Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thank you.

From Museum director Janice O'Donnell:

You know that tradition where you go around the Thanksgiving dinner table and everyone says what he or she is grateful for? Pretty corny, but nice too. And, yes, I know that the Thanksgiving letter from the nonprofit director is kind of like that. But here’s the thing – I really am grateful.

I’m thankful that I work in such a joyful place, that all I have to do if my spirits need a lift is walk out of my office and watch a family doubled over with giggles in front of the funhouse mirrors. Actually, I don’t even have to leave my office. As I’ve been writing this, an adorable toddler peered at me through my window. I smiled and waved at him and he grinned back. Some AmeriCorps members paraded by my doorway dressed as a giant potato and enormous apple – something they’re getting ready for the Happy Harvest program this weekend. There’s a lot of laughing around here. I’m thankful that I spend my days with people who are really smart and work hard and who are also playful and appreciate a little silliness.

I have dozens of reasons to feel gratitude every week – a Board member emails to report on a completed task, a donor sends a generous check, a staff member goes the extra mile, a family adds a gift to their membership renewal, volunteers show up to help in the exhibits or prepare a mailing or catalog our library books. But what I’m most thankful for is that all of these people make that commitment of time, talent and treasure because they value children.
And I’m grateful to be part of a growing network of people who care about kids – parents, grandparents, teachers and care providers who bring their kids to the Museum to learn and play and people from all walks of life who join our community conversations and contribute to the PlayWatch listserv discussions. I know that they believe, as I do, that children need lots of opportunities for free play. I’m glad that we've brought our commitment to play and learning beyond the Museum walls and that so many people have joined us; listening and learning from each other, trying things out, and sharing their efforts, challenges and successes. I have great hope that we can make a more kid-friendly, family-friendly community and I thank you for giving me that hope.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Get Real!

This article was originally posted on Kidoinfo.

Get Real!

By Megan Fischer,
Providence Children’s Museum

Not long ago, I heard a story on the radio about kids spending their time playing Wii soccer. And I thought, what about real soccer? Outdoors, with real balls? And real kids? And then I thought about kids playing Guitar Hero instead of real instruments. And the fact that, according to the Alliance for Childhood, the average elementary-age child in the United States spends four to six hours per day in front of screens, in the form of television, computers, video games and other virtual realities – and less than half an hour outdoors.

Which led me to a moment from the PBS documentary Where Do the Children Play? in which Last Child in the Woods author Richard Louv explains that many children today “see nature as an abstraction” and that they’ve grown accustomed to “life wrapped in plastic” – removed from what’s real. He gives an example of kids seeing meat packaged in cellophane and styrofoam but not understanding that it has a real source, that it originates from somewhere other than supermarket shelves.

There are many concerns about screen-time impacting kids’ physical activity and opportunities for social development. But I also wonder about the implications of the distance from authenticity. What are they losing by not having real, tangible, even messy experiences?

As a kid, I loved climbing my favorite tree – stretching, reaching, pulling myself up, feeling the scratchiness of the bark against my skin and the patchy light filtering through the leaves to warm my face. My sister and I took off on adventures around our neighborhood, digging holes, building forts, picking flowers – things that were important to us because they were real, and because we were connecting with the world around us in the process.

Digging in, getting physical, getting messy – it’s important for all of us, kids and adults alike, to have real, hands-on experiences that connect us to our surroundings, both indoors and outdoors, in a deeper, more meaningful way. Not to mention the developmental benefits to kids of physically navigating their world – building motor skills, coordination, problem solving, and a sense of space and relationships.

Places like museums and nature centers, parks and zoos are valuable spaces for real, authentic experiences. One of our favorite stories at the Children’s Museum is of a 6-year-old girl actively playing in Water Ways, pumping hard to raise the water to spill over the top of a fountain, and then looking up in wonder: “I didn’t know water was heavy!” This type of real-world, hands-on tinkering in childhood fosters curiosity, helps kids make connections, and leads to adults who are more creative, more innovative and better problem-solvers. What a loss for our society if we don’t make space for exploring what’s real.

Let’s all make room for a reality check. This fall, get your kids outside, go for a hike or nature walk and examine leaves, turn over stones, and splash in streams. Take your family apple picking to encourage a deeper connection to one of our food sources – and have your kids join you in the kitchen to discover the fun of making real apple pie. Turn off the TV and video games and take in a live musical performance – let the joy and wonder of real people playing real instruments wash over you. Simple things like this can help all of us develop or rediscover a sense of wonder and appreciation for our world. For real!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

BIG News

An email sent by Jennifer Laurelli, director of development, to Museum staff, board and committee members:

Subject: Campaign Alert - Champlin
Thu, 19 Nov 2009 11:58:25

The very best news! The Champlin Foundations has awarded the Museum $100,000 toward our two new outdoor learning environments bringing our gifts/pledge total to over $1.05 million!!! We want to share this news with you as a big thank you for everything you are doing to ensure that we succeed. Go team!


