Tuesday, December 31, 2013


Wishing you a wonderfully PLAY-full new year that brings creativity, inspiration and lots of fun!

Learning About Learning

This post was contributed by Museum Exhibits Director Robin Meisner.

For more than a decade, the Museum has opened its doors to developmental psychologists who explore how children think, learn and develop. Each week, researchers from The Causality and Mind Lab at Brown University and Kid Think at Providence College conduct controlled studies in the Museum’s Mind Lab to see how kids think about or react to certain games or situations. As scientists, the researchers make observations of many children and try to understand how they learn. They are not testing how “smart” an individual child is – they’re looking at how children (in general) think and what they can do at certain stages of development.

In late 2012, we expanded this work with researchers when we began a major three-year research project in collaboration with The Causality and Mind Lab, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (award #1223777). Researchers at Brown are looking at the development of scientific thinking in young children. At the Museum, we’re building on our interests in creating rich play environments and providing support for children, caregivers and Museum educators to notice and value the learning that happens through play. Specifically, we’re exploring how we might best support children’s metacognition – their ability to notice and reflect on their own thinking – and adults’ awareness and appreciation of kids’ thinking and learning through play, at the Museum and beyond.

Drawing from fields like developmental psychology, informal education and museum visitor studies, the Museum’s exhibits team has looked at studies on the types of learning that naturally occur through play, when children start to become aware of their own thinking, and how the design of museum environments encourages visitors to reflect on their learning. Last summer, the team conducted observations in three of our exhibitsPlay Power, ThinkSpace and Water Ways – and documented how children ages 3 to 11 interacted with exhibit materials and the people around them. We looked for indicators of children’s learning through play, such as critical thinking and problem solving. Next, we interviewed parents and caregivers about what they notice children doing in the exhibits, asking them to reflect on their children’s thinking.

Based on findings from our observations and interviews, we’ve begun to develop and test new tools and activities to make the learning that happens through play visible to adults and children. So don’t be surprised if you’re asked to test out new materials and share your thoughts when visiting the Museum this year – completely voluntary, of course, but we’d love your feedback. Stay tuned for future Learning About Learning project updates!

Friday, December 13, 2013

DIY Play

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

I’ve recently returned from a visit to the UK where I spent a lot of time in “adventure playgrounds.” Not at all common in the US, adventure playgrounds are places where kids build houses and dens with scrap wood and fabric, use old tires for swings or bridges, prop boards to make ramps for bikes and skateboards, and generally create their own play. Back home, describing these places and activities, the people I’m talking with inevitably share their own childhood memories of making playthings out of found objects. They recall making forts out of boards and branches, doll clothes out of fabric scraps, telephones out of tin cans, drums out of oatmeal canisters.

The Land, an adventure playground Janice visited in Wales.
Some of my own most intense play memories involve scavenging and constructing my playthings. I loved gathering up small scraps from my father’s woodworking and incorporating them into environments for my toy animals. I vividly remember a pail filled with tiny ends of wooden pegs that I used to make miniature fences. With the creativity of children, who see the possibilities in all things, shoes became cars for our Ginny dolls to drive and perfume bottles served as fancy lamps on building block tables.

Those were ideas of the moment, suggested by the perceived similarity of one object (an ornate bottle) to another (a glass lamp). There was also, in kid culture, knowledge that passed from child to child. Maybe there still is. When we moved from the country, we copied the suburban kids who clothes-pinned baseball cards to their bicycle wheels. They made a wonderful motorcycle sound as they hit the spokes, rrrrrrrrr. A neighborhood boy showed me how to make a skateboard. We took apart outgrown roller skates and screwed the wheels to boards. I learned to measure, saw and sand making my first skateboard; I learned to measure more carefully making my second one.

We learned a lot more than that. We learned to be resourceful and think creatively. We learned to fail and to try again. We learned about the joy of accomplishment. We learned self-reliance and how to learn from others. Really important lessons that children learn best by doing it themselves.

