Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Conversation About the Children’s Discovery Library

The Chace Children’s Discovery Library – an engaging early learning environment designed by Providence Children’s Museum – opens at Providence Public Library on Saturday, January 28. Anne Kilkenny, the Library’s Early Childhood Services Coordinator and Children’s Librarian, and Children’s Museum Executive Director Janice O’Donnell and Exhibits Director Robin Meisner spoke about the inspiration for and process of creating the new space.

How was the project conceived and what are the Library’s goals?
Anne: The Library wanted to create an interactive early literacy environment that would be accessible to everyone and become a destination for children and families in Rhode Island. We took inspiration from the Baltimore Public Library’s early childhood area.

Why was Providence Children's Museum interested in this project? What are the benefits of this collaboration between two community institutions? 
Janice: Partly because creating interactive learning environments for children and families is what we do. Second, because it’s the library. We’re colleagues, we share resources and always have – we’re partners in the world of informal learning so it seemed pretty natural. The Museum is committed to outreach – going beyond our walls and sharing our expertise in informal learning and environments is part of our strategic plan. It was definitely a big leap but it was intriguing and it felt right to try it.

Anne: The Library has three pieces to our strategic plan and one is early childhood. To be able to stretch our boundaries a bit and bring in an interactive environment was something we really wanted to do and a natural partnership. The Museum’s staff are the experts in the field and we do have this ongoing and very strong collegial relationship. Collaborating is the way to bring these kinds of experiences to children and their families.

Janice: We want families to understand that their libraries and museums and parks and playgrounds and zoos are resources in a community for them to make use of. That’s what makes a culturally aware citizen.

Anne: It builds a sense of community. So many children are in isolation much of the time – it’s important for them to be out and able to just play.

Janice: Especially in places meant for them that are respectful and beautiful and thoughtful.

Robin: Topically, there’s a nice connection for the Museum because we have book nooks in all of our exhibits and we bring books into what we do but we don’t teach literacy. Partnering with the Library, where it’s about books and literacy and giving families those supports is something that we don’t really do in the same way at the Museum.

Janice's grandson reading in a book nook at the Children's Museum.

Anne: And we’ve said all along we’re not trying to be the Children’s Museum. We complement one another.

Why was Providence Children's Museum’s proposal selected?
Because of the obvious thought and time that went into every detail. They kept our focus, learning objectives and components, and mission at the forefront of everything they did to the minutest detail. It was the finest caliber that we could have imagined and there really wasn’t any question.

Talk about the process of planning for this new space.
Putting the RFP together, the process was to think about the goals and objectives of this space. What did we want it to look like, to sound like, how do we want people to feel when they come in to the room?

Janice: The library’s RFP was excellent – it was such a thoughtful document. There’s so much work that goes into defining goals and purpose and audience. It was fun and exciting and a challenge to respond to but we didn’t have to guess what the Library wanted.

Robin: There were some design challenges for us, being the first project we’ve done outside the Museum. We’re used to designing and fabricating for a space we know incredibly well, so we found ourselves coming over a lot to check things or to measure again and again. And we had to remind ourselves throughout that the space was primarily about books, and all of the other activities were meant to support storymaking and literacy and preliteracy skills.

What’s the story of the birch tree?
We knew we needed an open-ended area for pretend play. Since so many children’s stories happen in the woods, we decided on a forest. We wanted it be a birch forest and to use real birch trees as a unifying design theme. We did some woodland scavenging with no luck and then the hurricane hit and took out one of the birch trees in the Museum’s Children’s Garden. So the tree that welcomed children to The Children’s Garden will now welcome them to the Children’s Discovery Library.

Removing the birch tree from The Children's Garden, post hurricane last August.

What’s your vision for this space? What do you hope to see once it’s open?
I’m really excited to see kids and families in the space and to see how it changes. I hope there is more storymaking and storytelling and that some of the things we built inspire kids to go back into the books.

Anne: That it will give parents or caregivers and children more time together without distractions, to read a book, do an activity, tell a story. Just to spend some quality time together – quietly, creatively, imaginatively – and have some fun. That doesn’t always happen in this wired world we live in. And I hope that people who haven’t been to the Library before will come.

Janice: My vision is that visitors to the Library will see play as a literacy activity. That children’s play – especially pretend play, storymaking – does build literacy skills. It’s often dismissed as frivolous and it isn’t. It’s critical.

Anne, Robin and Janice reading in the Children's Discovery Library.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Story Starts Here…

This post was contributed by Exhibits Director Robin Meisner.

Children learn to love reading at a very young age, so the Museum’s exhibits team was excited to be commissioned by Providence Public Library to transform their young children’s room into the Chace Children’s Discovery Library, a purposefully designed space for children ages birth to 8 and their adult caregivers.
Concept drawing by Graphic Designer Valerie Haggerty-Silva.

