Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year!

Wishing everyone a joyful, PLAY FULL new year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Story of Estrella

This post was contributed by Providence sculptor, illustrator, painter and storyteller Diana Jackson, who created the Museum’s beloved Estrella.

Estrella, the huge woman chair who now lives at the Children's Museum in Providence, was conceived 35 years ago.

At the time I was a young mother and emerging artist. An older German friend was visiting at our home in Providence. She and I were sitting in our kitchen while the children, ages 4 and 6 1/2, struggled to get into my lap. They were terrified of her and were seeking the only safety they knew. My friend observed this and quietly said: "There are never enough laps to go around."

A lightbulb went on in my head, and I decided to make a Lap Chair, where my children could go when they needed safety and security and I didn't have time to sit down with them. With very little carpentry skills and some experience with sewing I had learned as a child, I proceeded to make a huge doll chair with plywood, fabric, and upholstery stuffing. The face I made out of clay. She had a peaceful face with a smile that looked like the moon. I used fake fur for the hair.
The children in the neighborhood would come over to our house to play and see her. Some would interact with her easily; others were so scared they wouldn't come in our house.

Not long after that I got a job at the RI State Council on the Arts as an Artist-in-Residence. This meant that I would design and implement art projects in educational institutions around the state. I went mostly into schools and the local prison.

Then an opportunity to work at the new Children's Museum in Pawtucket came along. There I had an actual studio in one of the rooms of the Museum and would welcome children into my studio to work with clay, my primary medium. While I was setting up my studio, I thought it might be a nice idea to take the big chair along and put it in the Museum.

She was a big hit. The children climbed all over her, sat in her lap, hid under her skirt, and slid down her body. No matter what happened, she smiled. Once someone tore off her arm. She kept smiling.

March 1981

When I left the Museum after the Residency ended, I asked the staff if they would like to keep her. They said yes. That is how she came to live at the Children's Museum.
Providence Journal ad, 1984

She started off being called “Super Chairwoman.” Then the Museum had a name-giving contest for her and the name “Estrella” won. “Estrella” means Star.

Estrella moved with the Museum to Providence in 1997.

Estrella during Museum renovations in 2008.

Estrella continued to evolve over the years. Because of wear and tear, I had to rebuild her body several times, but her face and her smile remained the same. I tried to emphasize the design features about her that were so appreciated: her hugeness, her softness, her availability, and her stability. And her bosom. How comforting and sensuous to be nestled in the breasts of a woman. It is such an ancient and elemental experience.

But Estrella also had to be a Queen, and Earth Mother, and a Comfort Chair all at once. I styled her outfits so that they were regal but soft. I created a headdress that could be decorated according to the seasons of the year. She could maintain her dignity but still be a place of rest.

Grown-ups and children alike find rest and relaxation in her lap. Grown men have been found asleep in her lap. Tired workers have found sympathy in her lap.
Not long ago a woman came up to me at the Museum while I was repairing Estrella and said to me, “It must give you a lot of satisfaction to see how much joy and comfort Estrella has given to people for so many years.” I burst into tears.

Diana Jackson has cared for Estrella and kept her ready to embrace a growing number of visitors – well over one million since 1979! Now Diana is retiring. Last week, she restyled Estrella for winter – the last time she will work with the Super Chairwoman she created. We are deeply grateful to Diana for taking loving care of Estrella for so many years, and for introducing thousands of children to the beauty and power of art.

An Estrella photo montage in the Museum's offices.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Talking Back - Fall Play

Some of the ways visitors have told us they like to play outdoors this fall (before fall is officially over!):

Monday, December 14, 2009

Museum Craftland

This post was contributed by Carole Ann Penney, the Museum’s queen of all things crafty, who recently inspired us to celebrate our creations and the creative process.

It’s no secret that members of the Providence Children's Museum staff community are a creative bunch – thinking up imaginative activities and programs and creative solutions for exhibits. It is kind of a secret, though, how we channel that creativity in our personal time. On Tuesday night, after the Museum closed its doors to the public, staff, AmeriCorps members and volunteers gathered for our first annual “Museum Craftland.” Inspired by Providence’s popular downtown holiday sale, we transformed the Assembly Space into a celebration of our creative community and workplace.
Almost 20 staff members came with creative work to show off, barter and sell, and many others came simply to shop and enjoy. The diversity of mediums was incredible – purses made from crocheted plastic bags, hand-stamped holiday cards, etchings, charcoal drawings, hand-printed wrapping paper, ‘zines, photos, jewelry and so much more. For those that consider themselves artists in the kitchen, there was a cookie swap of all sorts of delicious treats (and lucky for the rest of us, plenty of extras to snack on throughout the night!).
Throughout the night, there was a buzz of mutual admiration as people excitedly shared their process – from rolling scraps of magazine pages into beads, to hand-painting designs onto silk scarves to rescuing zippers from thrift stores and transforming them into flower brooches. There was lots of difficult decision making: “Well, I like this one, and I like this one…I just can’t decide!” And there was the excited arrangement of trades: “Oh! I love this print! Stop by my table and see if there’s anything you might want to trade for…”
At the end of the night, I came home with lots of inspiration and ideas, beautiful pieces of art made by people I feel connected to and a warm feeling for the wonderful Providence Children's Museum community that I’m a part of.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Fun-Filled Family Night

