Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Toy Stories

To prepare for The Power to Play: From Trash to Treasure – a display of toys handmade by children from around the world – we collected stories of toy making from our friends, staff and members of our international community.

Here are the ones chosen to accompany the toys, and to inspire visitors to share their own stories:

What toys do you and your family like to make? Leave us a comment, and stay tuned to find out what our visitors have to say about toys they've made and what they like to make toys from.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Risky Business

This article by Education Programs Coordinator Carly Baumann was also posted on Kidoinfo.
“In the real world, life is filled with risks… and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development.”
                   – Dr. Joe Frost
At Providence Children’s Museum, we witness wonderful moments of learning through play all around us, every day: from discovering how to use a popsicle stick as a clay cutting tool to learning that Pilgrim children didn’t use forks, and that engineering a giant fountain with two friends is much easier than constructing alone.  But some of the most inspiring learning moments, often the most intense and real, involve taking a risk.  When children (and grown-ups) take risks or, as Tim Gill said, “actively seek out uncertainty,” they explore their own limits and learn about the world.  Risk is the ingredient that keeps us engaged and it helps make play more meaningful.

Making opportunities for risk-taking in Museum exhibits and programs is a responsibility we care deeply about.  Because we encourage open-ended experiences, there are not a lot of rules or instructions.  We believe in managing risk rather than seeking to eliminate it, so we embrace a philosophy of designing environments and experiences to be as safe as necessary but not as safe as possible.  In our outdoor Climber, a safe and challenging structure, kids experience a sensation of taking risks as they stretch, wiggle and climb two stories high.  Pushing through fears and internalizing one’s own sense of success doesn’t require a life-or-death situation; the perceived risk is just as valuable.  Children take risks in open-ended physical play, but also when they handle real tools, messy materials and live animals.  They take risks when trying challenges they might not succeed at on the first try, or the tenth.

It’s not only our responsibility to provide opportunities for risk-taking, but to communicate the value of risk to caregivers – the most vital supporters of their children’s learning.  In the parent resource area of our Play Power exhibit, video clips show children playing intensely throughout the Museum.  As a boy crawls across his own wobbly arch bridge and two builders witness the toppling of the intricate block tower they teamed up to construct, the narration reads, “When they are free to take risks and try new things, kids learn about their abilities.  And they learn how to bounce back when things go wrong.”


In a time when the media message is that growing up is not safe, children need support to take risks from the caring adults in their lives.  By taking risks ourselves when we are challenged, we model that risk is a part of life.  Watching families when they hesitantly handle worms from the Museum’s worm compost bin illustrates how risk can bring us together in intense social experiences.  Peers and parents can bring a sense of security that eases children from uncertainty to the exhilaration of overcoming a fear.  In The Climber, children get social support from other kids who help coach them down a steep step, or from parents watching below, still far enough away that the child negotiates his own way down.

Let’s remember that, as Fred Rogers said, “Play is the work of childhood.”  Risk is an essential element of children’s work and play and they need grown-ups who model, support and celebrate that.

The Museum recently hosted an energetic and thought-provoking discussion about the benefits of risk-taking to kids’ healthy development.  See conversation highlights and download the Kids, Play and Risk resource sheet – our compilation of great articles, books and more.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Mind Lab at the Museum

This post was contributed by Museum Exhibits Director Robin Meisner.

At Providence Children’s Museum we’ve teamed up with developmental psychologists at Brown University and Providence College to create Mind Lab, a research partnership exploring how children learn – what our young visitors know and how their understanding develops and changes as they grow.

We’ve been hosting researchers at the Museum for almost a decade and are pleased to work with such active and engaged scientists.  To celebrate her first anniversary with Mind Lab, Dr. Jennifer Van Reet, assistant professor of psychology at Providence College, shared the results of one of her studies.
"Every week, my students and I look forward to our time in the Mind Lab. With the generous help of Museum visitors, we have been exploring the development of pretend play in preschoolers.  One project we recently completed had some really intriguing results!

All of my research is focused on discovering how people are able to pretend and figuring out in what ways pretending is beneficial. One way I do this is to find what other important abilities are related to pretending. In this project, I looked at an ability called inhibitory control, which we all use to control our minds and bodies. And we use it all the time! Every time you stop yourself from saying something you know you shouldn’t, or wait until after dinner to eat dessert, you are using your inhibitory control.