The Library’s goals for the space – to open on Saturday, January 28 – are to foster young children’s love of reading, promote parents and caregivers’ understanding of the importance of early literacy activities, and provide professional support for early childhood educators.

As designers and educators, our job was to turn these written goals into playful activities, environments and messages to surround and support the Library’s rich collection of children’s books.

This morning, after months of planning, design and fabrication and three weeks of installation, the room was opened for a sneak preview to 32 preschoolers and their teachers from the Dr. Pat Feinstein Child Development Center and to early childhood educators from around Rhode Island. Their reactions were wonderful to see and hear!

Soft rolling hills of storybook phrases welcome library patrons through the doorway.
First lines from beloved children’s books swirl around the walls and columns. 
“The Forest,” a whimsical woodland environment that inspires imagination and storymaking with a tree trunk hideaway, giant leaves and other playful props. An artful alphabet mobile of translucent green and yellow birch leaves with letters hidden among them hangs overhead.
Intricately carved alphabet-block doors open to reveal astronauts and apples, bears and balls and other alliterative objects from A to Z.
Throughout the room, engaging kits and interactives welcome children to explore and discover.
Nestled into a quiet corner, comfy chairs built for adults and children to share encourage reading together.

Play (and, especially, pretend play) is a literacy activity, and we hope the new space will inspire a love of stories, books and reading. We also hope that caregivers will come away from their experience at the Library with a better understanding of the role of play has in children’s development. And, from what we observed this morning, we think this might just happen.

Coming soon: learn about the process of creating the Children’s Discovery Library, and celebrate the grand opening on Saturday, January 28 from 12:30 to 5:00 PM! To learn more about the opening events, visit

Monday, January 23, 2012

Making Learning Visible

Last fall, 22 teachers from nine Rhode Island community and family childcare programs took a course called “Making Learning Visible,” in which they learned to engage their children in making how-to books. The books were a vehicle for 200 children to develop skills in literacy, sequencing (mathematics), language development and communication, and how to give thoughtful instructions for a step-by-step process.

This story of one child’s process and the learning that transpired as she presented her work to her classmates and teachers is on display on the documentation board in Discovery Studio. It shows how important their feedback was to her success.
Benedetta’s teachers began by asking the class what they were experts at. They named a range of abilities including soccer, scribbling, being silly and drawing. Benedetta responded that she knew how to make a pattern bracelet. Benedetta’s teacher, Jenah, asked her to explain how to make a pattern bracelet and transcribed her directions.

The directions were presented to the whole class for feedback. The group noted that Benedetta’s direction, “Put a purple, then a blue, then a purple,” was limiting. “What if someone wants to use other colors?,” they asked her.

Benedetta’s classmate Holden suggested, “Put a color 1 bead, then a color 2 bead, then a color 1 bead” as an alternative. Benedetta liked his wording and asked Jenah to add it to her directions.

Benedetta drew a picture for each step in the directions. When she got to the eighth step, Jenah asked, “How are you going to show that a color is bead one?” Benedetta’s solution: “Label a yellow dot (representing a bead) 1 and a pink dot 2.”

Prompted by Jenah, Benedetta recalled important moments from the book-making process: “I got feedback (from the whole group) and “how Holden told me color 1 and color 2 instead.”

When asked how she became a pattern bracelet expert, she said it was from watching her classmate, Orla, in the art area and learning the word ‘pattern’ from Jenah.

Benedetta and dozens of other children and their families came to the Museum on Friday evening to see their how-to books on display and try out some of the activities. Benedetta was particularly excited to see her story!

Ready to Learn Providence posted one of our favorite books, How to Fly Like Superman, and here's another one of our favorites:

A selection of the children’s how-to books will be on display in Discovery Studio through February 17 – drop by and check them out!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

What Are You an Expert At?

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

That’s a question that 22 Rhode Island preschool teachers and family childcare providers asked their 3- and 4-year-old children as part of “Making Learning Visible: Inspiration Takes Flight,” a five-month professional development seminar offered by Ready to Learn Providence and supported by Providence Children’s Museum.

It turns out that the children are experts at lots of things.  Many of them know how to do crafts from creating a crown to drawing happy faces, dinosaurs, monsters and self-portraits to making a sugar flour cake.  They are excellent movers; they know how to run, climb on bars, dance, and do flips and jumping jacks.  They have mastered many of their important daily routines, such as being a big brother, tying shoes, cleaning up, and sleeping.  And not surprisingly, they are fantastic players.  They can tell you how to fly like Superman, play the card game Face-Off, put on a performance, and even how to pretend to be a dog.

The children, with the help of their teachers, shared their expertise by making how-to books about each of these activities, providing step-by-step instructions and illustrations.  Angeliz explained “How to Make a Happy Face” in seven steps:
  1. Make a big circle.
  2. Make two small circles inside the big circle.
  3. Then make two dots inside the two little circles.
  4. Then you make a dot in the middle of the circle for the nose.
  5. Make a line going up that looks like a big U.
  6. Then you make ears – make a half a circle next to the big circle, make one on each side.
  7. You can make the hair with a straight line or a wiggle line.

