Monday, September 30, 2013

An Interview with Suzy Letourneau

Meet Suzy Letourneau, a Museum researcher working on a new National Science Foundation funded project to make kids’ learning through play visible, in partnership with Brown University.

As a researcher, how did you end up working in museums?
I was getting my PhD at Brandeis in cognitive neuroscience, looking at how people recognize faces and facial expressions in particular, and wanted to get outside of the lab, to apply what I was doing to something in the community.  I found an internship that led to a fellowship at the Museum of Science in Boston.  They had started a program working with scientists studying child development and needed someone to act as a liaison, to translate what they were doing for museum visitors and into exhibit materials.  I did research in an educational psychology lab for a few years after that and when I saw this job – learning about how kids learn in the Museum – I thought it was perfect.

Describe your role in the project to make kids' learning visible.
I’m trying to learn as much as possible about what and how kids learn through play and how we can see it happening.  I’ve read research on how kids learn in formal and informal environments and how they think about their own learning.  I’ve talked with educators about how they see kids learning and what it looks like.  I’ve observed kids playing and talked with parents about what they see their kids doing and what they think they’re thinking about.  Basically, my role is to connect the research with the practice of what we’re doing in exhibits.

Part of your work is in Dr. Sobel’s lab at Brown University.  What does that involve?

I’m collecting data for a few different studies that are related to the same grant as the work that we’re doing at the Museum, about how kids think about learning as a concept.  We’re asking kids what they think learning is and for examples of things they remember learning and how they learned them.  Part of what we want to know is how kids’ awareness of their own thinking develops, which happens between the ages of 4 and 10 – kids start to reflect on what they’ve learned. 

I have one Mind Lab shift per week at the Museum and recruit kids and parents for the studies.  Back at the lab, I analyze and code the data and eventually we’ll publish articles with our findings.

How did you decide what to look for in your exhibit observations?

I looked at how scientists have quantified kids’ learning through play and the skills they observed and spoke with Museum educators about what it looks like when they see kids thinking really carefully.  I came up with a list of 18 particular behaviors and we observed 80 different kids over the summer, making notes of what materials they were using, what they did, how they interacted with other people.  Then we took the entire narrative of their time in the exhibit and tallied examples of each behavior.

The skills we were looking for are around kids noticing their own thinking because that’s something we want to encourage them to do more – if you notice and reflect on your thinking, you can have deeper learning experiences.  We were looking at how they think ahead or plan, how they control what they’re doing in the moment or strategize, and then how they reflect on it afterwards.

What are you most looking forward to?
I’m excited to start testing out new materials in the exhibits and find different ways of showing what kids are thinking.  I’m hoping we can come up with something really engaging that will help kids notice their own behavior a little more and encourage adults to do what I’ve been doing, to step back, watch and notice things they might not have noticed before – to observe almost scientifically.  It’s interesting, when adults saw me noticing their kids’ play, they started to notice more as well.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

When Work is Child’s Play

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

In this country, saying that someone is a professional playworker will get you blank stares, dubious looks, maybe even snickers. But in the United Kingdom, playwork – the art of supporting children’s play without directing it – is a recognized and respected profession, practiced in playgrounds, housing projects and childcare programs.

Adventure playground in Berkeley, CA

The concept of playwork originated in Europe following World War II, when children reclaimed their devastated communities by playing amid the wreckage and rubble. This inspired the creation of “adventure playgrounds,” play environments that kids can shape and reinvent by manipulating loose parts, as well as the role of playworker. Playworkers create play-rich environments, in which their presence is nearly invisible and where children freely pursue their own play, take as much risk as they can handle, solve their own conflicts, and play the way they want to for their own reasons.

Playworkers understand that all children need to play, that play is an innate impulse and is critical for healthy development. They provide open-ended environments and loose parts – elements that encourage children to choose their own play activities and narratives – and see risk taking as a positive and necessary part of kids’ play.

Playworkers describe play as “a process that is freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated.” In other words, they have no agenda for children’s play. They are not coaches training kids in athletic skills. There is no game to win unless the kids themselves organize one. They are not teachers with a curriculum to “cover” or even informal educators hoping that, by building and testing kites or puff mobiles, kids will learn something about wind power. If kids decide to make and fly kites, a playworker will take note of their endeavor. She’ll offer some materials good for kite making and ensure the kite-flying field is free of hazards like broken glass or electric wires. If the kids have organized some sort of ball game, she will help them figure out ways to include the child whose disability prevents him from throwing a ball. If a child seems unsure of how to play in an open-ended non-directive environment, the playworker might model playing, packing a mud pie herself and casually decorating it with sticks and grasses.

