Friday, July 31, 2009

A Look Inside Learning Club

This post was contributed by MuseumCorps Educator Paul Fenton.

Sometimes I wish I had a one-line answer to the question, “So, what do you do?” But I certainly wouldn’t trade my experience in Learning Club this year for all the one-line answers in the world.

In short Learning Club is a series of after-school programs. We invite kids ages 6 to 11 from local community centers to come to the Museum for a series of programs and to play in our exhibits. At the end of the series we host a “Family Night” where the kids and their families are invited back to play, eat pizza and sign up for a free membership.
A major goal of Learning Club is to help kids have a positive experience of learning. We hope to bring them a little closer to being people who love to learn. Mostly, the kids love being at the Museum and our activities are designed to be less like lessons and more like exploration so helping them have fun isn’t usually much of a struggle.

My teammates, Melissa and Whitney, and I decided at the start that things were going to be science-focused in Learning Club this year. Especially at a young age, being told about science can be ineffectual but a more open, hands-on exploration of how objects behave in water (for example) can help illuminate the concept of density. Even though we try to keep the “teaching” to a minimum, we are committed to presenting the science accurately and spend a lot of time giving each other “science headaches” trying to make sure we have our facts straight!

One activity involved making paper airplanes, whirligigs and parachutes. To an outsider it may very well have looked like kids messing around. It was a little loud and a little chaotic but I’m confident that at least some of the kids had an experience that helped them understand the way air resistance affects a falling object.
That’s Learning Club – wrangling the exuberance of the kids we work with to aim them toward a little learning. It’s often challenging, but never boring!

Last night, Paul and his team welcomed nearly 70 children and families to their final family night, where they enjoyed dinner, signed up for free year-long family memberships, were recognized for participation in the program, and had plenty of time to play and explore.

Congratulations, team, on a successful night and year!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Wakanheza at Work

Janice O’Donnell, Museum director:
A few years ago, at an Association of Children's Museums conference, we attended a presentation by staff from Minnesota Children's Museum about this idea - Wakanheza - they were implementing at their museum. Wakanheza is the Dakota word for child and translates as "sacred being." The idea is if we regard children as sacred beings and our actions reflect this, our communities would be far more welcoming and supportive of families and children.

My head was nodding enthusiastically as I listened to them explain how they were using the principles of Wakanheza to help their staff better support families in stressful situations in hopes of reducing harsh treatment of children. Wow," I thought, "we knew this but now we have a way to talk about it!"

Of course we want the Museum to be a family-friendly, family-supportive place. And we know families often experience stress while visiting. To help develop empathy, we ask our staff and volunteers to imagine a Museum visit from a parent’s perspective – packing up the kids, diaper bags, snacks, jackets, getting everyone in the car, car seats buckled, traveling to Providence, finding a place to park, finding quarters for the meters, getting everyone out of the car and safely across the parking lot, entering the Museum and waiting to pay while your 3-year-old darts off toward Water Ways.

By lending a hand, by understanding, we can make the Museum – and the community – a better place for families. To support and welcome families is part of our commitment to our visitors.

Megan Fischer, Marketing/PR Manager:
Since learning about Wakanheza, we’ve led regular trainings for Museum staff, volunteers and AmeriCorps members – including one earlier this month. The goals are to share our commitment to supporting families, to get our staff thinking about the types of stresses that families face in the Museum and other public places, to review the principles of Wakanheza, and to talk about typical Museum scenarios and strategies for handling them in supportive ways – with plenty of time for conversations, brainstorms and questions along the way.

To practice the principles of Wakanheza, we must suspend judgment and approach all situations with empathy, consider the roles environment and culture play in the way an interaction develops, understand that parents often experience feelings of powerlessness in stressful situations, and appreciate what is known as THE MOMENT – essentially that we don’t know what led families to that situation and we don’t know what will happen after. We simply have that moment to get involved, to find even a small way to help alleviate their stress. So we train our staff to look for those moments, to see them as opportunities to transform a difficult experience for our visitors.

Brainstorming what makes the Museum family friendly.

Melissa Kline, AmeriCorps Museum Educator, shares a story of how she’s used the Wakanheza training:
A few weeks ago, in Shape Space, a woman began shouting at her daughter for taking down a structure she had just made (I think she wanted to take a picture). It took me by surprise, and I felt nervous and not sure how to respond. The mom seemed flustered and upset, and the daughter was definitely not in a good mood either.

The mom and daughter stayed in Shape Space, the mother sitting at one of the tables and the daughter wandering around, not finding a project that interested her. At this point, I realized that just having a more positive play interaction might be helpful for this family. I decided to start building something with the wooden blocks and invited the daughter to join me. A few minutes later she had transformed the blocks into a castle with several rooms, furniture, and a pool in the backyard. I encouraged her to show it to her mother, and when she came over I said, “Look what she made!” Mom said, “Oh yeah, she’s really creative!” We all talked for a little bit about the imaginary world inside the castle, and the mother said, “You worked really hard on this one!” I moved on to a different exhibit then, but it was really satisfying to leave both mother & daughter in a calmer and happier mood.
Our most recent Wakanheza training.

Wakanheza has definitely entered our vocabularies at the Museum. It’s a rare week that goes by without hearing at least one person preparing to “be Wakanheza about” a higher-stress situation like a busy day or a school group traffic jam. Some people talk about ‘Wakanheza moments’ and others refer to it like a secret weapon or magic wand: “There’s a child having a tough time transitioning out of the Museum, I’ll go see if I can use my Wakanheza with them.”

