Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Pretend Play is a Literacy Activity

This article, by Museum Executive Director Janice O'Donnell, was also posted on Kidoinfo.

Your 3-year-old can recognize the first letter of her name when she sees it in print or maybe hit the right letters on the electronic game when the recorded voice says “B… ball… B.”  You think she’s pretty smart.  She is, but not because she’s beginning to recognize letters.  Let’s face it – chimpanzees can learn to do that.  Where you can really see and celebrate her developing literacy skills is in her pretend play.

Children’s capacity for pretend, or fantasy, play begins very early and is marvelous in its creativity.  When children pretend, their thinking is fluid, flexible and amazingly responsive to new information, ideas and resources.  Renowned educator Vivian Gussin Paley recorded this kindergarten dialogue in her 2004 book, A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play:
“Someone has to be the wolf,” Red Riding girl said, putting on the red velvet cloak.
“I’m not the bad guy,” argued Erik, in a vest and tie.
“You’re really the dad hunter but you pretend huge teeth.”
“Like a wolf?  See it bited me so my teeth got stronger like a wolf.”
While practicing social skills like cooperation and compromise, children create their story’s plot, characters, even backstory.  They understand the elements of storymaking well before they read or write.  And of even more importance, they internalize the rich complex world of stories – and are primed to become enthusiastic readers.

There is no research showing that children who learn to read by age 5 have stronger literacy skills long term than children who begin reading at 7.  In fact, recent research by Sebastian Suggate of University of Otago, New Zealand, demonstrates there is no difference.  Suggate theorizes that “…the most important early factors for later reading achievement… are gained without formal reading instruction… play, language and interactions with adults… prepare the soil well for later development of reading.”

Given enough unstructured screen-free time, children will naturally engage in pretend play with other kids and by themselves.  Young children will often invite you – their grown-ups – into the play.  Accept the invitation and follow their lead.  It’s fun and it’s really interesting to observe their imaginations in action.

You can let them know you value their pretending by taking it a step further.  Keep a box of dress-up clothes within easy access.  Capes, pieces of glittery fabric, silly hats and old Halloween costumes inspire fantasy play.

Listen to them as they play and write down their story.  For example:
Little Red Riding Hood walked through the forest.  Suddenly she saw a wolf.  She started to run away.
“Wait,” he said.  “I’m not really a wolf!  I’m your dad!”
“But you have huge teeth!” said Red
“Because a wolf bit me and my teeth got huge and strong,” said dad, “but I won’t bite you!”
Read the story to them and ask them to add to it and illustrate it.

Or tell their stories back to them.  On vacation last summer my grandchildren spent days on an elaborate fantasy involving an elf, a princess and a ninja.   At bedtime I began the story, “Once upon a time a princess lived in the forest with her best friend the elf.  One day a ninja came to the forest…”  Of course the kids corrected and embellished and wanted stories about the ninja, princess and elf again and again.

Pretend play is a literacy activity.  For that reason, the Children’s Museum’s team incorporated a lot of pretend play elements in its design for the new Chace Children’s Discovery Library at Providence Public Library.  Raise readers by reading them books and telling them stories – and by allowing plenty of opportunity to make their own stories.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Talking Back: The Power to Play

For the past 4 months, the Museum has hosted The Power to Play: From Trash to Treasure, an incredible display of imaginative toys handcrafted by children from around the world that demonstrates kids' universal creativity and resourcefulness. This Sunday, February 26, is the last day and we'll be sad to see these wonderful toys go.

Inspired by the exhibit, we've asked visitors to share what kinds of toys they make and what they like to make toys from. Here's a selection of what they had to say:

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

PlayWatch: Bringing Families Together

Today we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of our Families Together program and its expansion to Nina’s House, which will allow the Museum to serve more court-separated families, and those with greater challenges. Here are stories from two of the Families Together clinicians that show the impact of the program’s innovative therapeutic visitation, and the types of healing, relationship-building experiences that families will now have at Nina’s House as well as at the Museum.

A mom entering the Families Together program spoke about her childhood and never being able to play or “be a kid.” One of her goals was to learn to have fun with her children and help “make learning fun” for them.

In Shape Space, her 3-year-old daughter created a “ship” and showed it to us with a huge smile. Mom corrected her, saying the shape was really a pyramid. Her daughter stood her ground and declared, “No, I made a ship!” I could see that mom’s goal to have fun might be a challenge to accomplish.

During visits, I modeled playing and pointed out the ways her daughter responded, letting mom practice. Her daughter was engaging and had an active imagination, even though mom had not encouraged this in her. As mom became more comfortable at the Museum and with me, she learned about different ways to play, imagine, and most of all be silly. She learned a lot of this from her daughter.

Over time, mom reported that she was playing more at home and incorporating play into her daily routine. She even squirted her daughter with water and had a “water war” while washing dishes! Mom found that her relationship with her daughter improved and issues like managing tantrums were easier when she had a balance of fun and serious in each day.

