Friday, September 28, 2012

The Making of a Museum Exhibit

Many people don’t know that we make our own exhibits at Providence Children’s Museum.  One of the defining features of our environments is that they are “original creations made by professional staff in concert with educators, scholars and artists.”  That means that most of what you see in the Museum was developed, designed and fabricated in house, supplemented by components that are purchased or commissioned from vendors or artists.

Creating new exhibits is the work of the X team.  While it sounds like a group of crime-fighting superheroes, X team is short for exhibits team and includes Exhibits Director Robin Meisner, Exhibit Designer & Fabricator Chris Sancomb, Exhibit Technician Hillel O’Leary, Graphic Designer Valerie Haggerty-Silva and Executive Director Janice O’Donnell as primary players (also known as miniX).  The full team also includes the Museum’s entire education staff, including visitor services, and communications director. The X team has a collective 194 years of experience in informal learning, with miniX adding up to 101 years of exhibit design!  The miniX designers are RISD-trained artists – Chris in Sculpture and Val and Hillel in Illustration – and Robin has a doctorate in Education Research, focusing on informal learning in museum exhibits.

A meeting of miniX – Hillel, Robin, Val and Chris.
When we create a new exhibit, the X team follows a meticulous phased process that has checks and balances and opportunities for feedback along the way. Each phase is a buy-in point, and we don’t move to the next step until the entire team reaches consensus.

Seed – The Big Idea
Once we know a topic, we start by thinking about our exhibit learning goals, target age and main messages – what we hope both children and parents will take away.  We also think about what we call avenues of exploration – how we want kids and their caregivers to explore these concepts.
Bud – Concept and Design Development
Then we translate the concepts and goals into actual components by thinking about what kids are going to do, which is a challenging but fun process.  We identify the range of activities – like fine and gross motor – and try to balance what we think makes for a strong exhibit overall.  We begin to think about what the exhibit is going to look and feel like – its aesthetic and preliminary layout and design. The bud phase also includes budget estimates and a timeline for creating the exhibit.

MiniX having a pre-bud discussion about the layout of ThinkSpace, a major new exhibit about spatial thinking that opens in November.
Blossom – Final Design
We refine and finalize how we’ll create the exhibit, including components, budget and production schedule.  All of the activities are fully detailed, including construction drawings, and design is finalized.  All exhibit items are costed out and venders and subcontractors identified.  Basically, we confirm what we’re going to do and make sure we can do it all within budget and when we say we’re going to!

A presentation about final ThinkSpace plans to the entire X team, to get buy-in and achieve blossom.
Fruit – Production 
We build the exhibit! This phase takes many months and includes the fabrication and installation of all components and graphics as well as renovations to the surrounding environment, like repainting and recarpeting. It also includes creating assessment and communications plans and staff training.

Preserves – Assessment, Fine Tuning and Maintenance
After the exhibit is open, we spend a lot of time observing to see how visitors use the components and assess whether they work as intended.  We plan for ongoing operations and maintenance and, over time, make changes to anything not working and reassess.

The full process generally takes a year or two, and the cycle begins all over again with the next new exhibit. 

Stay tuned for more details about the process of planning, prototyping and fabricating ThinkSpace, and learn more about the new environment in the Museum's fall newsletter.

Prototypes of ThinkSpace components. This is the first exhibit where the X team has built and tested prototypes of nearly all of the components.

Friday, September 21, 2012

‘Where Do the Children Play?’ October Screenings

Providence Children's Museum is partnering to present two free public screenings of "Where Do the Children Play?" in October. This provocative documentary examines an issue of growing concern among pediatricians, mental health experts, educators and environmentalists: more and more children are growing up with limited time and opportunities for unstructured play, especially outdoors. An audience discussion will follow each screening, led by Museum director Janice O'Donnell and other panelists. The film will be shown:

Wednesday, October 3 • 6:30 - 8:30 PM 
251 Benefit Street • Providence, RI 02903
Space is limited. RSVP to Lindsay Shaw at or (401) 421-6970 ext. 17. 

Other panelists include Linda Atamian, co-founder of The Mariposa Center; Dr. Jane Dennison, pediatrician; and Julia Steiny, education columnist and director of the Youth Restoration Project. Presented by the Providence Athenaeum, Providence Children's Museum and the Partnership for Providence Parks.

Thursday, October 116:30 - 8:30 PM 
175 Main Street • Pawtucket, RI 02860
Space is limited. RSVP to Jane Blanchette at or (401) 729-6293. 

Other panelists include John Blais, Pawtucket Parks and Recreation director; Dr. Elizabeth Lange, pediatrician and former RI American Academy of Pediatrics chapter president; and Cindy Larson, LISC senior program officer. Presented by Pawtucket Child Opportunity Zone (COZ), Pawtucket Citizens Development Corporation, Pawtucket Parks and Recreation Department, and Providence Children’s Museum.