What I value most about the Wakanheza training is that it empowers me to get involved, even in small ways, to make a tough situation easier. It reminds me that, when I interact with someone who is angry or upset, they may be reacting from any number of stresses, from parking troubles to a child who is having a bad day. Knowing that a small act like offering to assist with an unwieldy stroller can be truly helpful gives me the confidence to offer these gestures.

We’ll continue to share our “Wakanheza moments” – big and small – on the blog from time to time!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Talking Back: Outdoor Play (part I)

As we saw a few months ago, many of the play memories shared on our Play Power talk back board were of playing outside. Recently, we've been asking visitors to tell us how their families play together outdoors. Here's what some kids and grown-ups had to say:
More to come soon!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Make Some Joyful Noise

One great way to get out and play at the Museum is the JunkMusic PlayStation in The Children’s Garden, which recently underwent some fabulous updates. The original creation – a hands-on musical experience using recycled materials – was the work of renowned Junk Music artist Donald Knaack and children from Providence CityArts but needed to be refreshed and repaired after years of play.

The idea was to take discarded household materials or junk and repurpose them, with slight modifications, to be incorporated into our interactive sound sculpture. Donald Knaack consulted with exhibit designer Chris Sancomb on the upgrades and offered his musical expertise on how to select, hang and connect the pieces.

Chris’s goal was to keep it open-ended and add even more opportunities for exploration, the same philosophy that guided the development of Play Power. Variety was his primary criteria – both visually and in terms of the number of different sounds. He collected as many unique sounds as he could and most of the source materials came from a junkyard located within a mile of the Museum.So what’s there? A set of slap tubes with a rubber paddle, a bright orange car spring that makes a twanging noise, a metal tray transformed into a powerful gong, zigzagging racks and more. Plus the existing bicycle parts, plastic barrel, giant wooden spool, metal pipe chimes... My favorite addition: two propane tanks were halved and turned into four instruments – two colorful bells and two steel tongue drums that make the coolest sounds.

Chris says that he’s never made anything like this before – but he says that about pretty much everything he creates for the Museum!

Here's how we know it works: I watched as the 3-year-old percussionist shown in the photos and video below spent about half an hour fully exploring the JunkMusic station – climbing all over it, testing and comparing every sound, repositioning himself to get the best effect. It was incredible to watch an experimental musician at play!

Come jam with us and see JunkMusic in action. And leave us a comment to let us know which is your favorite new sound!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Column about outdoor play

Yesterday, the Providence Journal printed "Unstructured outdoor play is in danger of extinction," written by education columnist Julia Steiny. Julia attended our screening of "Where Do the Children Play?" at Highlander School in May and the column is her thoughtful response to the big issues brought out by the film and discussion.
Lots of people are commenting - check it out and see what you think!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Join the Conversation!

We're excited to announce that we've just launched a new listserv called PlayWatch: Connecting the Community to Promote Children's Play.
The listserv was inspired by the lively community conversations that followed screenings of the film "Where Do the Children Play?" we presented this spring. From those discussions, it was apparent that many of us are concerned about the lack time and space for children's play – and that we're eager to keep talking!

The PlayWatch discussion listserv will allow us to continue these important conversations by sharing information, ideas, articles, resources, events and more. Let's stay connected and keep the dialogue going about what we, as a community, can do to safeguard children's play.

We welcome you to JOIN US and share what you're thinking or reading about, what you'd like to see or make happen, what's going on in your community – or your backyard!
Click here to add yourself to the list. And please spread the word to anyone you think may want to join the conversation!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Get Out!

[Disclaimer: I have fallen behind on my blogging duties lately. I’d intended to write this post at the beginning of the month, so let’s all pretend that it’s early July and a whole month lies before us – with the promise of less rain!]
Summer in Rhode Island – time to get out and play! Unstructured, freely chosen play promotes children’s healthy growth and development, but often kids don’t have enough opportunities for play, especially outdoors.

The benefits of active, outdoor play are tremendous – far greater than those of television, video games and other electronic entertainment. Being outdoors both calms and challenges children while encouraging them to notice and appreciate the sheer wonder of the natural world. Navigating that world through play stimulates their imaginations and creativity and enhances their development of judgment, problem solving and self-esteem.

With these ideas in mind, we’ve recently screened the film “Where Do the Children Play?” to get people talking about the need for more unstructured play, indoors and out. And we decided that we should get kids out to play at the Museum this summer, too.

People might not think of the Children’s Museum as a place for outdoor play – but kids have plenty of powerful indoor and outdoor play experiences here. In The Children’s Garden, families can get outside and jump, stretch, climb and drum. Not to mention splash in the fountain, discover native plants – plus pack a picnic and play for awhile! More to come later about all of the above, including some amazing garden moments staff have seen recently.

Visitors can explore our great outdoors during active programs throughout the summer. Over the past few weeks, kids have blown giant bubbles, learned circus tricks, and gotten gooey investigating slime. Just yesterday, they used funnels and foam tubes to build channels to move water all around the garden – including up and down railings and into the trees. I was inspired by their creations – a true feat of engineering!

Coming up this month: go fly a kite, work with wood, weave with natural materials and more – check the calendar for details. And further down the road – two amazing new play environments opening in the garden next year! We’re so excited to add an artistic, one-of-a-kind Climber and Underland, a subterranean adventure that will have kids crawling through our cave in all new ways.

Stay tuned for more information. And GET OUT!