Tuesday, May 31, 2011

PlayWatch: When Grown-Ups Play

The Museum's hands-on learning environments can entertain kids of all ages for hours – and grown-ups, too! We love it when we discover the "big kids" completely engrossed in their play, whether with or without their children. It happens regularly in front of the funny mirrors, when moms and grandmoms get lost in a fit of giggles together. Upstairs, in Shape Space, often a mom and dad will be completely absorbed by building with the Jovo tiles or wooden unit blocks – working separately or together. Then, after a while, the kids will interrupt: "Mom and Dad, are you done yet? We're ready to play somewhere else now!"

A great example of grown-up play happened on Friday, when a mom spent an hour or more building an elaborate dog in Play Power, captivated as she stacked the narrow wooden Kapla blocks in careful tiers. Staff and visitors were so impressed by the finished product that no one wanted to take it down! Meanwhile, her 3-year-old son played busily nearby the entire time, just as involved as his mom.

We love that the Museum can foster such focused play experiences, and that adults feel comfortable stepping back and giving a child the freedom to play on his or her own. Now that's great parallel play!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Gone Conferencing, Part II: Play!

Before and in between InterActivity conference sessions, we filled our time with some excellent museum adventures and plenty of other fun!

Art Car Museum

The Art Car Museum is the only museum of its kind in the country, a mix of intricate, wacky art cars and gallery space. The story of how Houston artist Mark David Bradford created the current exhibit of (fully functional) art cars resonated with all of us: he used silverware that was abandoned by the airlines post-9/11. Reclaimed materials become beautiful, provocative art!
Janice: The best thing I saw in Houston – I love quirky museums and this is one of the quirkiest! Very much itself – obviously a meeting ground for art car aficionados. Staff was friendly, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. The art cars on exhibit were fantastic (in the true sense of the word), beautifully crafted, and had a great sense of humor. I loved the dragon car with hundreds of thousands of spoons for silvery scales. Biggest regret: Leaving the day before the BIG Houston Art Car Parade!
A distant relative of Nori, our rooftop dragon?

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Robin: I really enjoyed playing in Carlos Cruz-Diez's exhibition “Color in Space and Time.” The works encouraged us to experiment with optics and color by moving our bodies around the pieces – it was a bit science, a bit color theory and lots of fun. I especially liked sharing the exhibit with colleagues and learning favorite tricks from the MFA's docents.

Megan: The exhibit was really a playground of perception, inviting us to investigate how colors change and blend depending on distance and motion.
© 2010 Carlos Cruz-Diez/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

Children’s Museum of Houston

Our visit to the Children's Museum of Houston during a conference evening event revealed an amazing water play area, inspirational studio space, and great activity tables!
Robin, Janice and Carly shoot streams of water into a giant basin.

Carly: I wandered into the art studio, lured by rolls of duct tape in crazy patterns and colors. The volunteers leading a duct tape wallet-making activity were pre-teen sisters who told me about how they also serve on a kids' advisory, offering their suggestions and feedback for the museum in regular meetings. The girls radiated an empowered sense of belonging to the museum, while helping it grow with their own ideas. I love this!

Other fun stuff

We went to the opening night Pecha Kucha event, led by Paul Orselli. Ten inspirational presentations and a perfect way to start the conference.

Yes, it's true that everything's bigger in Texas. But we wished we'd turned that other slogan on its head by wearing “don’t mess with Rhode Island, either” t-shirts.

Some of us enjoyed the aforementioned elevators more than others, zooming past floor after floor from top to bottom of the hotel!

And we might have been spotted with children's museum folks from across the country carousing at a dueling piano bar…

A big thanks to all of our children's museum colleagues for the inspiration, ideas and FUN!

Gone Conferencing, Part I: Work(ish)

Last week, several of Providence Children’s Museum’s staff headed to Houston, TX for a few days of fun and learning during InterActivity, the annual conference of the Association of Children’s Museums. This year’s conference theme was “Innovation is Child’s Play,” and we all walked away with plenty of new ideas and inspiration.

