Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Video: The Benefits of Risk in Children’s Play

New from KaBOOM!, a fantastic video about the valuable role of risk in children’s play – featuring play experts including Museum director Janice O’Donnell and Dr. Elizabeth Lange, pediatrician and Museum Board member!

Risk is an important part of play – it teaches children how to fail and try again, test their limits and boundaries, become resilient and acquire coping skills. Yet kids are allowed fewer and fewer opportunities to experience risk.

These leaders in the movement to restore children's play join Janice and Beth to speak out on the subject:

Friday, May 25, 2012

Kids at Work

We have more new additions, this time to the French Canadian gallery of our Coming to Rhode Island exhibit, which celebrates the state’s rich cultural diversity. Visitors take a time traveling adventure to meet four real immigrants whose families came from different countries, for different reasons, at different times.

The French Canadian gallery tells the story of Louis Goulet, whose family immigrated to Manville, RI to work in the cotton mills in 1865, when Louis was 10. The environment includes a church archway to indicate the importance of religion in the Goulets’ life and a mural of the Manville Mill that depicts a spinning mule – a machine that twisted cotton into thread. In a reproduction of the family’s company cottage, children explore traditional quilting, read an account of life at the mill, and prepare customary meals on a cast iron stove.

New last week, two activities that engage visitors in mill work:

Bobbin sorting
Some children who worked in the mill were bobbin boys and girls, who collected and sorted bobbins full of thread from the spinning mules. Try sorting bobbins by color. Time yourself. How fast can you work?

Machines and people worked together in the mill. Gears were often an integral part of machinery, making work more efficient. Design a system of gears. Find the gears in the mill mural.

We’ve enjoyed seeing how the new components deepen visitors’ play in that gallery. Come check them out and let us know what you think!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Loosen Up!

This article, by Museum Executive Director Janice O'Donnell, was also posted on Kidoinfo.

In my business we spend a lot of time thinking and talking about loose parts. (We spend a lot of time picking up them up, too.) Loose parts play has certainly been around for as long as childhood, but the term was coined in the early seventies by British architect Simon Nicholson.

Nicholson was decrying an attitude that sees creativity as “…for the gifted few.” The rest of us are expected to passively enjoy the creations of the gifted few but are not considered capable of creating anything ourselves. He claimed that this false, although dominant, idea means the rest of us – and especially children – are deprived of the opportunities and the confidence to play around with variables and components, to experiment and discover – in other words, to be creative. And he was worrying about this 40 years ago – when kids still played outside until the streetlights came on and well before push-button toys and video games.

Nicholson’s Theory of Loose Parts is simple: “In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.”

Think of kids playing at the beach. The variables – the loose parts – are sand, water, mud, pebbles, shells, seaweed, sticks, buckets and shovels, bits of trash, even the sun and surf. And the play is wonderfully creative and inventive. Kids dig holes until they hit water, construct rivers and dams, build a castle and decorate it with mud squiggles, shells and tiny white stones. They attach a ragged beach towel to a stick for a flag. They invent games with waves, bury each other in the sand, and trace each other’s shadows. Even grown-ups get playful in an environment so rich in loose parts.

Nicholson called for schools, playgrounds, childcare facilities and even museums to be more like the beach: open-ended environments filled with loose parts that can be combined and changed and used for many different purposes. (He was writing at the dawn of hands-on children’s museums. I think we met his challenge!)

Kids can easily get the benefits of loose parts play at home. Loose parts are the simplest and least expensive and most malleable of objects – blocks, clay, sand and water, fabric scraps, pots and pans, shoeboxes, cardboard tubes, paper, tape and string. They don’t come with a story – kids create the stories. They don’t have an on and off switch – kids supply the action. There’s no wrong way to use them – kids make the rules. Loose parts play fosters creativity, resourcefulness, and problem solving. Because it’s self-directed and open-ended, it’s more likely to be sustained. It provides the best kind of learning.  

More About Loose Parts Play

Thursday, May 17, 2012


This fall the Museum will open a major new exhibit on spatial thinking. As part of the design process, the exhibits team turned Discovery Studio into a test lab for exhibit prototypes during April school vacation.

Navigating mystery mazes
Made from simple materials like scraps of wood, cardboard and hot glue, the prototypes were early designs of possible components intended to help us explore concepts and learn from visitor response. We were interested in finding out what age children were attracted to each activity, how they figured out what to do, how long they stayed engaged and whether they expressed excitement, interest or frustration.

