Friday, October 29, 2010

Stand Up for Recess

By Janice O’Donnell, Executive Director, Providence Children’s Museum

Elementary schools seem to be having an awful lot of trouble with recess lately. There are complaints that recess is a fertile ground for bullying, leads to misbehavior and injuries, is difficult to supervise, and takes away from class time needed for reading and math. As a result, school recess is being reduced in many schools, especially in urban schools with high poverty and high minority rates. A 2005 US Department of Education survey revealed an alarming recess gap: first graders in 18 percent of elementary schools with an extremely high poverty rate do not have recess, compared to 4 percent in schools with low poverty rates. Since 2001 and the advent of No Child Left Behind, 20 percent of the nation’s school districts have reduced recess time in favor of math and language arts (Center on Education Policy).

At the same time, research proves how valuable – indeed necessary – recess is for optimum learning and development. An American Academy of Pediatrics study of 11,000 third graders showed that those with more recess time had better classroom success. In a nationwide Gallup poll commissioned by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, more than 80 percent of elementary school principals reported that recess has a positive impact on academic achievement and two-thirds noted that students listen better after recess and are more focused in class.

Photo by Susan Sancomb

Hardly a surprise. Who doesn’t need to stretch one’s body and mind after sustained time on a task? Today’s coffee break might take the form of five-minute-yoga, but we still recognize that adults need breaks from work during the day. Kids need them more. It is physically more difficult – takes more energy – for a six-year-old to sit in one place for an hour than to run around the schoolyard. And leading kids in calisthenics is no substitute for recess. Kids need to play. They need free, self-directed play where they make up their own rules, set their own challenges, solve their own problems. Recess gives them time during the school day to move their bodies, interact with friends, daydream, pretend, invent – all necessary for developing imagination, creativity, social skills and resiliency, as well as strong bodies.

So we need to stand up for recess. I urge parents to tell their children’s principal, their school committee and superintendent that they expect elementary school children to have at the very least 20 minutes of recess every day and much more free play time for preschoolers and kindergarteners.

And, for those fighting that good fight, I offer some perspective. Over a year’s time, children only spend 20 percent of their waking hours in school. It’s true, try the math: 6 hours x 180 days. I know that for weeks it seems kids are spending all their time getting ready for school, being at school and doing homework. But parents and caregivers are in charge of much more of their children’s time than schools are and we can make sure that they have plenty of time for free play. We can turn off the TV and computer. We can be careful about enrolling them in too many or overly consuming extracurricular activities. We can send them outside to play and trust that they’ll be just fine. Better than fine – they’ll be doing exactly what they need to do to grow their minds and bodies and spirits.

Other resources:

Don’t Let Recess Die! Six Ways to Save Recess at Your Child’s School by Darell Hammond, CEO of KaBOOM!, in The Huffington Post
The 3 R’s? A Fourth is Crucial, Too: Recess by Tara Parker-Pope in The New York Times
Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School by the Alliance for Childhood


This article was originally posted on

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

PlayWatch: Lily and the Magician

This true story about a spontaneous, creative drama session with children was contributed by Providence arts educator and performer Diane Postoian, who has previously performed at the Museum. She believes that pretending is a foundation for learning and thoughtful, emotional development.

In my classroom at an arts camp for very young children, I have a wall-length array of fabric, old clothes, hats and other accessories. At the end of each class, I let the children play ‘dress-up’. It’s three days into camp. Lily is shy. She doesn't want to dress up, so I sit next to her to keep her company while the other children dive into the piles. Laila comes over to us with a pair of 1950’s cat's eyes glasses and asks, "Are these real?" "Uh, yes. As a matter of fact these are prescription. You shouldn't wear them." I snatch them quickly from her hands.

Lily remarks slowly in an almost inaudible whisper, "I wear real glasses. I can wear those." I stare at her. She allows me to put them on her face. Another child comes by and drops a piece of fabric onto my lap. I slowly drape it like a shawl around Lily's shoulders and call her grandma. With no warning, this shy, inaudible Lily turns out to be a LOUD and cranky grandma. "Wash the dishes!" she suddenly demands. "Clean the house." All the children are stunned. They stop to listen. "Gee grandma," I moan, "give me a break." "No!" she barks.

The next day, Lily again doesn't want to play dress-up. I say to her, "Grandma, I heard you want to go shopping today." Like a doll, she lets me adorn her with the glasses, the shawl and now I add a hat and handbag. Everyone is watching to see how Lily will respond. Today, I tell everyone that I will be interviewing them after they're dressed. "Grandma," I say, "I'll be reporting the news today on TV. I'm interviewing a bunch of people." "No," she snaps. "You can’t go to work." Deanna hears that from across the room, picks up a fake phone and coyly says, "I'll be by soon to pick you up for work, Diane." (Too quick for me). I say goodbye to grandma.
I call Owen up for the first interview. He’s wearing a 1940’s man’s cap, sunglasses and a neck tie. "So sir, I couldn't help but notice your outfit. Who are you?" (I am using a whisk as a microphone).

