Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Getting a Head Start at the Museum

This post was contributed by the Museum’s Head Start team: AmeriCorps Museum Educators Gina, Jenny, Jess and Kerrie and their supervisor, Early Childhood Program Developer Mary Scott Hackman. Together they serve the more than 1,300 preschool children in the greater Providence Head Start program.

A Pre-Visit Orientation (PVO) is the first interaction we have with a Head Start class. Each classroom we enter greets us with a whirlwind of energy and excitement that makes us, in turn, excited to be there. We start with a rhyming story and song that describes each Museum exhibit and calls for notable Museum characters to “join our parade!” We rarely get through the entire story without the children chiming in to tell us how much they would love to join, too. Often children will point to a picture of an exhibit and say, “I want to be in there!”
The final step to a PVO is to let the children play with toys from the Museum. This tends to be the children’s favorite part and is the hardest for us as activity leaders to bring to an end because it is so enjoyable to watch children become owls and skunks and construction workers and build us houses and cars of Magnatiles and circus blocks. By the end of our 30-minute visit, the children can’t stop chattering about when they’ll visit us at the Museum and we leave their classroom feeling rewarded by their joy and looking forward to their field trip.
– Jenny

Field Trips are one of the most rewarding (though tiring!) aspects of working as a Head Start team member. After we have visited kids at their center classroom and introduced them to the Museum, they get to visit us and experience the fun and exhibits themselves! Each of us leads a group of seven to nine Head Start children through the exhibits along with their teachers, assistants and chaperones. Many of the children have never been to the Museum before and this always elicits exclamations of “Wow!” “This is awesome!” and “I love this place!” They tend to notice Museum details that even we have forgotten, and their enthusiasm for imaginative play is truly contagious. There is nothing quite like the sight of wide-eyed 4-year-olds encountering the air tubes for the first time or the sound of boisterous giggling that inevitably takes place in front of our funny mirrors. The hardest part of each visit is saying good-bye, but we encourage the children to come back with their families again and again!
– Gina

Over the course of our AmeriCorps year we have the opportunity to develop and implement 10 Training Workshops for Head Start center teachers and assistants. This year the team chose a “Back to Nature” theme to encourage teachers to use natural resources as play tools both in and outside the classroom. Each workshop involves 15-20 teachers and lasts 40-50 minutes. It begins with a group activity of “music making” using all natural instruments including maracas and water shakers. Next Mary shares the benefits of physical activity and open-ended play in nature for children’s social development. Then the activities begin and teachers learn exciting new things to bring back to their classrooms, like how to make sand dough, terrariums and paint with pine cones. No one leaves empty handed, each teacher takes away what they made, open-ended questions to ask their kids, and a packet of a dozen new activities to try. All the while collegial conversations between teachers inspire new ideas for activities and ways to support their children.
– Kerrie

In addition to our pre-visit orientations and field trips, we lead two different Classroom Activities over the course of the year with each of our 55 Head Start rooms. We designed our lessons around a science theme, which was voted most desired by Head Start teachers. For our first activity, we chose to investigate weather – specifically rain, thunder and lightning. The children explore creative writing with a group poem, pretend to be a storm in a movement exercise and participate in a rain art activity. This is often the highlight of the lesson as children are able to draw their own pictures and use colored water and pipettes to simulate rain on their pages. In our second lesson, we introduce children to the life cycle of a frog through a book, a felt pond, a collage activity, a movement exercise and a song. It’s a busy 40 minutes but we have a lot of fun. Each room we visit teaches us new ways to improve, so our activity is constantly growing and changing (just like the frog itself!)
– Jess and Gina

On Family Nights, hundreds of excited Head Start children get to introduce their moms, dads, and siblings to the Museum and their special Museum teachers. They come in for dinner – pizza, pasta, cheese and crackers, fruit and pastry donated by area restaurants, provided free of charge to families. During the course of the evening, everyone can sign up for a free pass to come back to the Museum as often as they want for a whole year. Another wonderful aspect of Family Nights is that the children’s Head Start teachers volunteer alongside the AmeriCorps team to provide a great experience for our families. The teachers serve food, assist in exhibits or distribute free passes to families. It’s a tremendous collaborative effort. This year, we had 1,100 visitors on three Head Start Family Nights – fantastic evenings where the Museum turns into the “city square” and everyone enjoys food, fun and family!