PlayWatch logo

Also join the conversation about the importance of play on the Museum's community discussion listserv, "PlayWatch: Connecting the Community to Promote Children's Play."  To read the PlayWatch archives or to join the list, visit

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


This article, by Early Childhood Programs Coordinator Mary Scott Hackman, was also posted on Kidoinfo.

The summer crowd has a special feel here at Providence Children’s Museum. Visitors seem relaxed and joyful, peer excitedly around corners, anticipate what the next room or exhibit will hold, hold hands with their children, and run up the ramp, entirely open to the possibilities. The unplugged, gleeful way they experience the Museum shouts, “We’re on vacation!”

In contrast, the approach of our visitors changes in September. Parents or caregivers engage with their children but they don’t necessarily lose themselves in play in the same way. Their cell phones are on and they are likely watching the clock so they can run to school to pick up their other child and deliver him to some after-school activity. Everyone is back on schedule! As summer comes to a close I wonder, how can we hold on to that carefree summer attitude when the reality of fall is moving in so quickly?

Working Americans operate under the myth that if you put in more hours, you are more productive. And ever since “No Child Left Behind,” classrooms have operated under a similar premise, limiting recess or removing it entirely. But this shift is not translating into more academic success. Not only is being too busy not productive, it actually makes us – young and old – more stressed, more burned out, and less healthy.

Overscheduling elementary school-age kids is a modern day parent trap. When parents sign their children up for this lesson and that sport, they think they are being good parents whose children will be happy and accomplished. We think we’re saving our children by keeping them busy, but we’re actually burning them out before they have a chance to achieve.

Parents are also under pressure to start scheduling their children and introducing academics at a younger age.  But research shows that children who attend preschools where academics are emphasized are more likely to experience higher levels of test anxiety, are found to be less creative, and generally have more negative attitudes towards school than children attending a play-based preschool.

David Elkind, noted authority on parenting and child development, stated a sad reality: “Over the last two decades alone, children have lost eight hours of free, unstructured, and spontaneous play a week.”  So what is the answer? I think we need to make critical decisions about where and how children spend their early years and watch them for signs of burnout. Make a goal to leave more hours of non-screen free time in kids’ schedules. Let them have an opportunity to be bored and encourage them to find creative ways to spend their time, allowing them to get caught up in open-ended, self-directed, no-rules play. Give the kids a break – and yourselves a break, too!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Playful Providence!

A Citywide Celebration of Play • September 7 - 9, 2012

The city of Providence was recently honored as a Playful City USA by KaBOOM!, a national non-profit dedicated to saving play for America’s children.  The recognition, which honors cities and towns that make play a priority, was due in part to the Museum’s growing advocacy for children’s free play over the past four years. 

To celebrate this honor and the power of play, the Museum collaborated with the new Partnership for Providence Parks and other partners to plan the first Playful Providence weekend.  It begins on Friday, September 7 with a Playful Providence Kickoff Celebration downtown in Burnside Park from 4:30 - 6:30 PM.  The celebration will feature a host of playful activities – including the Museum’s Imagination Playground – plus lively music and a short presentation by Mayor Angel Taveras, Superintendent of Parks Robert F. McMahon, Museum Executive Director Janice O’Donnell and other speakers.

Playful Providence activities will continue throughout the weekend and will help families discover great places to play across the city.  Events will be held at 21 neighborhood parks and 6 other play and recreation venues and include collaborative art, crafts and games, bubble blowing, music, dance classes and other playful fun. Visit for a full listing of events, including activity details and locations.

Credit: Brown Street Park
In honor of Playful Providence, the Museum's play specialists compiled a toolkit of playful activities, games and resources to share. The toolkit includes some of our favorite fun activities; great games to lead with groups; excellent loose parts for play, including natural and repurposed materials; tips for supporting and encouraging play; and lists of books and websites for more playful ideas. It’s great for parents, teachers, childcare and after-school program staff, and more!  Click here to download the Play Toolkit.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Summer of Play at the Parks

We had a great time taking Imagination Playground and other hands-on fun to Providence city parks this summer, where we engaged 850 kids and family members in unstructured play.  And we saw kids do some pretty amazing things! Staff shared some reflections, favorite moments and observations of the especially creative ways kids used the big blue blocks.

Sarah, AmeriCorps Museum Educator:
Children really remembered Imagination Playground.  When kids from one event showed up at a second event, their excitement was evident:  "I remember these blocks!  This time I'm going to build…!"

I loved watching older children play with younger children.  When something risky was happening such as climbing on a tall stack of blocks or building a bridge to walk across, many times the older children would "safe-proof" the structure before allowing the younger ones to proceed.  It was very sweet.

Alex, AmeriCorps Museum Educator:
It was a blur of happy kids frolicking, whacking, jumping, building and playing. There was a lot of good self-governing. One time, when too many kids tried to fit into a block house, a 4-year-old said, "why don't we try to make it bigger!"

