Monday, October 31, 2011

An Interview with Bonnie Schultz Platzer

Meet Bonnie Schultz Platzer, a former Museum AmeriCorps member who curated the selection of handmade toys now on display from ChildFund International's exhibit "The Power to Play: From Trash to Treasure."

What’s your background? 
I served with the Peace Corps in Togo, West Africa from 1969 to 1971, after graduating from college, then again in Morocco from 2006 to 2008.  Before Morocco, I had been working with seniors, doing activities in nursing homes and assisted living.  In the Peace Corps, I was working more with mothers and young children and I thought it would be interesting to see if I could do something more with children. When I came back, I wanted to continue working for a non-profit organization and Providence Children’s Museum intrigued and impressed me.

Describe your year of AmeriCorps service.
I was on the team that created activities for preschool children at Head Start centers, led them on field trips to the Museum, and organized family nights to encourage parents to bring children back to the Museum throughout the year.  Everything in the classroom was wonderful: having children looking at you with excitement and concentration as you lead an activity and tell a story; their attention to and delight in everything we brought to them.  On field trips, they were so excited to be at the Museum, they could hardly contain themselves.

It was satisfying to see children who were given a chance to enjoy a school setting in preparation for kindergarten, interesting to see the situation teachers face in preparing them for school, and wonderful to meet the parents who were giving their children opportunities for the future.

Talk about your weaving that hangs in Discovery Studio.
In West Africa, I was fascinated by the beauty of textiles and started taking classes in spinning and weaving.  I studied Gobelin tapestry weaving techniques that enabled me to produce woven portraits, including so many images that had affected me during my travels that I wanted to convey.

When I returned to Rhode Island, I wove portraits including a little girl at the Hope Street farmer’s market, which took about a year. Children have always caught my eye, and I was struck by the diversity of the people who came to the farmer’s market.  This weaving brings together my interests in children and Rhode Island-grown food.

The Museum is a place of discovery, and I love having it hang here and having people respond to the image.  I love the connection to something that women have done from the beginning of time; it makes me proud to continue that tradition.

What inspired you to bring The Power to Play exhibit to the Museum?
When I saw the Museum’s ramp boxes, I thought about a toy exhibit my late brother initiated when he worked for ChildFund International.  My brother and I lived in Kenya for a few years and, on a later trip, a child gave him a boat made from a flip-flop.  He was struck that, in the midst of a traumatic situation, this child still had the need to play.  [ChildFund] put out a request for toys made by children around the globe and they started pouring in.

Bonnie's brother, John Schultz, with children and their toys in Sri Lanka, 2005.

I was struck by how similar the goals of ChildFund’s exhibit were to the Museum’s: helping children thrive, meeting the needs of children in the community, giving kids a safe environment to play and learn.  And for all children to feel welcome in that environment.

How did the project progress?
We weren’t able to see the toys first, so we selected 20 that would fit in the cases and also represented diversity of cultures and of purpose – plus some larger toys to display in the lobby.  Then we thought about how to show them off using materials that are either recycled – since all of the toys are made from bits and pieces kids found around them – or that kids might find in their countries, like raffia, jute or bamboo.

RISD intern Jessica Kleinman worked with Bonnie to make bases for some of the toys from recycled materials.

I’m very pleased that the Museum was open to the idea and that ChildFund International was excited to have the exhibit here.  I hope the international community in Providence will come to see it and feel this is a place for them.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Universal Power of Play

Boy with car, credit: ChildFund International
A tin can truck, a jump rope braided from colorful plastic bags, and a well-worn shoe turned into a car – Providence Children’s Museum has welcomed a wonderful collection of child-created toys to the display cases in our atrium walkway and lobby. The charming playthings poignantly illustrate children’s creativity and inventiveness and the universal importance of play in children’s development.

The toys are a selection from The Power to Play: From Trash to Treasure, a traveling exhibition of more than 350 pieces collected by ChildFund International, a global child development and protection agency. The collection has been featured in National Geographic magazine and displayed at National Geographic’s Explorers Hall in Washington D.C. Former AmeriCorps Museum Educator Bonnie Schultz Platzer curated the display at the Museum.

The toys were crafted in countries including India, Brazil, Ethiopia and the United States and range from dolls, games and musical instruments to a variety of things that float, roll and fly. They were constructed from materials and objects found around children’s homes and villages – bottle caps, twigs, discarded containers and cardboard, old flip-flops, fabric scraps and bits of wood, wire and string – and demonstrate that simple everyday materials make wonderful playthings.

Each toy has a story. Some are unique to their place of origin, some reflect the challenging social, economic and political conditions faced in children’s countries, and others are universal, like balls and kites made in different places using exactly the same techniques. None were made for sale; each came about because a child had the inspiration, the materials and the need to play. Together, the toys demonstrate children’s creativity, resiliency and enduring spirit and evoke powerful personal reflections and vivid memories of play.

Providence Children’s Museum actively advocates for and celebrates the power of children’s play; this display provides a compelling way to share that message. “Some of the toys are so intricate and detailed, you can see the children as engineers, figuring out how an axle works so their truck can really move,” said Museum Exhibits Director Robin Meisner. “To show children’s work that represents cultures from all over the world – and work that is incredibly well designed and functional – demonstrates kids’ creativity and ingenuity.”