The hard-working, high-spirited Head Start team!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Film Screening Canceled

Due to flooding at and around the University of Rhode Island, tonight's (3/30) screening/discussion of "Where Do the Children Play?" at URI is canceled. The event will be rescheduled once the university reopens.

In the meantime, please mark your calendars for these upcoming screenings and discussions:

Wednesday, April 28 | 6:30 - 8:30 PM
St. Luke’s School

10 Waldron Avenue
Barrington, RI 02806
(401) 246-0990

Tuesday, May 18 | 7:00 - 9:00 PM
William Hall Library
1825 Broad Street
Cranston, RI 02905

(401) 781-2450

For more information, contact Megan Fischer at

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"Where Do the Children Play?" - Providence

Last week we hosted our 7th (!) community screening and discussion of the powerful documentary "Where Do the Children Play?" at Temple Beth-El in Providence. After having done this so many times over the last year, it amazes me that the conversations continue to be so rich – and so different each time. I also continue to notice new things about the film, even after more than a dozen viewings. A thought that struck me this time, from Dr. Kenneth Ginsberg, lead author of the 2007 American Academy of Pediatrics report about the importance of play: Childhood is becoming parent and adult driven, no longer child driven.

From our conversation:

Museum director Janice O’Donnell: “Kids are not playing the ways they used to, they’re not outside. Saying kids need to play is like saying ‘you should eat food.’ It’s important that we’re convening a community of people who care about these issues.”

Panelist Renee Rudnick, assistant head of the Jewish Community Day School (JCDSRI) talked about the impact of the film and the community screenings: “Colleagues went to a previous screening and were struck by the film. We showed it to our faculty and silence fell over the room. They reflected on their own childhoods, nostalgic for being outside.”
She spoke about how the film affected thinking about what goes on at the school, inside and out. “We saw the film in January and made a commitment to having outside recess as much as possible, and teachers thought about how they could bring education outside.” They created a garden – classes have their own plots, parents come in to work, even in the summer, and the school uses some of the vegetables in hot lunch. Teachers also agreed there was a decline in creativity in kids, in being self-starters and are thinking about how they can overcome that in their classrooms. “This documentary gives us the courage to look for a way out, to be able to talk about these issues in a different way to parents.”

Panelist Scott Wolf, executive director of Grow Smart RI presented another layer to the conversation: “There’s not enough attention to how we design our communities, how our kids grow up, how we live our lives. Grow Smart is interested in designing communities that work for people and is working to break down barriers, to have more mixed use, more walkable communities, to change zoning codes, redevelop existing buildings and communities.”

Panelist Dr. W. George Scarlett of Tufts University said he shares the values of the film but he also questioned it on a few points: “This generation of kids is growing up to be just as good as us. We always think the next generation is going to hell. Think about racism in the 50s, when I was growing up. We trade problems but we also trade compensations.” He also questioned the “mistaken idea that organized sports are harmful, and video games,” and commented, “there’s a lack of appreciation for the diversity of the ways kids play.”

A professor of graphic design spoke about changes she’s seen being an educator and in a creative industry: “Kids miss out on unpredictability [because of the] predetermined outcomes of video games, although there are benefits to hand-eye coordination. Students are not that resourceful, which I attribute to lack of play, or too much organized play. They want to be told what to do, to have their hands held.

A kindergarten teacher: “Adults – parents, teachers, grandparents – have to evaluate their roles, the balance of getting involved in kids' play and of stepping back.”

