This article, by Museum Executive Director Janice O'Donnell, was also posted on Kidoinfo.
If you’ve visited the Museum in the past couple of
months, you may have noticed members of the staff with clipboards
lurking in the Museum’s newest exhibit, ThinkSpace. Doing
some lurking of my own, I spent nearly 20 minutes watching a very small
visitor push big wooden beads along the wire and bead maze, watch them
slip down, push them up again. Twenty minutes – amazing concentration
for an 18-month-old. I tracked a 7-year-old who solved one
block-stacking challenge after another, translating abstract drawings
into three-dimensional models, and a 9-year-old who was determined to
map all of the mystery mazes. I took notes, timed how long they
spent at activities, and listened for spatial language: “Rotate it!” “I
need another parallelogram.” A mom asked what I was doing.
“Observations,” I told her.
Careful observation is as important to the exhibit creation process
as planning, designing, building and installing. It’s how we know
what’s working well, what activities engage kids of what ages, how
adults respond, and what we should change. We expect to be surprised.
No matter how carefully we test prototypes and how much experience we
have, kids will do something we didn’t foresee. And sometimes we know
we don’t know, so we might put up a temporary label or try out a series
of easily changed activities and see what happens. We observe
systematically for several weeks after opening an exhibit and make
But our observation isn’t limited to new exhibits – it’s a constant.
We record and share stories of the power of children’s play in the
Museum’s newsletter, on this blog, and on our documentation board in Discovery Studio.
Watching kids at play helps us understand and appreciate their capacity
for and ways of learning, and we want our visiting adults to be as
delighted by their children’s ingenuity as we are. That toddler freely
exploring cause and effect at the bead maze encountered a perfect
learning opportunity, developmentally and physically within his reach.
One child, solving a mystery maze, said each of her steps aloud: “First
it goes down, then when I do this it goes that way, and then it goes
back and then down…” Another silently drew his solution. Different
styles, same determination.
Children can navigate social situations as deftly as they solve a
maze. I watched two previously unacquainted kids, ages 6 and 7, working
together to assemble seven large, unusually shaped blocks to build a
cube. A Museum play guide supplied well-timed hints, suggesting that
they “try rotating it” and offering other clues. The boys worked
diligently, incorporating the hints: “One two three four – that side’s
too high!” “Start again!” “Rotate!”
Five-year-old sisters of one of
the boys joined them and even when the younger ones sat on the blocks
and generally got in the way, the boys carried on. “Give me the
yellow,” one ordered his sister, who hopped off the yellow block and
handed it to them. After at least four start-overs, they could see the
solution. Some silent understanding developed among them that the
little girls would put in the last two pieces. The last block. The
boys could see exactly how it fit in, but the 5-year-old couldn’t quite
get it. “Rotate,” her brother told her. She turned it around and slid
the final piece into place. The boys climbed atop their completed cube,
arms raised in victory, while everyone cheered.
In a recent blog post, museum planner Jeanne Vergeront suggests there ought to be an app for play spotting,
which she describes as “… pausing and observing children at play. It
is watching them and getting to know them and their thinking through
their play. It is noticing what fascinates them and glimpsing the
intensity they invest in play.”
Children take their play seriously. We learn so much when we take their play seriously, too.