Here are some of our many takeaways:

Chris Sancomb, Exhibit Designer
I really enjoyed meeting fellow designers and peers and discussing the similarities to process, problems and solutions. The workshops that involved participation were opportunities to build spontaneous team chemistry, and explore multiple viewpoints and working methods. Sometimes it clicked and sometimes not, but it reinforced the bond our Providence Children’s Museum team has.

A pre-conference workshop on cognitive science and exhibit design was awesome! I also really enjoyed two workshops on inclusion and the museum environment – one on universal design and the other focusing on autism and the spectrum of visitors. Very informative and helpful in assessing what we have and what we can do for the future.

And of course I enjoyed the time out of the office with my peers, where we sometimes talked shop, sometimes we talked big picture and dreams. I think all go to building strength back at home.
Chris and other conference attendees at a workshop.
(Courtesy of Paul Orselli)

Janice O’Donnell, Executive Director
  • Keynote speaker Steven Johnson's concept of “the slow hunch” – let an idea grow gradually from inspiration. That's what we hope experiences at the Museum give our visitors – the beginning, the inspiration for their further learning.
  • Getting measurable ways to track moving from “Nice to Necessary.” Children's museums are nice places – no one argues with that – but we want to know we're addressing real needs, that we play a necessary role in our communities and beyond. Jeanne Vergeront said that being necessary starts with looking past our walls. We're pretty externally oriented – we work closely with Children's Friend Head Start, Providence Boys and Girls Clubs, DCYF and many other organizations to help them meet the needs of children and families in our community. I want us to look at these collaborations to make sure they are relevant and sustainable, which Julia Bland described as key to being necessary. She should know; she directs the Louisiana Children's Museum in New Orleans, which continues to be a major player in the city's recovery from the devastation of Katrina.
  • There has been tremendous growth in the number of children's museums over the past several years and a lot of museums have gotten bigger. Consequently, the market for hands-on exhibits has grown. More and more exhibit design firms have popped up, many of the larger children's museums are creating exhibits to sell or rent, and relatively fewer museums are designing and building their own unique exhibits. While this might be a trend toward efficiency, it's also akin to the “malling of America” – children's museums all over the country look a lot alike. I think we’re approaching a tipping point. There were several discussions and presentations about “the DIY alternative,” creating unique exhibits in-house (which was the norm 15-20 years ago). Paul Orselli showed images from several children's museum, including ours (thanks, Paul!), pointing out that all are examples of DIY museums – all imaginative, local, artful and themselves. In a session about “Courageous Design,” Brenda Baker from Madison (WI) Children's Museum and Nancy Stice from Phoenix Children's Museum presented on creating their museums in collaboration with their local communities and artists. The images of both Madison and Phoenix knocked me out – gorgeous places and you'll not find anything like them anywhere else.
Climber, © Children’s Museum of Phoenix
Two-story climber made with salvaged materials.
© Madison Children’s Museum

Robin Meisner, Director of Exhibits
The sessions and conversations I was part of have led me to thinking...

• that we and similar museums around the country have to think about the balance between encouraging caregivers to play with their children and encouraging them to be students of their children (learning from their kids by observing and celebrating their play and learning). We need to try different ways of communicating the value of the learning that happens through play to caregivers.

• that we need to consider children at the upper end of our age range carefully... what works for them about what we do and what might we do differently, perhaps even exploring the role new technologies might have in engaging them.

• that inspiration can come from anyone or anything, and that I truly enjoy working with our team in thinking about the design and development of our exhibits and environments.

Carly Baumann, Education Programs Coordinator
A favorite experience at the conference was riding the hotel’s glass elevators: one side facing downtown and the other creating the illusion of plummeting to the lobby. During our session about healthy risk, my co-presenters and I discussed the feeling of risk when riding the elevators as the ingredient that kept us involved in the play. It's typical for riders to silently face the doors in an elevator, but with the walls transparent, strangers came together in their love or aversion to the sensation – risk as "a social lubricant," as Aaron Goldblatt expressed it.
Speaker Dr. Milton Chen’s measurement of a great learning center: “Do the kids run in at the same rate they run out?” As much fun and learning as we had in Houston, I couldn't wait to see excited kids' feet flying up the entrance to Providence Children's Museum again!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Inspiring Outdoor Play Spaces

This article by the Museum's Early Childhood Programs Coordinator, Mary Scott Hackman, was originally posted on Kidoinfo.