If you’re thinking of giving a child a fancy new toy or gadget, consider DIY materials instead: woodworking tools, nails and wood scraps; cardboard boxes and tubes and lots of tape; a sewing kit, fabric pieces, buttons and old socks; paints and brushes, markers, and a roll of butcher paper. Give them the gift of making their own play.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Museum Art

One of the Museum's defining features is the quality and beauty of its learning environment.  Since opening in 1977, we have commissioned or accepted donations of work by artists – many of them local – for our exhibits and public spaces.  These vibrant murals and paintings, intricate sculptures and carvings, and more contribute to the Museum’s creative aesthetic while introducing children to art and artists.

Not long ago, we welcomed new artworks to our atrium walkway.  One is an intriguing sculptural installation commissioned from Providence-based Mid-Ocean Studio, a collaborative team of artists who create public art projects internationally. Their first work in Providence, Space Debris responds to and expands on the idea of shapes in space as explored in our ThinkSpace exhibit.

The piece consists of three cloud-like structures with embedded images that refer to geometric concepts; windows overlooking the atrium allow interaction between sculpture and playspace.  Mid-Ocean Artistic Director Brower Hatcher called the creations “experiments with geometric systems” and described the design process as “three-dimensional weaving” and “my own kind of play.”

Hanging nearby are four ceramic murals loaned to the Museum by Massachusetts- based artist Judith Inglese, who has designed and fabricated work for public spaces for over 25 years.  A grandmother who has visited the Museum with her family, Judith “particularly enjoys depicting the role of creativity, imagination and discovery in the life of the child, as well as the importance of cross-cultural exchange and community.”

Her panels represent music, dance, opera and theater, each created in bas-relief and featuring whimsically detailed images and a variety of vibrant glazes that encourage visitors’ visual and tactile engagement.

Click here to view a slideshow with more Museum artwork.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Fun for the Whole Family

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

Adults are an important part of the Children’s Museum audience.  By sheer numbers, nearly half of all our visitors are adults.

We want adults to want to come to the Museum and to enjoy themselves here.  When the grown-ups are relaxed and engaged, kids are able to explore whatever interests them for as long as they want.  So, our answer to the question “What are grown-ups supposed to do here?” is “Have fun!”

Look through your child’s eyes.  It’s fascinating to find out what she’s drawn to, what she’s learning, what she knows how to do.  You can learn a lot about your child by carefully observing her.  Does she do the same activity over and over until she has it mastered?  What perseverance!  Does he charm adults and connect with other kids?  Great social skills!  Does she silently watch what other kids do and then try it herself?  Good learning strategy!  Even if putting the scarves through the air tubes again isn’t that interesting, your kid sure is.

Follow your children’s lead.  Let go of any agenda and follow their whims.  It’s less important to get to every exhibit than to share a good experience.  It looks like he might stay in The Climber for the rest of the day?  Fine – you can enjoy some leisurely time in the garden.

Credit: John C. Meyers
Join in the fun.  It’s not only okay for grown-ups to play, it’s good for you and an important way to interact with your children.  So play!  Climb up on the packet ship and obey your captain’s order to raise the sail.  When the kids are intent on engineering a series of dams and streams, roll up your sleeves and get involved – just don’t take over!

Have some fun of your own.  Your child is building an elaborate block structure.  Sit down and build one yourself.  Share building strategies.  Or get engrossed in something you like to do while your child is busy doing her own thing nearby.  We love to see adults happily creating kaleidoscopic designs while the kids are off playing with the trucks and rocks

We’re glad to see adults enjoying their Museum visit because they’re more likely to come back, but much more significantly, we love that they are doing something really important for their families.  Parents are learning about their kids and kids are feeling paid attention to and cared for.  Together, they’re creating happy family memories.  The American Academy of Pediatrics says play strengthens parent-child relationships, offering “opportunities for parents to fully engage with their children.”  On your next Museum visit – have some fun!