"I'm a rapper," he says, speaking directly into the whisk.
"Oh? What do you like to rap about?"
"Wow. What kind of birds?"
"Blue jays."
"Really? Why's that?"
"Because when my grandpa died, he said he wanted to be a blue jay."
"That's a wonderful way to keep him in your heart, Owen." He nods gently. Off he goes.

I call Leo up. He's wearing an actual magician hat, with the little pocket on the inside to hide things. He has a woman’s black crepe skirt pulled up under his armpits like a strapless dress. The skirt touches the floor. Leo grabs hold of the whisk to make sure he can be heard!
"I'm Leo the Magician."
"Well Mr. Leo. What kinds of tricks can you do?"

Now the kid had to be prepared for this one. He says, "I'm going to get a necklace out of the hat... for your grandma."
"For my grandma?!?!? Grandma, if you're watching, Leo the Magician is going to give you a necklace." (Apparently, the crotchety grandma has made quite an impression on the thoughtful Leo.) Before acting out his “trick,” the necklace accidentally falls out of the hat. Leo quickly picks it up. "You didn't see that," he mumbles.

"No, of course not. I saw nothing." I stare at the kids. "The audience didn't see anything either." Like clockwork, they all shake their heads 'no.' Hilarious. Leo manages to get the necklace into the hat's inside pocket. He flows around the audience in his black skirt to show everyone the hat is empty. They all strain to make sure. He walks across the room, far away from us. "Leo! Why are you over there?" "The spell might be too powerful. I need room." He returns with the necklace. I thank him. Leo sits down.

"Grandma, if you're watching, here's your necklace." Lily, who has never gotten out of her seat since camp started, walks up to me. "Grandma? I can't believe this. You were in the audience? That's wonderful. Look at this necklace." I put it on her. She 'humphs' and growls, "Get back home."

Friday, October 22, 2010

Where Do the Children Play? – URI

Last week was our 10th screening and discussion of the documentary “Where Do the Children Play?,” this time at the University of Rhode Island. The conversations are always so rich, but this time we heard some interesting new comments and perspectives. Some highlights:
  • Museum director Janice O’Donnell talked about how, with our new play spaces, “We’ve been noticing kids’ self-directed play, especially outside. Kids still do know how to play, we just have to let them.”
  • Sue Warford, URI Child Development Center director, said she views the film through a lens of what happens in classrooms: “The amount of time for play in classrooms has diminished … why are we taking this away from kids?”
  • Jeanine Silversmith started RI Families in Nature 2 years ago, inspired by Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods,” and it’s grown to 74 people on the last hike. The easy monthly hikes “give parents a break because everyone is looking out for everyone else’s kids – it takes the pressure off.”
  • Su Rubinoff of Meadowbrook Waldorf School talked about how important it is for kids to connect with nature and shared a story of 7 kids (ages 3-7) who spent a long time working together to make a pool for a frog – showing cooperation and social navigating. “Kids are entitled today – they don’t have to wait, to share. There’s not just one computer, one car, one phone … Society is teaching kids to be isolated and entitled, so we have to work extra hard to put them in situations where they’re working together.
  • A professor of Human Development echoed that idea: “We’re raising a population of adults who are egocentric – not kind and patient.” Sue: “There’s a direct relationship to the way expectations are being delivered in schools right now … we’re expecting too much think-in-a-box mentality, too much conformity – we need to nurture compassionate collaboration and problem solving.
  • Janice offered a counter argument: schools were also regimented in the 50s “but we had a real life – after school, on Saturdays, in the summer, outside.” She expressed concern that out-of-school-time is regimented too much now, too.
  • Jeanine: “Kids are not being allowed to see their shortcomings and what they’re good at, which means they have no compensation technique later on … As a parent, I need to let them mess up and fall.
  • On structure and too many activities: audience members talked about the prevalence of summer camps – often weeks of structured activities – and giving parents the message that it’s what they’re supposed to do. “Parents have to not do it – just get together and let the kids play.”
  • A preschool director said she grew up in 50s and is struck by the fear factor now: “Parents drive kids to the bus stop … it used to be kids felt ‘I’m safe with any adult.’” Jeanine: We need to keep walking to the bus, talking about it to others.
  • A home school parent said her kids only have 3 hours of structured academic time per week and they’re ahead of public schools. They’re free to go off and explore the rest of the time. Janice: We need to give kids responsibility.
  • Two preschool teachers: Parents don’t want their kids outside – “they’ll get sick, they’re afraid” – they come late so they don’t have to go outside.
  • A URI student shared that she was raised by parents who thought it was important to get outside but they weren’t in a good area for that – no other kids were out. “How can I balance that as a parent later on?”
  • A teacher and parent of 3 elementary school boys: “We need to be careful about parental education, be empathetic to their fears.”
  • Another preschool teacher mentioned the scene in the film where a parent was driving and all of the kids were in the backseat, absorbed in their individual screens. “I remember having conversations [during car rides], kids noticing things, playing games, singing songs – all of that is play, is creative. Now we’re given all kinds of conveniences and kids go from inside the house to another inside environment without noticing anything.
Resources mentioned:
Read more about the lively conversation in URI’s student paper. And join the conversation about the importance of play on the Museum's PlayWatch listserv!