“In childhood play, it is a safe assumption that kids need more than a two-dimensional screen to gain competency.  Children need free, hands-on play that is kid-organized, to maximize their potential.  Nothing lights up a child’s brain like play.”Stuart Brown, M.D., founder of the National Institute for Play

Years ago, I attended a workshop given by an architect of children’s spaces.  One remark that struck me that day and lingers still was, “Next to food, the element that is essential to the health and well-being of our children is light.”  I remember thinking, “Well, we should close down all childcare centers housed in basements!”  And now I think it’s just another reason to advocate for getting our children out of doors and into the natural light of day.

Rhonda Clements, Manhattanville College faculty member and advocate for children’s outdoor play, did a study where she interviewed children ages 5 - 12.  She cited this response from one youngster when asked whether he preferred indoor or outdoor play: “ I don’t like playing outdoors because there aren’t any outlets to plug a computer into.”

When I was a child, when the season allowed, we played outside all the time. One of my favorite play memories is when, after a rainstorm, the kids in the neighborhood gathered where two yards joined.  One yard was at the top of a hill, the other at the bottom.  We started at the top, got a running start, and careened down a stream of mud into the next yard, winding up in a huge puddle.  It took a bit of courage the first time, then nobody hesitated – we just all lined up again and again.  In fact, it was almost as much fun watching as it was taking your turn!

Things are admittedly different today.  Kids have more competing for their attention.  But given a bit of encouragement and a few props, a fun, free, magical experience in the outdoors awaits them.  So what do they need?  A wooden spoon or stick to tap out a rhythm on pieces of wood or stone.  A cardboard box with a hole cut in the side for a door.  Or better yet, discovering an opening in the base of a globe of vines or a forsythia bush for a secret get-away space.

My current guru on outdoor play is Rusty Keeler, founder and designer of Planet Earth Playscapes, who suggests that, “well-arranged plants for children can become playhouses, hideouts, castles…”  One idea you might try is to scatter sunflowers in the shape of a square.  Think about it, a living fortress of looming sunflowers.  Intriguing for the children, a veritable feast for the birds and a grand, natural play space all for a few pennies.

When considering an outdoor play space for your kids and your neighbors’ kids, think about these things: freedom, opportunities for risk-taking, natural materials, a water source, ropes, things to dig with.  Oh, and no adults!

Yes, that’s right.  No adults.  Kids need unstructured, unsupervised hours of time outdoors where there are no rules (except for the ones they create…and recreate!).  No one telling them what’s what, so they have to negotiate with one another and figure it out.

Let’s think of outdoor play spaces where kids create – they create the things they play with, they create the rules they play by.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Where in the Wild?

Museum visitors can explore our great outdoors as they wriggle and stretch through The Climber, tunnel through Underland, and try fun-filled outdoor challenges in The Children’s Garden all day on Tuesdays and Thursdays in May and June.

One of the playful challenges is a texture hunt, created by AmeriCorps Museum Educator Jackie Frole – check it out below. Spot any objects you recognize?

Stay tuned to learn about other outdoor explorations. Happy hunting!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

PlayWatch: Water Wizards

This post was contributed by AmeriCorps Museum Educator Rachel Schwartz.

As I was driving into work on Easter Sunday, the roads were empty, sidewalks vacant. Providence residents were not to be seen. When the Children’s Museum opened, subsequently few families came in to play with us. Regardless of the lack of visitors, it gave a certain family a chance to really get to know Water Ways.

The water pressure was especially high in Water Ways so the fountains were shooting further than normal. A father and his 6-year-old son started out by making fountains using pipe pieces. As time went on, their fountains became more and more intricate. Eventually, they came up with a jet design. They discovered that if they covered up one of the fountain holes, there would be enough water pressure to shoot the water from the big tank to the toddler tank.

Then the determined duo decided to move the jet so that it would shoot from the big middle tank to the long side tank. The family and I walked under the stream of water many times. It was a blast!

Thank you to the family that shared this experience with me. Now this is one of my favorite tricks in Waters Ways. You never know what can happen on a slow Sunday!