She read the book to her classmates and then they successfully drew their own happy faces, following her instructions!  It’s easy to overlook how much very young children know.  These how-to books are excellent reminders that children are powerhouses of knowledge, that they are constantly acquiring and processing information and skills.  Through this process, the teachers learned how to observe and document children’s learning, and we all discovered that how-to books take careful thought – you need to plan the order of the steps, make sure the words you choose can be understood, and decide what kind of illustrations (drawings or photos) are best.

Ready to Learn is asking the Mayor of Providence and other adult leaders to make how-to books as well.  You and your family could make them for each other.  What is each of you an expert at – making pancakes?  Writing letters?  Growing plants?  Start a book and have your family members test your instructions.  Get their feedback and make revisions.  Make a bound copy with illustrations to use again and again.

All 106 of the preschoolers’ books will be on display at the Children’s Museum during MetLife Family Friday on January 20 from 5:00 - 8:00 PM. Between January 21 and February 17, you can also drop into Discovery Studio to see documentation of one child, Benedetta, making her book, “How to Make a Pattern Bracelet,” and a display of a few others.  Who knows, you may learn something new!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Commemorating Dr. King

Each year, the Museum presents a day of special programming to commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Families see a powerful performance reenacting moments from the Civil Rights movement, explore a display about Dr. King's life and work, and can choose to participate in an interactive anti- discrimination activity, during which they wear a red or green tag and encounter “red only” and “green only” labels throughout the Museum – on lunchroom tables, bathroom doors, water fountains and more.

The activity and performance inspired reflection and thought-provoking moments and conversations, shared by the Museum’s AmeriCorps members:
  • A mother was intrigued by the anti-discrimination activity and explained that today’s rules said that, rather than use the open green bathroom, they had to wait for the red one. The younger boy, about 3, wanted no part of waiting, but her older son (6 or 7) explained that, “Even though you might be sad now that we have to wait, we are only red for one day.” Mom said, “Yes, thanks to people like Dr. King, anyone can use any bathroom on any day like it should be.”
  • After the performance, parents sat and talked to their children about what they remembered about Dr. King. One family talked about their grandmother’s own experiences with segregation on a bus. An older man talked to a young father about a friend he knew who went to jail for his work in the Civil Rights Movement. 
  • A little boy said he knows that MLK practiced nonviolence. Janice said she was alive when MLK was alive. The boy’s face changed. He is biracial. He said, “Discrimination means Mommy and Daddy couldn’t be married.” 
  • A family ran into friends after a performance of “M.L.K.: Amazing Grace.” One family was African American and the other white. The grandmother in the white family said, “I remember all of that. People in Providence were very angry when Dr. King was killed. People were angry everywhere.” The father of the black family was moved by the performance and said he remembered his best friend’s father, a white man, bailed him out of jail. There was a thoughtful silence while they watched their children play together. 

And some comments from visitors – kids and adults – in response to the question, “What will you do to fight racial discrimination?”:

"I think I'll do everything mom tells me to do."

Friday, January 13, 2012

Reaching Out to Children in Need

Since 1997, Providence Children's Museum has been an AmeriCorps site, committed to training a team of educators to bring engaging play-based activities to children whose exposure to rich learning experiences is limited. MuseumCorps – the Museum’s AmeriCorps program – has served nearly 20,000 children through innovative outreach to inner-city community centers and Head Start programs.

Our newest 12-member MuseumCorps team began in the fall and has been hard at work serving some of the poorest neighborhoods in Providence, Central Falls and Pawtucket through these programs:
  • MuseumCorps members lead inspiring hands-on activities in 58 Children’s Friend Head Start classrooms to help improve school readiness for 1,000 preschool children. 
  • Through Learning Clubs, members provide engaging STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) enrichment activities for 500 low-income elementary children at over a dozen community center after-school and summer programs. 
  • New this year: To deepen engagement with the neighborhood in the Museum’s backyard, MuseumCorps members are a daily presence after school at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Providence South Side Clubhouse. Students from Mary E. Fogarty Elementary School and other neighborhood children participate in playful STEM activities in a Museum-dedicated space. 
Members welcome program participants to explore the Museum during field trips and family nights, and to sign up for free year-long family passes.  They also facilitate play and learning for Museum visitors in exhibits and programs and recruit and coordinate Museum volunteers.

Meet the team:
 Left to right: Front - Rebecca Gormley, Ann Kerrin, Stacy Greenberg, Meagan Amylon
Middle - Andy Axel, Suzie Doogan, Sarah Bonawitz, Abbey Jones
Back - Ryan Queenan, John Rossi, Kassie Edwards, Leah Paladino
Members with Mayor Angel Taveras at a Head Start family night.

The Museum’s AmeriCorps program is made possible by a grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service and Serve Rhode Island with support from additional sponsors.