was on board but I wanted them to invest in the idea, to embrace these complicated people and challenged families.

I believe the line between where I stand in life and where these families stand is very thin. Any one of us could easily be in a situation where we need help. These families’ challenges touch so much of what the Museum as an institution wants to change. Everyone can come here and be the same. We fight for social justice.
What about today?
Ever since I started this project, it’s been a balancing act on so many levels. The needs of the family – and not victimizing them. Understanding my strengths and limitations. At every stage, being mindful of the needs and mission of the Museum, DCYF, the court and the various levels of the child welfare system. That was challenging as the program was designed and grew and still is every day.

It’s a constant challenge to raise money and do the best we can for these families. There’s a limited amount of money and funding is changing.

Society has a desire to protect children but also respects parents' rights and privacy. Our biggest challenge is respecting the right of parents and helping those that make decisions about their lives. To protect children physically and emotionally and to actually raise them are different challenges, and there are parents who try so hard but just can’t do it. It’s emotionally taxing for Families Together staff and caseworkers.

What are you proudest of?
I’m proud of Providence Children’s Museum for saying yes, of all the individuals who stand and stood by me in this institution and those connected with it – funders, board, staff, DCYF – who agreed to take this risk and continue to do it every day. Of their passion and commitment to do what’s right and be respectful of deserving families.

We’ve taken visitation beyond the Museum and have elevated it to an opportunity for teaching, guiding and assessment– and not just for the immediate family. I like to think we’ve set the pace for other visitation programs, that we’re a model for other child welfare systems and museums. We’ve tried to raise awareness about the value of visitation and over 20 years, I think we’ve succeeded.
Families Together staff, left to right: Front – Amber Massed, Cheryl Lepre, Jessica Lima;
Middle – Mary Luz Arias, Paula Toland, Heidi Brinig, Cat McCaffery;
Back – Shannon Doherty and Amanda Grandchamp

Learn more about Families Together in the spring issue of the Museum's newsletter.