George: “Play, nature and educational issues get lumped together in the film. We need to think about them independently and need to get back to a constructivist, progressive approach – kids generating rules of the classroom." Scott: “But there’s pressure on teachers not to take an overly unstructured approach.”

A parent of a kindergartner said her child’s biggest complaint is "I don’t like school, I don’t get to play." She added her concerns that kids with behavior problems are punished with sitting out of recess, kids have too much homework, their day is too scheduled because of testing.

A pediatric physical therapist shared reflections she’s heard from occupational therapists: “They’re seeing more kids with regulation problems, kids having trouble attending to tasks, ‘sensory seekers’ who are not getting enough sensory experiences, which is integral to development.” Janice: “Studies show that kids who have unstructured time actually have an easier time attending.”

A child life specialist shared, “I’m a different parent than I wanted to be.” She ended up sending her son to preschool early because his friends had gone and the playgrounds were empty. After growing up in the woods herself, “it’s hard to be a parent in an urban environment because you can’t walk to school or much else” though her son “craves being outside – even taking out the recycling, being outside by himself.”

Naomi Stein from JCDSRI said she grew up in the Bronx and “In New York City, there’s incredible communal space. Everyone is on the playground. Here, everyone has their own swing set. It’s not a matter of an urban or rural setting but the function of a community.

Lauri Lee from JCDSRI: “If giving kids a cell phone makes you comfortable to let them go outside, give them a phone. I gave my son one at a much younger age than I intended just to be able to let him go.”

And there were also plenty of conversations and connections after the discussion, about childhood play memories, shared Little League teams, getting kids together to play - while enjoying snacks generously provided by Whole Foods.

Disappointed that you missed it? We’re doing it again next week:

Tuesday, March 30
| 7:00 - 9:00 PM
University of Rhode Island
Flagg Road Kingston, RI 02881
(click here to download a flyer)

And again on April 28 at St. Luke’s School in Barrington and May 18 at William Hall Library in Cranston. Stay tuned for details. You can also join the conversation about the need for play on the Museum’s PlayWatch listserv.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

A total Seuss-sation!

This post was contributed by AmeriCorps Museum Educator Kerrie Hoban, who helped plan last weekend's "Seussational!" program.

Oobleck is a green, flexible, malleable, pretend substance from Dr. Seuss’s book "Bartholomew and the Oobleck." If you made it to the Children’s Museum this past weekend you saw oobleck jump out of the storybook and into the curious hands of children.
Many visitors were left to wonder about the recipe used to make the oobleck* that day and it's quite simple, really…

1. Mix equal parts of water and glue in a bowl. (Optional: add food coloring to the mix.)
2. Fill a two liter soda bottle with ½ cup of borax (a cleaning solution).
3. Fill the soda bottle halfway with water.
4. Mix the bottle until the borax dissolves.
5. Add the borax solution slowly to the water/glue mixture with an eye dropper. Make sure to continue mixing.
6. When there is a small amount of liquid left in the bowl, rinse off the oobleck and manipulate it with your hands.
7. PLAY!!!
Over all it was very exciting to be involved in the planning of "Seussational!" and even more exciting to see how engaged the visitors were. Children and adults alike joined in the fun of making a red top hat or paper puppet creatures, and all the while stories and rhymes could be overheard coming from the book nook. With over a third more of the visitors than last year's Seuss day, it was a total SEUSSESS! Thanks to everyone who participated and made it magical!
*This recipe is technically for good old goo or slime, called oobleck for this program. What's officially known as oobleck is just a cornstarch and water mixture - one part water to up to two parts cornstarch.
Learn more about the Seuss-themed fun in this playful Providence Journal article - a perfect tribute to Dr. Seuss!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Meet the Staff. ALL of Them!

This post about our most recent all staff meeting was contributed by Carole Ann Penney, assistant to the director of education.