It's exciting because it means we're that much closer to reaching the $1,350,000 needed to get a $150,000 challenge grant from the Kresge Foundation by March 31, 2010 – which will allow us to complete our Play Works Campaign and build two amazing new play spaces in The Children's Garden.

Staff (and visitors) celebrated by adding a bar to the campaign thermometer in the Museum's atrium!

Click here to learn more about the Champlin award. Click here to learn more about the new play spaces opening next June.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Mirror, mirror...

You know how birds sometimes crash into windows?
Well, until recently, we had our own version of that at the Museum, with the mirrors near the creature columns in Play Power. We observed that distracted, excited little visitors sometimes didn't see the mirrors as mirrors and walked right into them.
Plus staff saw that visitors seldom noticed the cool visual trick produced by the “flying mirror” (two mirrors placed at right angles): if you stand so that only half of your body is reflected in the mirror, your reflection looks like you’re walking on air.
So the problem was two-fold, and the exhibit team discussed adding a label to draw attention but ultimately decided it would be better to show people how it worked.
Graphic designer Valerie Haggerty-Silva recently painted a child figure on the wall to help kids know where to stand. She also added some colorful circles to show the effect of the symmetry the mirror creates – and to address the bird effect!
And now we watch to see what happens. If all goes according to plan, we’ll be seeing more of this:
And less of this: Just kidding. That is of course a photo of some dramatic play in Bone Zone.
(And while I'm adding things...this is the blog's 100th post!)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Making Places for Play

Last Thursday evening we had our first community conversation, Making Places for Play, about how to build community, engage families and inspire child-directed play through placemaking. We heard 3 fascinating presentations from local people who have responded to and strengthened their communities by creating playgrounds, parks and gardens – including plenty of details about their process. The conversation was so rich that I can’t possibly recap everything, so here’s a rundown of the essence of the presentations and discussion.

First up was Wendy Nilsson, chair of the Friends of Brown Street Park, and landscape architect and RISD instructor Markus Berger. They’ve worked to transform a former dog run in Providence into an eco-conscious park and a destination for community members of all ages from the diverse surrounding neighborhoods.
• Process started with asking the community – including families and children – what they wanted the space to sound, feel and be like to
• Found that what kids wanted was limited by their experiences, that they couldn't articulate what play could be
• Defined the space by how different groups interact and designed for “small interactions” that encourage spontaneous play instead of large playground equipment - incorporating things that kids can decide how to use, like cedar stumps they can roll around the park
• Created a common ground at the junction of 3 different neighborhoods, a place where kids meet new kids and begin to travel in packs – have developed a culture where kids can be spontaneous and play freely
• Took down internal fencing, which led to people watching other people’s kids and a language of “we” – the community is engaged and takes responsibility for the park

Then we heard from Stu Nunnery, director of the RI Center for Agricultural Promotion and Education (RICAPE), which coordinates the Children’s Garden Network. They work with schools, school districts and communities to inspire and support gardens and garden education programs – including with Jan Ragno, Assistant Principal of Ponaganset Middle School in North Scituate, a school that has an apple orchard on its campus.

• Children’s gardens are designed for children, by children – the intention is to create a space for kids that engages the whole community and reconnects them to nature
• Jan saw that kids didn’t know how to plant, dig, play in the dirt, how to nurture and wanted to create something that would unite the community and create ownership and investment
• Kids planned and designed an orchard and 400 community members helped with planting – and kept driving by to check on trees’ growth!
• Their 84 acres have developed from an apple orchard into a living campus with a parents’ garden and a universal design garden to include kids with special needs
• Every piece of their environment is an outdoor classroom and kids weed and care for it – “their play is an education – to dig, nurture, grow,” which helps them learn patience, love and respect

The final presentation was about the Learning Community Charter School in Central Falls, which created an imaginative, open-ended new playground last year. We heard from Sarah Bernstein, who manages non-academic time at the school, and landscape designer Laurencia Strauss, who worked with the school community of students, parents, volunteers, teachers and staff to design and build the new play space – a former parking lot.
Laurencia was interested in “an open process of design – approaching designing with questions, not with all of the answers” and she worked with committees of kids and adults to get input from the whole school community
• Teachers facilitated writing exercises with students – first asked them what they wanted to have on the playground, then realized it was better to ask how they wanted to feel
• To help visualize the experience, both kids and committee members made models of their ideas
Laurencia talked about designing to facilitate experience, which resulted in spaces that flow into one another, equipment integrated into the larger landscape, native plants, both fixed and flexible spaces and play elements, and active and quiet zones that accommodate groups of different sizes
• Teaching staff had conversations and training about how to facilitate and foster open-ended play – wanted the playground to be a space where they could say ‘yes’ instead of ‘no’