Last week was the first Museum Learning Club Family Night of the school year. We welcomed 140 children and families from a record 16 different clubs – from Boys & Girls Clubs of Providence, Cranston’s Community Learning Center, Kent County YMCA, and Sackett Street, West End, Federal Hill House and Joslin community centers – for a fun-filled, PLAY-filled evening!
The partnership with these sites is part of the Museum's AmeriCorps program, made successful by a team of MuseumCorps educators who develop and facilitate hands-on activities for the centers’ after-school programs, guide the kids on Museum visits, and invite their families to free Family Nights - where they enjoyed a delicious dinner and received 46 free year-long memberships last week.
The kids’ work was also on display, from a club curriculum about building Super Structures, and it was really fun to see their creative constructions.
Here’s what some of the MuseumCorps members had to say about Family Night:

“It was really gratifying to get a chance to welcome the families of kids that we've been working with to the Museum. Giving them the opportunity to see our “home base” was rewarding and cathartic.”
Kevin (Kent County YMCA)

“I cheered - literally and with my heart - as I saw more and more kids and families from our clubs enter. With the intimacy of a private event, the Museum was an incredible space for these kids to celebrate their time with the Museum and Learning Clubs.”
Eric (South Side and Hartford Park Boys & Girls Clubs)

“The children entered the Museum with confidence and knowledge from our field trip earlier this session. It was so nice to see them excitedly touring their families around the Museum and showing off their work. There was also an opportunity for the families of the various clubs to interact. I noticed that one of the families from West Warwick met a family from Providence at dinner and they spent the rest of the night talking and playing together.”
Erin (Kent County YMCA)

“I was able to spend time in the activity room and play Stack ‘Em Up with the kids ... It was great to see kids from different sites building and interacting together.”
Kellyn (South Side and Hartford Park Boys & Girls Clubs)

“What struck me most about Family Night was that, with all the kids from our sites, I knew already what their limitations were. In Water Ways I allowed a lot more splashing because I knew the kids and knew how far they can go before I have to say stop. Likewise, I knew which kids to be maybe a little MORE protective of.”
Ian (South Side and Hartford Park Boys & Girls Clubs)

Building Stick Structures during a Learning Club session.

“My favorite bit of Family Night was watching Michael and Anthony, two kids from my Thursday-Friday club, playing in Air Play. They'd just been in Water Ways and their shirtsleeves were soaked from their wrists to their shoulders. “What happened?” “Water Ways.” But they weren't bothered by all that water; they were too busy playing, grinning, their heads turning as they followed the handkerchiefs blowing through the tubes.”
Annie (Museum-based team, serving Sackett Street, West End, Federal Hill House and Joslin community centers)

“While I took for granted that Family Night would be a fun night out for our children and their families, I hadn't initially thought of the event from a community building perspective. However, during the actual event, I witnessed parents talking about the Museum and their children with other parents that they had never met before and I realized the full value of family nights for our children, their family members, and the community as a whole.”
Meghan (Wanskuck Boys & Girls Club)

“The best part for me was watching kids excitedly introduce their grown-ups to the AmeriCorps leaders. You could tell the children wanted to share someone special with their grown-ups!”
Merideth (Outreach Program Developer)

Congratulations to all of the team members
on a successful evening!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Building Community

Last Wednesday, we hosted our second community conversation, about building strong communities that foster a sense of shared responsibility for children so we can give them more freedoms and opportunities for unstructured play. The conversation was inspired by a lively discussion on the PlayWatch listserv, where parents expressed fear of letting their kids go and play and commented that it might be different if they knew their neighbors. The listserv thread pointed out that we often lack a shared, intergenerational responsibility for children, which leaves many parents feeling isolated.

So we wanted to hear from organizations and individuals who are doing something about it:

Leo Pollock and Susan Sakash talked about building community around growing food at Southside Community Land Trust's City Farm, a ¾ acre urban farm in South Providence, and at 11 community gardens, where over 220 families have plots. Southside also hosts after-school and summer garden programs and have a children’s garden, which is kept open to the community, giving kids access, an opportunity for “free form play,” and a feeling of ownership of the space.

Southside’s mission is to grow food, but also “to connect people to the land and to each other… to connect them to nature in a real way in the city.” Leo and Susan spoke about the power of having kids interact with – and work side by side with – people from the neighborhood, of different ages and ethnicities. Leo: “We think of play as parks and playgrounds, we think of nature as a particular place, fully green – but there are green areas in the city.”