Last Thursday, Museum staff, AmeriCorps members and volunteers gathered for an All Staff Meeting. Staff meetings may be dreary at other places, but here at Providence Children's Museum they are a special treat!

It’s surprisingly tricky to get us all in the same room at the same time - with AmeriCorps members serving at after school programs across Providence and neighboring cities, staff members working on different projects with different schedules and always needing to keep the exhibits staffed by Experience Coordinators and Play Guides, we are certainly a busy bunch! Three or four times every year we gather together at 7:30am (before the Museum opens to the public) to share our successes, update each other on what we’re working on and look ahead at what’s to come.
At last week’s meeting, we had a lot to celebrate! Here are some highlights:
  • Breaking all attendance records! Janice, Executive Director, shared that in 2009 we had 167,264 visitors – 20% more than have ever visited before. Over a third of those visitors came to the Museum at no cost.

  • Families Together is growing! Heidi, Director of Families Together, introduced some new members of the Families Together staff as they expand their support to children and families through the “Fostering Connections” federal grant. The award was made to a coalition of 10 RI social service agencies and will help our staff connect kids whose parents aren’t able to take care of them with extended family members.
  • New exhibits are coming! Chris, Exhibit Developer & Fabricator, warned that there will be lots of excitement to see in The Children’s Garden in the coming months – cranes and work trucks as The Climber is assembled, and furniture and exhibit components coming together in the new Underland exhibit. He said the best view will be from the ramp to the second floor!
  • And many more! Take a peek at our wall of things to celebrate…

Want to
know more about the Museum staff? See them in their playful natural habitat in our new staff Facebook album, created by AmeriCorps member Turenne. She did a terrific job collecting interesting facts and silly photos - check it out and let us know what you think!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Look Into Learning Clubs

This post was contributed by Kevin Broydrick, AmeriCorps Museum Outreach Educator serving at the Kent County YMCA.

One of the most rewarding things about leading Learning Clubs in the schools of West Warwick is watching what a transformative experience our activities can be for the kids. Some of our club members come into the Museum Club setting with certain expectations, but for many of them the experience is an entirely new one and it takes some adjusting. In the best cases these experiences enrich the child not just in the club setting but in the larger school environment. There’s no better example of this than Andrew, a 7-year-old child in one of our clubs with a high functioning form of autism.

When Andrew first started out in our clubs the experience was a very challenging one both for him and for us as educators. For the first few weeks Andrew had a lot of difficulty grasping some of the core concepts of club, things like transitions between activities, taking guidance, and, most notably, being willing to work in collaboration with other students toward a common goal. As soon as we introduced the materials and activity for a given day’s club, Andrew was already formulating what he wanted to make and how he wanted to do it. He wasn’t interested in sharing his ideas with the other kids or building something together, and he certainly didn’t want to feel like anyone else’s ideas could trump his own.
It was a very slow process, but as the weeks went by Andrew began to feel more comfortable both with the club format and the other kids he was sharing the experience with. By the time our first 10-week session of Learning Clubs had ended Andrew had shown huge improvements all around and he was eager to return for our next session.

From the very outset of second session it was like Andrew was a totally different club participant. He was much more responsive to direction and attentive when we were reading a book or explaining the day’s activities. The best moment came during the second week of our second session when Andrew offered to help another child with the construction of his “beak” for a game we were playing called “Eat Like a Bird.” That action was something that, at the start of first session, would have never happened. Seeing his improvement has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve experienced in this job. Andrew has an aide accompany him to clubs and those aides have also told us what a positive experience learning club has been for Andrew; he has been more attentive in his classes and has been getting along with his fellow students better than ever before.
Education is a career in which it’s often hard to see the direct fruits of one’s labor, which makes it that much more gratifying when an experience happens like the one we’ve had with Andrew. In the setting of Museum Club he’s had fun and grown as a student and a person, and knowing that we’ve played a part in that makes all the challenges worth it.