Visitors of all ages delight in the details of the designs and the creative use of materials. They’re also invited to join a materials hunt and share how they make their own toys, encouraging reflection on and conversation about the common bond children share in their need for play and the ability to create their own playthings.

The toys will be on view through February 26, 2012; click here to learn more about the exhibit from ChildFund International.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Kids, Play and Risk

Last week, an audience of more than 50 people gathered at the Children’s Museum for a thought-provoking conversation about the benefits of risk-taking to kids' healthy physical and emotional development – a topic inspired by discussion on the PlayWatch listerv.

Conversation "instigators" Amy Dickinson, training and education manager for KaBOOM!, a national non-profit dedicated to saving play for America's children; Julia Steiny, columnist for Education News and director of the Youth Restoration Project; Angelica Almlid Barrows, who raised her kids in Norway and the US; and Museum director Janice O’Donnell sparked a rich and lively audience exchange. Following is a summary of the evening’s themes and great moments, plus resources shared and some of the lingering questions.

On play and risk in other cultures
  • During her Peace Corps service in Paraguay, Amy Dickinson noticed that kids played differently, and that the culture had a more common sense attitude toward kids’ play.
  • Angelica Barrows talked about the outdoor preschool that three of her children attended in Norway and shared beautiful images of children climbing, building, playing in the mud, and outdoors in all weather. “Perhaps because of those experiences, my kids are rarely bored and take on mental and physical challenges – learning a new skill is something they have patience with, and confidence they will succeed.” She noted that there are fewer liability issues in planning playgrounds in Europe.

On perception of risk
  • In raising her now-grown kids, Julia Steiny said her philosophy was to “calculate the medical damage and let them fall…. How else are they going to learn balance?”
  • “There’s a need for conversations about real vs. perceived risks,” and the role of the media in confusing the two.

On barriers to allowing kids to play and take risks
  • Strict safety regulations for designing playgrounds
  • Rules and restricted time in school: recess is being cut and curriculum doesn’t allow for play
  • “Part of the problem is no eyes on the street… people don’t know their neighbors,” and we’re creating danger for ourselves by keeping kids inside instead of getting to know people. One solution: programming parks and public spaces – community gardens, classes, cleaning up trash and getting the neighborhood invested and willing to take ownership.

On adventure playgrounds
  • It's important to recognize that kids actually play more safely when they understand there are risks. “At adventure playgrounds, kids are learning to deal with risky elements in an environment of controlled risk.”
  • There are plenty of liabilities at adventure playgrounds but parents must take responsibility for allowing their kids to play there.
On parenting
  • A parks and rec representative shared a story of a parent whose toddler was burned on a hot slide after being placed there and demanded, ‘You should have signs up.’ Her reflection: “With the balance of liability and educating parents, it’s hard to have free play.”
  • “The legal system here takes all of the onus of parenting off of us…its someone else’s fault. Who can I blame and what can I get out of it?”
  • The result of overprotecting kids, paraphrasing Finding Nemo: “I won’t ever let anything happen to you!” “But if nothing ever happens, then nothing will ever happen.”
  • “We live in a society where raising children is almost a science... You almost need to go to school to be a parent.”
  • “We’re atomized, very separate, wisdom is not getting passed down the way it used to.” “Parents don’t have others looking out for them.”

On developing emotional intelligence
  • “More and more kids are coming to school with anxiety disorders – there’s so much fear back and forth between kids and parents…We need to educate parents about emotional intelligence and learning balance and limits.”
  • College counselors are reporting that kids in top tier schools need more and more counseling – “and these are the kids we take care of…we teach resiliency to no one.”

On preparedness for the real world
  • “Test scores are dropping. We’re trying to build Algebra I on top of nothing. Kids go in to science class with no real experience.” Julia Steiny cited Susan Linn’s idea of the mitigated world – “kids never encounter the world as it actually is.”
  • We have to stop solving problems for kids and “help them figure out how to.”

The lingering questions
  • Amidst the obstacles, how do we continue to advocate for free play in our parks? Our schools?
  • How do we prepare kids to take risks and challenges?
  • What does it take to raise a free range kid, while living your life and getting things done?

The evening closed with a reminder about how important it is to keep talking to one another and sharing resources and ideas. Join the conversation on the PlayWatch listserv to tackle these and other big questions, and see the Kids, Play and Risk resource sheet (pdf) we prepared for this event for TONS of great articles, books and websites.

Please contact Megan Fischer if you have ideas for future community conversation topics, or if you're interested in presenting a screening of “Where Do the Children Play?”

"In the real world, life is filled with risks... and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development."
– Dr. Joe Frost


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Announcing Nina's House!

The Families Together program at Providence Children's Museum is growing!

Created in collaboration with RI Department of Children, Youth and Families in 1992,
Families Together provides therapeutic visitation and permanency planning for children in foster care and their families.  In 2010, the program served more than 500 children and parents in 175 families.  

Thanks to The Nina Foundation, Families Together will extend its services to court-separated families with a homelike setting for family healing.  Opening this fall, "Nina's House" will provide a warm, welcoming environment for therapeutic visitation for children, their parents, siblings and extended family.  Take a peek at some of the work to get Nina's House ready to serve families:

We're celebrating the opening of Nina's House with a virtual shower!  If you would like to contribute a gift from the Nina's House registry, you can do so by November 15.  All donations will benefit children in foster care and their families as they work to strengthen relationships and parenting skills.

Thank you!