Drawing three-dimensional shapes
We asked our testers what made the activity fun (or not), what made it challenging and what might make it more interesting. After observing and interviewing over 50 children (ages 4+) and their adult caregivers, we learned a lot from how visitors used the components and what we might do differently.

Exploring shape, scale and proportion with shadows
As we make changes to our designs and build new prototypes to test other activities, we’ll ask visitors again to play and share feedback – we really appreciate the help in designing the new exhibit!
Robin Meisner, Director of Exhibits

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Unplugged: Celebrating Creativity and Innovation

Last week, we held the Museum’s annual fundraising gala, “Unplugged – The Way to Play.” It was a fun and festive event that celebrated creativity and innovation, and honored seven local innovators who exemplify creative thinking. They shared their reflections on the importance of play – for their own creativity, and at the Children’s Museum.

What were your favorite creative ways to play as a kid, and how did they contribute to your creativity as an adult?

Ava Anderson – Founder/CEO, Ava Anderson Non-Toxic:
Hands down – dress up! Another favorite: fort building with my brother, from snow forts to elaborate pillow and blanket-covered contraptions in our grandmother’s living room.

Barrett Bready – President/CEO, NABsys, Inc.:
I loved interacting with nature, like an exploratory hike through the woods or observing animal life in my favorite stream or a Rhode Island ocean inlet.  I could spend hours collecting rocks or shells.  My career also involves exploring the natural world... just on the nanoscale.

Dennis Littky – Co-Founder/Co-Director, Big Picture Learning and The Met School: My creativity was shown through playing sports and drawing. My parents supported all creative acts that helped me keep being creative throughout my life.

Navyn Salem – Executive Director, Edesia Global Nutrition: My mother never let my younger brother and me watch TV, ever, unless it was Sesame Street at dinnertime. We had to make something up. We made instruments out of the vacuum cleaner; forts out of sheets; telecommunications systems out of string, index cards and clothespins; new living spaces out of the closets; and played Risk and Monopoly for hours.I still love to play games of any kind, like to make my own cards, and detest the racket of the TV unless it is dark out.

Jim Stallman – Owner, M.H. Stallman Co: We used to build forts and make structures in a lot of different ways. We did with sticks and wood what kids are doing [in Imagination Playground] with our foam blocks.

Max Winograd – President/Co-Founder, NuLabel Technologies: I set up a fort with chicken wire and carpeting in my parents' unfinished basement, where my friends and I would take apart electronics and engineer new contraptions. We created our own newspaper during elementary school that eventually became a self-published paper in 5th grade. And my three younger brothers and I invented sports like base-ketball, which involved a basketball and a baseball bat.

Meg Wirth – Founder/CEO, Maternova:
I used to do a lot of strange things like make stews and dyes out of flowers and berries with my best friend. We also performed surgeries on fruit and transplanted the heart (seed) with a bead, inserting Alka seltzer to speed the healing, and spent a lot of time mummifying things. Maybe there is a link between the apple surgery and my interest in health care.  I was definitely encouraged to play outside and to use creativity whenever and wherever.

How do you think the Children's Museum nurtures kids' creativity?

Barrett Bready: I was fortunate to have been introduced to the Children's Museum at a very early age when it was located in Pawtucket – first as a participant and then as a "staff kid," when my mom worked as Director of Development.  I am pleased to see that the concept of "hands-on" learning has been preserved and expanded.

Navyn Salem: My girls and I spent hours at the Children’s Museum when they were little.  I was even a bit teary-eyed when my youngest “graduated” from Littlewoods.  The Museum is an amazing space to escape to. Children have fun and learn something at the same time.  We are lucky to have this treasure in our city.

Max Winograd: The hands-on play at the Children's Museum stretches a child's definition of what's possible. It also reinforces classroom learning in ways far more entrepreneurial and self-driven than a typical elementary school classroom environment. Most importantly, that hands-on play and learning becomes more ingrained than any other method of instruction. I bet children who regularly played at and explored the Children's Museum were found to have – later in life – launched new ventures and emerged as highly creative, innovative adults and leaders.

Learn more about the innovators' and the Museum's creative work in this Unplugged slideshow: