Friday, January 31, 2014

Giving Kids a Head Start

Since 1997, the Museum has served nearly 20,000 preschoolers in greater Providence Head Start – a critical part of our AmeriCorps-based outreach to children and families in need. 

Head Start is a federally funded program, created to combat poverty, that provides low-income children ages 3 to 5 and their families with a range of comprehensive services to support school readiness, health and emotional growth.  The Museum’s long-standing and successful collaboration with greater Providence Head Start (administered by Children’s Friend since 2009) was developed in response to a need expressed by Head Start administrators: for kids to have rich educational experiences in a hands-on environment.

A team of AmeriCorps members, led by our early childhood learning specialist, serves 1,000 Head Start children in more than 50 classrooms each year.  They design and deliver developmentally appropriate, hands-on activities that seek to strengthen children’s social and emotional development – their curiosity, initiative, social skills and sense of their own competence as learners.  Classroom activities vary, depending upon the needs and interests of Head Start teachers and administrators.

For the past few years, AmeriCorps members have presented activities that align with a Children’s Friend initiative to celebrate diversity.  In one imaginative lesson, members read a story about skin color and followed it with a color mixing activity, during which children enthusiastically created and named their own new paint shades.  By presenting engaging activities that support school readiness and early literacy, the team simultaneously creates a memorable learning experience for children and models effective techniques for teachers; they also provide teachers with a packet of activities to build on Museum lessons.  In addition, Museum educators lead trainings for all Head Start teachers and teacher aides.  Teachers come away with an assortment of new ideas, methods and materials, which they continue to use in their classrooms year after year.

After visiting each classroom, AmeriCorps members guide children’s joyful exploration during Museum field trips.  This is the first experience at a children’s museum for many, but it won’t be their last.  The Museum also hosts family nights for all of the Head Start centers – festive evenings for children and their families to play, learn and have dinner together. Wednesday was our third family night of the season, and we welcomed a remarkable 440 children and families from Providence’s Dean, Varone and Carter Head Start centers! Family night attendees receive free year-long Museum admission passes, enabling them to visit together as often as they’d like.  Family support is vital to young children’s development and learning, and family nights and free admission ensure important family engagement.

We are committed to being accessible to all children and families.  Strong, mutually respectful partnerships like the one with Children’s Friend Head Start make it possible to reach families who need the Museum most.

“I am so impressed with the Museum’s commitment to
vulnerable kids living in the urban core.”

– Aimee Mitchell, Director of Head Start, Children’s Friend
The Museum's AmeriCorps program is made possible by a grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service and Serve Rhode Island, with support from additional Head Start program sponsors.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Origami on Display

Our ThinkSpace exhibit includes what we refer to as a “geometry gallery,” a case that features a rotating display of natural and manmade objects that provide strong visual representations of spatial thinking, highlighting shapes in everyday life and the designed environment.

Yesterday, the exhibits team took down a display of objects on loan from the Edna Lawrence Nature Lab at RISD and installed a selection of vibrant origami created by Thomas Hull, associate professor of mathematics, Western New England University. Tom described his origami background and process.

What inspired your interest in studying the mathematics of origami?
I started doing origami when I was 8 years old.  Sometime around then, maybe when I was 10, I remember taking an origami crane and carefully unfolding it.  I looked at the network of creases on the unfolded paper that had made the crane and I thought, "There has got to be some math or geometry at work here!"  I had no clue what it was, but ever since then I wanted to figure it out.

Describe the kind of origami you make and the pieces on display.
I like to make geometric origami.  That is, I like to capture interesting geometric shapes and patterns in my paper folding. 

Two of my pieces in the display are made from single (large) sheets of paper.  There is a red piece that outlines a frame of a cube.  That is folded from a large red octagon with many parallel pleats made from the sides to the center.  I used the pleats to collapse the paper, and then I twisted it into the cube shape.  To make the paper stay in this shape, I used an origami technique called "wet folding" where one sprays water on the paper with a fine mister, holds the paper in the desired shape, and lets it dry.  Once dry, the paper will retain the shape.  The other model, made from blue paper, is similar but I started with a hexagon and made different pleats and thus got a different shape in the end.

The other models are all modular origami.  They are made from multiple small pieces of paper that have all been folded in the same way and then locked together, without glue, to make the final shape.  It's a sort of "origami meets Legos" idea that is quite popular.  Instructions for many different modular origami projects can be found on the internet.  Several of my modular origami pieces in this exhibit use "duo-colored paper."  For example, the red and black one uses 60 small squares of paper that are red on one side and black on the other.  The shiny pieces are made from paper that is either gold or silver on one side and red on the other.  I like to try to design modular origami units that show off the paper well and make interesting patterns on the finished object.

Thanks to Tom for sharing his wonderful creations and process with us. His origami will be on display until June, so be sure to take a peek on your next visit!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Celebrating the Legacy of Dr. King

Each year, the Museum presents a day of special programming to commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Storytellers and actors Rochel Coleman and Valerie Tutson bring history to life through songs and stories as they portray well-known Civil Rights activists and ordinary Americans who changed the world. Families also explore a display about Dr. King's life and work and can choose to participate in an interactive anti-discrimination activity, during which they wear a red or green tag and encounter “red only” and “green only” labels throughout the Museum – on lunchroom tables, bathroom doors, water fountains and more.

The activity and performance inspired reflection, thought-provoking conversations, and these wonderful responses to the question, “What will you do to fight racial discrimination?”:

And what will YOU do?

Thanks to Providence Tourism Council and Herman H. Rose for their support of this event.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Learning About Learning: Observations of Kids' Thinking Behaviors

The Museum is partnering with Brown University on a three-year National Science Foundation-funded project (award #1223777) to study how children develop scientific thinking skills and understand their own learning processes.  Museum researcher Suzy Letourneau is investigating how to make kids’ learning through play visible and shared this project update.

This summer, we observed over 80 families to find out how children show that they are thinking and learning through play in the Museum, in their interactions with exhibit materials and with other people.  We looked for behaviors that scientists and educators have identified as important for children’s thinking and learning, especially how children show independent and creative thinking and metacognition – their awareness of their own thought processes as they play. This skill includes not only “thinking about thinking” (for example, when you know that you’ve learned something before) but also the ability to plan, to solve problems strategically, and to reflect on your actions.

Scientists have found that children practice these skills through play, and that even very young children (as young as age 3) demonstrate early foundations of metacognition and independent thinking through their behavior, expressions, and body language. For example, even though a toddler might not be able to articulate what she is thinking, she might intentionally gather materials before starting to play, or systematically try one object after another. As children get older, they are able to describe their ideas, thoughts and plans, and they can share what they have learned with others.

In our observations, children showed many of these “thinking behaviors”:

They explored, planned, and set goals for themselves. Before deciding what to do, children explored in many different ways. Some rapidly tried many different objects, some watched what others were doing, and others looked at the exhibit from a distance. Once they had explored the environment, 21% of children stated a plan or idea out loud before beginning to play (“Let’s make a space shuttle!” “This will be the starting line.”); those who did were more likely to reflect on their accomplishments later. Children often announced their plans without any prompting from others. Instead, seeing how other children were playing, seeing examples of what others had made, or just seeing loose materials seemed to inspire them generate their own ideas. This shows why their initial explorations of the environment might be so important.

They focused and monitored their own behavior. We often observed children deeply focused on what they were doing, either working side by side with others or seemingly in their own world; 36% of children showed intense concentration. They stopped periodically to share their work with a family member or friend and then returned to what they were doing, often staying in one spot for a long time! Parents and caregivers were often supportive (and patient!) bystanders, offering encouragement when kids shared their work, stepping back and just watching, or by playing alongside their children. For example, an 8-year-old girl in ThinkSpace carefully created a huge sphere out of Jovos, ignoring everyone around her. Later, she lifted it up to show her mother and sister, who sat next to her building their own structures. 
Research has shown that when activities are challenging, children are more engaged and focused, more motivated to learn, and more confident and proud when they succeed.

They strategized and figured things out for themselves. Children used various strategies to solve problems or figure out how something worked. Many kids (59%) repeated actions over and over and observed the results each time, 41% learned from their mistakes or through trial and error, and 40% built off of something they had seen. Most children preferred to do things on their own; only 14% asked for help.

Children often talked about what they were doing with other children or with their grownups; we observed 34% of children “thinking out loud.” Sometimes they’d notice problems (“It’s stuck!” “Where did it go?” “Wait, this one has holes in it!”), or propose solutions (“We need more beanbags.” “I’m trying to find a bigger ramp.” “What if this piece goes over there?”). At other times children’s descriptions gave us a glimpse of what was going on in their imaginations (“It’s a four-eyed lion!”  “It’s like a castle. This is the gate to get in. You can wipe your feet right there.”)

Children tended to think out loud when they collaborated with others, working toward a common goal and coordinating their efforts. In these situations, 30% gave directions to others (“Put that piece up there.” “Wait, not yet!” “Ready? 1, 2, 3, go!”). Sometimes children collaborated with and directed their grown-ups too, and caregivers helped by asking questions or obediently following children’s instructions.
Researchers have studied the variety of ways that children communicate with one another as they play (directing, negotiating, narrating, describing) and what their playful conversations show about their development.

They reflected on their actions, both verbally (telling others about what they did) and nonverbally (by carefully observing their own work, or by expressing pride, delight, frustration, and surprise). We found that 41% of children got others’ attention to show off their discoveries or accomplishments (“Hey Mom! Look what I did!” or pointing to show someone), and 34% carefully observed their own work (for example, one 5-year-old girl built a tall tower out of unit blocks in ThinkSpace, and then walked all the way around it, looking at it from all angles with satisfaction). Adults sometimes helped kids document their work by taking a photo of the finished product.
Research shows that documenting and narrating/labeling children’s work can help children remember and learn from their experiences.  Reggio teaching methods are based in large part on the power of documentation of children’s works-in-progress, not just the finished product.
Check back for future Learning About Learning project updates!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Talking Back: Snow Play

On the Talk Back board in Play Power, we're asking visitors how they like to play in the snow. Here are some of their playful responses, in words and pictures:

Friday, January 3, 2014

Snow Day Play Memories

Museum staff shared some of their favorite childhood (and grown-up!) memories of snow days and the imaginative - and sometimes risky - play they inspired.

Robin, Exhibits Director: 
My brother and I worked with all our neighborhood kids to build a huge (really huge) snow fort at the end of our dead-end street, where the plows dumped lots of snow. Ages 5 to 16 worked together to create walls and tunnels (probably not the safest, but fun). And then we split into teams and had WWIII, snowball style!
Olga, Early Childhood Learning Programs Developer:
I always loved and still love sledding. Especially at night. During nighttime sledding, I feel as I am sliding through an unpredictable and magical place, such as C.S. Lewis's Narnia.
Janice, Executive Director: 
After a huge snowstorm when I was 6, our dad helped us make a snow fort. We piled snow into a mound the size of a garden shed at least and hollowed it out and then poured water on the inside and over the top so it froze solid. We played in that snow cave for weeks.
Young Janice and sister atop their snow fort.
Cathy, Education Director: 
Cross country skiing! Creating showers of snow by shaking the trees Playing board games by the wood stove for hours
Jennifer, Development Director: 
Shoveling off the nearby "Hockey Pond" seemed as much fun as the skating that followed!

To include the 6-month-old baby in our winter walks, I tied a low sturdy box onto a sled, put the bundled baby in the box so he could sit happily and see out, and off we'd go for snowy adventures.
Sarah, AmeriCorps Museum Educator: 
My favorite snow day activity was building snowmen with my little brother and finding different materials to make the face and accessories.
Megan, Communications Director: 
I spent most of my childhood in the nearly snow-less South, so I have few memories of playing in the snow. However, last winter, I LOVED watching kids of all ages sledding at India Point Park. They took a lot of carefully calculated risks, building jumps and soaring over them; there were quite a few spills along the way!
Those without sleds innovated, using materials like cafeteria trays, or reclaiming broken and abandoned plastic disks. Some especially daring sledders soared down three flights of snow-covered steps, which made for a fast but bumpy ride. I tried to “ski” down the steps in my boots and took a few spills of my own!

Happy Snow Day!