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Step Into a “Small Town”

We’re thrilled to have an incredible new exhibit in the Museum’s atrium walkway window boxes: I Live in a Small Town, created by local artist Megan Jeffery. In 17 playful scenes, the exhibit gives visitors a glimpse into the lives of the town’s inhabitants – a total of 36 handcrafted finger puppet residents and hundreds of intricately detailed miniatures.

Megan, a RISD alumna, has been a children's illustrator for over 20 years, specializing in educational material. When asked to describe the exhibit, she said:
“The BIG idea is…little! Ever since I was a kid, I've collected and made miniatures, and even had a “town” (called “Beetlegrass,” which is now the name of my blog) that lived on top of my dresser. This exhibit features my finger puppet characters that I make by hand using wool roving, fabrics, and other materials. Also on display are the miniatures that I make and that I've collected over the years – some I've had since childhood!”
Each of the scenes is infused with Megan’s own brand of humor. You’re not going to believe your eyes when you see the array of goodies guarded by the butcher and baker in their shops; the musically inclined cow and sheep playing their instruments; decked out disco robots; crabs constructing an elaborate sand castle; and the gathering of G.I. gnomes. And the details! From diminutive dog bones at a festive canine celebration to a tank of tiny fish in the “Nature Nook” to the construction workers’ picture perfect roadway scene, there’s so much to discover.

All of the puppets have a distinct look and personality. From Megan’s blog:
“It's this aspect of making characters that I just love: I start off with a basic idea of how they'll look, but then the puppet starts "telling" me about who he/she is, and he wants to wear, etc. It's this balance of planning ahead AND allowing room for being spontaneous that to me is PLAY.”
We couldn’t have said it any better. We know that kids and adults will LOVE this exhibit, which is on display for the next 4 months.

Get a behind-the-scenes look at Megan’s fascinating and amazingly detailed process in a series of posts on her blog. Here’s a selection:

Thanks to Megan for sharing her work with us again; click here to learn about her previous puppet exhibit at the Museum. Also check out 9 to 5, our newest marionette display.

And leave a comment to let us know which is your favorite finger puppet scene!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Welcome to Explorers' Studio

This post was contributed by Mary Scott Hackman, the Museum’s early childhood program developer.

“What children learn does not follow as an automatic result from what is taught. Rather, it is in large part due to the children’s own doing as a consequence of their activities and our resources.”
Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia Approach
What does it mean to provide open-ended programming for young children and why are open-ended activities so vital to a child’s successful learning experience? We in the field of early care and education always hear the phrases “process, not product”; child-directed learning; self-esteem; hands-on activities. What does all of this mean?

For us here at the Museum, it means that we take seriously our responsibility to honor the words of Malaguzzi and furthermore, honor our youngest visitors by making these phrases the essential components of each of our new Explorers’ Studio programs starting this fall.
Our classroom will change from week to week. Depending on the activity at hand, children ages 3 to 6 will be invited into the color lab; the wood-working shop; the art studio. They will be presented with assorted papers, natural materials and, as always, recyclables so that their creations will be their own, each one different and unique. Sometimes they will get to use real tools, like a pipette in the art studio or a hand-drill in the workshop.
In October, we’ll explore fall in the color lab; kids will hammer nails into a stump in the workshop; and at the end of the month, they’ll craft masks to accompany their Halloween costumes. In the weeks ahead, we’ll invite children to join us in the workshop again but this time to explore different tools, perhaps wrenches and clamps. We may reopen the art studio for clay sculpting and mural making. In short, new activities will be offered within a schedule of repeated themes or experiences. This, we feel, is helpful to young children since it is by repetition that they learn, in their time, going back in, figuring it out.
The studios will run for 2 hours allowing children to stop by and stay for as long or as short as they like. Who knows? They may need to come back! Drop into the studio this month on Thursdays from 1:00 to 3:00 PM and Fridays from 10:00 AM to Noon – check the calendar for a full schedule of activities.