We also heard about City Fest – an annual summer youth celebration/block party, open to the neighborhood, free for all kids. The fact that kids ask about it all year long shows “how much they want a day where they streets are theirs, where all adults are focused on them – a testament that they lack that for the other 364 days a year.”
Credit: Southside Community Land Trust

Jeanine Silversmith dreamed up RI Families in Nature after hearing Richard Louv speak about his book Last Child in the Woods just over a year ago and being inspired to start a nature club. She organizes monthly hikes across the state that are open to anyone who’s interested. At first she thought she’d feel successful getting herself out with her kids, and it’d be great it others joined – but she had 54 people on her last hike! She also sends a monthly e-newsletter with tips and tricks to get kids outside, recommended books, articles, outdoor spaces and more. (Sign up through the link above).

Jeanine talked about how the grown-ups spread out and share responsibility for watching all kids on the hikes – not just their own – and have to be ready to step in when needed. Museum director Janice O’Donnell said her experience of a RI Families in Nature hike was that it allowed for “friendships to form in natural ways.”
Credit: RI Families in Nature

After seeing our screening of “Where Do the Children Play?” last summer, Barrington residents Suzanne Cadge and Jane Knight realized that they felt isolated in their suburban neighborhood – and that they needed to take responsibility to make a change. They organized a neighborhood block party, the first gathering on their street in more than 20 years. Everyone was on board and they drew a mixed group – families with young children, older adults – for a day of fun that included a treasure hunt for kids, tricycle race for adults, bake off, ice cream social and a “get to know your neighbors” quiz. Everyone chipped in and some of the older neighbors expressed gratitude for their taking the initiative to make it happen. Plus the kids loved the freedom of running up and down the street and through neighbors’ yards!

Highlights from the conversation:
• Allowing your kids to walk to the playground sets an example – be the parent that takes the risk and others will follow
• The community garden next to the playground at the
Jewish Community Center in Providence allows parents to work while their kids play on their own nearby – even very young children
• Anisa, editor of Kidoinfo: The farmers’ market by Lippitt Park in Providence brings the community together with food and music – plus distracts parents a bit so kids have more freedom to roam
• We need parks that draw adults, too – having more adults around in places designed for kids can increase the freedoms kids are given
• On “stranger danger”: "There’s an assumption that kids are only safe when supervised by adults." "We need to give children tools and strategies, empower them more to take care of themselves and each other." "It’s not just about strangers, but about giving kids space to work things out, be creative, make up their own games."
• Importance of encouraging kids to get outside everyday – even in the rain and snow – to allow them to get dirty, to take risks
Credit: RI Families in Nature
• And parents need to spend time outside, too – critical mass: if some start, others will join
• Janice mentioned Playborhood, a website started by Mike Lanza, who welcomes the whole community to play in his yard in California. “We need to use the front of our houses – the stoop and yard – not just the back.”
• Need to find the balance of facilitating just enough for kids – and then knowing when to back off. (And we loved that Jane said that she learned a lot from the Children’s Museum, about letting kids go, letting them climb and try things!)
• Thinking about intergenerational community also means teens – giving them respect and responsibility fosters stronger relationships, and they can set the tone for kids

Another idea that came up during the conversation – this blog post by Richard Louv about “button parks,” claiming and protecting natural spaces in our neighborhoods for communal use. We also had a little brainstorm about simple ways to build community: using food to bring people together at a neighborhood potluck, planting trees or doing a clean up together…

All three stories showed the importance of initiative – just trying something and seeing what happens – plus the need for intergenerational connections in a community, and how much kids relish opportunities to roam freely.

So what do YOU think? What are you doing to build community in your neighborhood, or beyond? What do you want to do? And what topics should we tackle in future community conversations? Please comment about all of the above!

Friday, December 4, 2009


A email just sent to Museum staff by our graphic designer that gives another peek into the Underland planning process AND reminds me why I love working at the Children's Museum:

Subject: ANTS!
Fri, 04 Dec 2009 15:48:25
From: Valerie Haggerty-Silva

No - not to worry. They are not here in the Museum.

In our research & development for Underland, our new exhibit opening in June 2010, we are planning to fabricate a large sign on the back side of the cave opening. It will depict a much larger than life ant tunnel and spell out the word Underland. We have been on the hunt for large (3" - 5") plastic or rubber ants that will be placed in these tunnels. While you go about your business, do any holiday shopping or visit any cool stores, please be on the lookout for big ants. If you come across anything interesting let me know where and how much. We need about 20 or so we are looking for big, cost effective ants.

Thanks for your help!
ValerieIf YOU have any ideas of where to find big ants, please leave us a comment! And a reminder that we'd also love your help collecting natural materials to use in the exhibit, like acorns, pinecones and chestnuts. You can leave items with our admissions desk staff. Click here to learn more.