The questions and conversation that followed highlighted some of the common themes of the presentations. Each provided a revealing window into process and talked about the importance of reconnecting with and taking inspiration from childhood play experiences. All projects involved their communities to design and build – especially kids – from start to finish. This fostered a sense of ownership – “I built that!” As Wendy described, kids became like “stakeholders out there working the scene.”

The projects were in many ways about trust – gaining the trust of the community, of the city (to take down a fence at Brown Street), trusting kids by giving them more freedom to play – and the planners trusting themselves to try things, experiment, to trust that it would work out.

Some other comments:
• Stu talked about the importance of fostering and developing a sense of place – something that we lose when we’re detached from our environment and as society grows more fragmented
• “The outside is powerful – it can, should and has belonged to children – the inside belongs to grown-ups.”
• “It’s hard to create an environment where kids can just explore. Play starts when kids find new ways to use equipment.”
• Importance of risk taking, of learning limits – kids don’t learn that on protected playgrounds and “if they don’t learn to take risks, they won’t be able to protect themselves from danger.”

A powerful evening that gave all of us much to think about as we look forward to our next discussion, Building Community, on Wednesday, December 2 from 7-8:30 PM. Join the conversation!
These conversations were inspired by discussion topics on the Museum's listserv, “PlayWatch: Connecting the Community to Promote Children’s Play.” To read the PlayWatch archives or to join the list, visit

Friday, November 6, 2009


An email sent just 5 minutes ago by Museum director Janice O'Donnell to our board and staff:

Subject: We won! Innovative leadership
Fri, 06 Nov 2009 18:13:51 -0500
From: Janice O'Donnell

I am proud to tell you that Providence Children's Museum has won the New England Museum Association's Leaders in Innovation Award!

The NEMA Leaders in Innovation Award recognizes New England museum programs and initiatives that advance the museum field in new and creative ways. Innovation can take many forms: an exhibit that conveys the story to visitors in an innovative way; cutting-edge systems for collections management; engaging communities with methods not traditionally used in museums...

The Museum's application for this award touted "The Power of Play: Innovations in Messaging the Mission," describing our mission-based initiatives and advocacy including the Play Power exhibit, play-focused programs, Museum-organized community conversations, the blog and articles, the PlayWatch listserv, etc. The judges found that:

The Power of Play has an integral connection with the Museum's mission and represents a long-term commitment to a broadly-conceived initiative... takes the museum's daily activities and puts them under a lens... engaging families and the community in the process. The project positions the museum as a leader in its field.
...the commitment to understand one's mission, core values and activities; to engage the public in this journey; and to utilize social media tools for these purposes is a commitment that museums of all budget sizes can emulate.

Megan and Cathy will accept the award at NEMA's annual conference next week and our work will be featured in upcoming NEMA publications and at the 2010 conference.

What I'm most proud of is this award recognizes the thoughtful, important work the Museum does every day and everyone of us – all staff and volunteers and AmeriCorps members and everyone – contributes to this work through deep commitment to our mission and to children and families. We all share this award – Congratulations!


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Most Spook-tacular Time

On Saturday, the Museum held its annual Boo Bash – a bewitching day of hands-on fun, planned by our newest team of AmeriCorps members. They did a terrific job bringing a little bit of spookiness to activity stations throughout the Museum – and in a way that really connected to our program philosophy. I was also impressed by their attention to detail – so many wonderful touches around every corner. A selection of the haunted happenings:

In the Assembly Space, kids created and reinvented a “Spooky Town” of cobweb-draped cardboard boxes and some playful props.
Children made creepy creatures to fly through haunted air tubes and played ghoulish games like “ghost bowling” and “black cat ring toss.”
Kids and families wandered through Mama Spider's wacky web, put on amazing shadow puppet shows, and added spooky sound effects with recycled instruments.
Check out the video:
And everyone joined a Boo Bash costume parade to show off their Halloween flair.
Click here to see more photos of the event – including staff in costume.

Congratulations to AmeriCorps members Annie, Gina, Jenny, Jess, Julianne, Kate, Kerrie, Turenne and Zack on a job eerily well done!