After measuring the inhibitory control and pretending abilities in a lot of different ways, I discovered that 3- and 4-year-olds who have the most inhibitory control are also the best pretenders. I also found that playing a particular type of game – games just like “Simon Says” – caused better pretending!  This type of game is special because it requires a certain kind of inhibitory control that helps you switch back and forth between two different rules (like when Simon says to do something versus when he doesn’t).  Other types of games, like waiting games or follow-the-leader games, did not have the same effect.
This project revealed quite a bit about pretend play that we did not know before. Now we know how important inhibitory control is for children’s pretend play, and we know that exercising children’s inhibitory control can help them to be better pretenders. This new information can now be used by people who work with children – like the staff at Providence Children’s Museum."
Dr. Van Reet models an activity from one of her studies.

Working with scientists gives the Museum an opportunity to learn about current research and create more meaningful, developmentally appropriate child- and adult-focused learning experiences, including hands-on activities for children, workshops for caregivers, and exhibits and environments for all visitors.

From Jennifer’s study we might consider…
  • Incorporating an appropriate inhibitory control game into our greeting for groups visiting the Museum;
  • Including such a game in take-home materials that compliment our programs; or
  • Designing an exhibit component that encourages the use of children’s inhibitory control skills.
Further conversations with Jennifer also suggest that there’s good reason to think that the inhibitory control/pretend play connection works both ways – that good pretend play has a hand in the development of strong inhibitory control skills.  And, like anything else, many children need practice at pretend play to become “good” at it.

Visitors to the Museum have lots of opportunities to engage in and practice pretend play.  All of our exhibits have components specifically designed to foster such play – for example, the bridge and crane in Iway, the underground kitchen in Underland and, perhaps less obviously, the casts in Bone Zone or blocks in Shape Space.  Museum Play Guides are trained to spark, seed and join children’s play – to help create richer, deeper play.  From the Museum’s perspective, an interesting future research study might investigate whether such play experience do indeed contribute to building a child’s inhibitory control skills.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Talking Back: Outdoor Play

Recently, on the Talk Back board in Play Power, we asked visitors how they like to play outdoors.  Here's what some of them – kids and grown-ups – had to say:

How do you and your family like to play outdoors?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Joyful Learning

This article by Director of Education Cathy Saunders was also posted on Kidoinfo.

Now that kids are back in school, I’ve been contemplating the challenge of keeping learning a joyful experience rather than a task that must be endured.  At the Children’s Museum, we know that the best kind of learning happens when the learner wants to acquire new knowledge or skills, and when the experience is joyful and satisfying.  Yet the truth of the matter is that many of us (children and adults) have had un-joyful, un-playful and un-satisfying learning experiences in our lives.

Girl playing with paste

Even though I was kid who thrived in a school setting, like most people I have frustrations associated with school.  I remember the uncertain feeling I had when I was segregated as a slow reader in 2nd grade and the terror I had of presenting in front of the classroom in 3rd grade.  And I have some negative associations with learning outside of the classroom, too.  After a trip to the Museum of Science, there was always a dreaded moment in the car ride home when my dad would ask, “What did you learn?”  A great cloud would suddenly descend upon my afternoon of watching chicks hatch in the giant incubator because I wasn’t able to articulate my new understanding of how hard a baby bird had to work to get out of its shell.

When we watch our young ones go off to school it can be hard not to project some of our negative associations, and we can get tangled up in our children’s academic pressures.  The result is that we can lose sight of what a fun endeavor learning is, and that can be contagious to our kids.  Children look to us to model behaviors about everything, including attitudes about learning.  They need us be their advocates and cheerleaders as life-long learners.  It’s understandable that they get frustrated; we need to listen to their fears and be patient.  We need to show them that we believe in them and their abilities as creative thinkers and problem solvers.

Children need to see us as excited learners, too.  Quick, grab a pen and make a list of 10 things you’ve learned recently.  My list includes learning the basic rules of a football game (my nephew plays Division III football), that hydrangeas change color based on the soil type, three new yoga poses, and how to create a personalized map on Google.  What does your list include?  Go ahead and share your curiosity and celebrate your new skills and growing knowledge with pride.  It’s great for children to see that we learn, and that we enjoy it.

We want children to know that learning is about being fully engaged and curious about something.  It’s about mastering something new.  It can happen slowly or quickly.  It can happen in groups or alone.  It can be joyful and self directed.  It is a skill in and of itself that, once developed, can make school a lot more fun and interesting.