Janice, Executive Director:
One boy (8 or 9) and his friend had a jolly time building for quite awhile and then they invented a new game.  They laid blocks on the ground in a line and walked on them like a bridge. The rule was you could not step on the ground. The last kid had to pick up the last block and pass it forward down the line to the leader who placed it on the ground and everyone moved forward.  The process was repeated over and over, with sometimes great distances between blocks so kids had to really stretch to reach the next one without stepping on the ground. They used the smallest blocks as well as the long ones to create additional step stone challenges.
Other kids joined them.  Eventually almost every kid there was engaged in this game and the line was really long, snaking its way through the previously constructed structures.  All ages played together laughing and cooperating in this game of their own invention.
Megan, Communications Director:
Kids constructed so many wonderful things: a basketball hoop that was used for a lengthy group game, bunk beds and other furniture, a gas station with moveable gas pumps and…
Roller coaster cars
A spa complete with a tanning bed/massage table
An ice cream/lemonade stand
A comfortable combination bed/couch (which the boys decided should be called a "bouch!")
A girl and young boy created an impressive dentist's chair and took turns giving one another a check up.
Two girls used several long curved blocks as the base of a fishing boat and added a stack of wheels to the back to be a fish barrel. Then they made a fishing pole from a noodle and a wheel and headed out to sea!
A group of 7 or 8 kids worked together to build an elaborate car, combining lots of plastic tubes and other loose parts with the blocks. It was a tremendous collaborative effort!
We also brought other activities and loose parts to complement Imagination Playground. Sarah's lively hula hoop games were always a huge hit, and kids constantly invented games of their own.

Monday, September 3, 2012

PlayWatch: Learning Club & Imagination Playground

Three AmeriCorps Museum Educators shared inspiring stories of their Learning Club participants’ creative play with Imagination Playground blocks.

We had the unique opportunity to bring Imagination Playground to the South Side Boys & Girls Club on several occasions and gave kids open-ended challenges to complete as a whole group or in teams. The kids worked together to construct a wall that spanned the room; a house that I could stand in (I am 6’3”), equipped with a seat should I choose to take a load off; and a bridge, 30 feet long, that transported and held the weight of the entire team plus one AmeriCorps member.

Then the kids had plenty of free time to build, which spawned grander and even more thoughtful projects. Three girls, Janiah, Jaziyah and D’Zire, accomplished a truly amazing feat: they constructed a train, with seats for two, which they moved around the room on cylindrical pieces that they took turns placing in front. They discovered this method entirely on their own, and I only assisted with cylinder placement once I noticed their engineering achievement.

The girls had the spatial awareness to know the distance the next cylinder should be placed in order to sustain a smooth ride, and even began angling them to turn the train in a new direction. It was great to see what can happen when our brilliant kids are very much engaged.

– John Rossi

Fox Point Boys & Girls Club came to the Museum for a field trip and we began building an Ice Cream Castle in Imagination Playground.  Alyson, Jhene and I built the walls, while Kimora was busy making ice cream cones out of loose parts and adorning the castle with sugary treats.

Alyson found the laminated sheet with sample structures for inspiration.  In one of the pictures, two curved pieces lean together atop two tall rectangular blocks, making an arched doorway.  Alyson decided that would be my job to create, because I was the tallest one, but I just couldn’t get it to stand!  Frustrated, I told her I didn’t think we could do it, but she wasn’t giving up.  Instead of it being the doorway, she decided to make that the back gate and to have it be closed.  She had me hold the blocks up while she made a tall column underneath to steady them.  Before I knew it, we had an arch.

It might not have been made the way we originally planned, but Alyson was clever enough to come up with an alternate design that still created the shape she desired.  She clearly communicated her ideas and persevered without getting frustrated or giving up.  I was amazed with the way such a small girl who is generally pretty quiet and mild-mannered could perform such high-level science and engineering skills. I told her how impressed I was and suggested she think about becoming an architect one day.  She responded, “I love animals, so maybe I can be an architect for dolphin castles!”

– Meagan Amylon

Imagination Playground inspiration sheet

Learning Club kids who come to Family Nights get a free pass to come to the Museum with their families as often as they want for a whole year, and it's always a pleasure to see them make good use of it. Plus, it's fun for us to get to play again with club alums, and it's flattering to be asked for by name. Such was the case when former Learning Club member Vanessa came to play with her brother and mother.

I met up with them in Imagination Playground and at Vanessa's insistence, we built a car big enough (and functional enough) to actually ride around in (when pushed). As clever and creative as ever, Vanessa added a piece of sparkly black and yellow striped cloth and said, “Check out my flashy taxi!"

She drove her newly-christened vehicle around the room, asking all of the other visitors (kids and adults) if they wanted a ride. "Free rides in the flashy taxi! No fare today." I don't think anyone took her up on it, but within a few minutes there was a competing taxi on the road; her creation was inspiring other kids.

I shouldn't have been surprised at Vanessa's ingenuity and positive impact on the room since that was always the case in Learning Club, but it still impressed me to see a kid so quickly and effectively take charge. Learning Club kids are great Museum-goers and by giving them free passes, we're giving them an opportunity they might not have otherwise. They're also giving us something in return: experienced and enthusiastic Museum visitors who know how to have creative fun.

– Andy Axel