In the end, the 3-year-old had made learning fun for mom!

Shannon Doherty, Families Together Visitation Specialist

In Families Together, we are privileged to witness firsthand just how powerful play can be.

A young mother and her 2 ½-year-old son have weekly visits at the Museum, the only time during the week that they see each other. They are rebuilding their relationship after months of separation.

At our first visit, the mother appears unsure of herself and the interactions between mother and son are tentative. The child calls his mother by her first name, acts shy and resists affection, not even wanting to hold hands. They play together for an hour, the mother following her son’s lead.

By visit six, the little boy sees his mother as a playmate, but not “Mommy.” They play throughout the Museum, smiling and laughing, no longer tentative.

By visit 14, the child runs to his mother, greeting her with a hug. He initiates play with her and says, “I love you” at the end of the visit.

By visit 18, their last with Families Together, the mother is almost always “Mommy.” She’s confident and clearly the parent, not just a playmate. Her son willingly holds her hand and asks to be held. They are mother and son again.

This is the power of play.

Amber Massed, Families Together Clinician

Illustrations by Valerie Haggerty-Silva, Museum graphic designer.

Click here for another powerful story about a family's growth and healing, shared by Families Together Clinician Amanda Grandchamp.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Celebrating Nina’s House

As we announced last fall, Families Together – the Museum’s renowned social service program – is growing! Tomorrow, after 20 years of bringing court-separated families together, the Museum opens Nina’s House, a homelike setting for family healing.

Created by Providence Children’s Museum in collaboration with the RI Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) in 1992, Families Together provides therapeutic visitation and permanency planning for children in foster care and their families.

When the state steps in to remove children from their parents’ care because of abuse or neglect, the usual goal is to reunite the family. While parents are helped to acquire the skills and resources they need to care for their children, the children live in foster care. It is critical that children and parents have regular high-quality contact while living separately. Families Together participants – children ages 1 to 11, their parents, and often extended family members – work with the program’s family therapists to rebuild relationships and strengthen parenting skills. During visits, the therapists assess the family’s strengths and challenges and help develop a permanency plan so their lives won’t be disrupted again.

For 20 years, DCYF-involved families in need of special guidance have rebuilt relationships while engaging in healthy play activities at Providence Children’s Museum – a nurturing and inspiring environment for fostering positive parent-child interaction for all families, especially those at risk. Since its inception Families Together has helped more than 2,000 families. In 2011, the program served 500 children and parents in 180 families.

With the addition of Nina's House, a Providence home purchased and renovated by The Nina Foundation, families will also strengthen relationships and communication while practicing basic skills in a warm, homelike setting conducive to family healing. Nina’s House will enable Families Together to expand clinical services to serve more families and better meet their specific needs; fill a major need for early and thorough assessment of DCYF-involved families; provide parenting skill development for more families with very young children; and better serve those with serious emotional and cognitive challenges.

We’re grateful to The Nina Foundation as well as to Ocean State Charities Trust, Admirals Bank, Creative Office Environments, and to 50 individuals who contributed cash gifts, toys and household items to the Nina's House shower. Thank you for supporting children in foster care and their families as they strengthen their relationships and work toward permanency.

Learn more about Families Together in this Museum newsletter and in an interview with program director Heidi Brinig

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Creating the Children's Discovery Library

The Children’s Discovery Library opened at Providence Public Library to rave reviews on Saturday – including in the Providence Journal! The exhibit team and other Museum staff enjoyed seeing how much fun kids and adults alike had exploring the space.

Take a look back at the process of creating some of the components of this imaginative environment:

The Forest
As mentioned, a birch tree came down in our garden last summer
leaving us with a lot of raw material to dry, peel and finish so it could be used to frame the area around the forest.
To create the tree trunk hideaway, the first step was putting wood together in this barrel-like formation.
It was then cut to the right shape and carved to create the texture of tree bark.
The finished tree trunk hideaway, inhabited by woodland friends!
Above the forest, it was quite a process to hang a mobile of translucent alphabet leaves. (You may recognize RISD intern Marianne from this earlier Journal article!)
 Alphabet boxes
Fonts were chosen and letters cut from wood.
The boxes were built – arranged here looking very much like a honeycomb!
The doors were attached to panels holding the boxes and then installed.
Items that were collected over many, many months were put into place in the boxes’ interiors.
The finished boxes.  Each one is like a mini-exhibit, and it’s delightful to watch kids as they discover what’s behind the doors!
Throughout the installation, stunning graphics, labels and hunts were added, brightening the room.
 Before the Children’s Discovery Library:

And happily ever after: 

The team celebrating the grand opening: Graphic Designer Valerie Haggerty-Silva, Exhibit Technician Hillel O'Leary, Executive Director Janice O'Donnell, Exhibit Designer & Fabricator Chris Sancomb, and Director of Exhibits Robin Meisner.