To respond to and extend children’s play, playworkers carefully and constantly observe kids at play so they can make good decisions about intervening – or not. And they reflect on what they observe and their own responses. “Reflective practice” also involves documenting and sharing these reflections with fellow playworkers and tapping into personal childhood memories of play. As a result, a playworker is really attuned to the play – not leading or interfering with it at all but aware of its rhythms and nuances.

Interest in playwork is growing in the US and its techniques are beginning to be employed in parks, during school recess and at children’s museums. At Providence Children’s Museum, we’ve been studying and experimenting with playwork practices both in the Museum and in our outreach initiatives. We hosted workshops with two British playworkers last spring and are excited to welcome a third this month.

Join us to learn more about playwork during a talk and training with renowned London playworker Penny Wilson and Joan Almon of the Alliance for Childhood on Wednesday, September 25, about how to restore play for children of all abilities and socio-economic backgrounds.  Click here for more information and to register.

Museum staff at a spring playwork training

Friday, September 13, 2013

Explore Playwork with Penny Wilson & Joan Almon!

We're excited to announce that we're hosting a talk and training exploring playwork practices on Wednesday, September 25!

All kids can play and all kids need to play.  Learn from acclaimed London playworker Penny Wilson and Alliance for Childhood co-founder Joan Almon how playwork can ensure empowering free play opportunities for children of all abilities and all socio-economic backgrounds.

The What, Why and How of Playwork | 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM
Presentation and discussion

Playwork – the art of supporting children’s play without directing it – is a profession in the United Kingdom where playworkers practice in adventure playgrounds, housing projects and childcare programs.  Playworkers create play-rich environments, in which their presence is nearly invisible and where children freely pursue their own play, experiment with loose parts, take as much risk as they can handle, solve their own conflicts, and play the way they want to for their own reasons.  Learn what playworkers do – and don’t do – and explore ways we can bring playwork practices to our work with children in the US.

Play – Anywhere! Everyone! | 1:00 to 4:00 PM
Playwork workshop with Penny Wilson (limited to 50 participants)

Penny Wilson leads a smaller group in exploring ways to apply playwork practices to create spaces for children’s self-directed play anywhere, considering the many different types of play, and discovering how and why to ensure play is inclusive and welcoming for children with disabilities and other challenges.

Register for just the morning presentation ($15) or for the full day ($65) – morning plus afternoon workshop.

Friday, September 6, 2013

A PlayFULL Summer at the Parks

This spring and summer, the Museum brought unstructured play to Providence parks for a second year, taking Imagination Playground blocks, fort building and other open-ended fun with loose parts to neighborhoods across the city.  Even though the weather wasn’t as cooperative as we’d have liked, we provided creative play experiences for 930 kids and family members, thanks to the support of the Providence Department of Parks and Recreation and the Partnership for Providence Parks.
We saw kids do some pretty incredible things and captured some of our favorite playful moments.

Imagination Playground blocks were a big hit, as always.
This giant structure was a tremendous collaborative effort.
 Adding loose parts created even more opportunities for play.
This grandma and grandson build a steep ramp and took turns rolling and catching balls. Much chasing and giggling ensued!
We also provided wood working with real tools, stick structures with dowels and rubber bands, and Rigamajig – a set of boards, pulleys, wheels, nuts and bolts that inspire creative construction.
This girl spent over two hours thoughtfully building an elaborate house. She draped it with fabric and added a doghouse. Though she welcomed construction help from other kids, when it was time to take it apart, she insisted on doing it ALL by herself.
This family with older kids approached reluctantly, skeptical about playing. But hours later, they were still busy building and rebuilding their house – here dad prepares the curtains!
This tiny teepee was barely built for two!
Cardboard was a hugely popular play material.
This cardboard dwelling – colored inside and out with chalk – had a fabric “carpet” and constantly changing occupants.
This box was occupied by one of its territorial “owners” for well over two hours!
We saw A LOT of inspired fort building with cardboard, dowels, fabric and more.
and MORE forts!
Thanks to our caped play crusaders and to everyone who played with us this summer!