Friday, August 29, 2014

Beach Adventure Play

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

When I describe the adventure playgrounds I explored in England and Wales to Americans, they might be delighted or appalled, but they’re always surprised. Adventure playgrounds are places absolutely committed to kids’ free self-directed play. Children build (and destroy) their own play structures, often using hammers and nails; loose parts – old tires, mud, boards, buckets, rope – abound; and taking risks is encouraged as part of healthy development. These playgrounds have a long history in northern Europe, but are rare in the US (there’s one on the UK model in Berkeley, CA) and can look chaotic and dangerous to American eyes.

But the kind of play adventure playgrounds provide isn’t actually unusual here. In fact, it happens all the time and is completely acceptable – at the beach.

As at an adventure playground, kids (and grown-ups, too) are free to alter the beach space to the limits of their abilities – dig a hole, engineer a canal system, build a castle. Open-ended play objects are everywhere – sand and water are the endlessly malleable ultimate in loose parts, plus there are shells, seaweed, sticks and stones to decorate your mud pies or sand sculptures, turn into drawing and digging tools, and wear as costumes. And appropriate risk is ever present. Small children, not yet ready to tackle deep water, challenge their own fear by running toward the receding waves and back to shore as the water rushes at them. More competent swimmers make decisions about which waves to ride and how deep to venture. And, for the most part, we let them use their own judgment to assess risk and their own abilities.

I think one reason we adults are so comfortable with open-ended, child-directed and somewhat risky adventure play at the beach is because we’re familiar with these activities. We indulge in riding waves and sculpting sand ourselves. Likewise, a lot of the adults I met at adventure playgrounds in the UK had grown up playing in just such places. They’re used to that kind of play in that kind of environment. Also, adventure playgrounds have playworkers, people well trained and experienced at supporting children’s play without directing it. Having knowledgeable adults on hand, paying close attention to what the kids are up to – but letting them – certainly mitigates any danger. Even if a child does fall off the zip line, there’s a grown-up who’ll help him out. The lifeguards at the beach play a somewhat similar role. They’ll warn us of real danger, such as a rip current, and they’ll help us if we get in trouble, but they don’t tell us how to play. They keep an eye on things without interfering.

We can learn a lot about our own attitudes toward free play and risk if we observe and reflect on our children’s and our own enjoyment of a day at the beach. Maybe we’re not as risk averse as we sometimes feel. Maybe our kids are a lot more competent and inventive than we realized.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Persistence: A Head Start Story

We’re reflecting on the incredible contributions of our AmeriCorps Museum Educators over the 2013-2014 service year. This story was shared by Amanda Howard, a member of the team that served 1,000 Head Start preschoolers in 58 classrooms in greater Providence with fun-filled Museum explorations and a year-long series of imaginative activities to help them understand and value diversity. 

We bring each of our Head Start groups on Museum field trips. During one field trip, I was able to work with and observe a 3-year-old boy playing with the ramps and balls in Play Power. The boy dropped a ball into a magnet ramp that was already set up and watched it glide down until it fell through a space in one of the pieces. The boy was disappointed that his ball did not complete the entire ramp and proceeded to move the pieces around and pick new ones until it worked. On a few different tries I asked him questions like, “Why do you think the ball didn’t complete your ramp?” and “How can change the ramp to make sure the ball doesn’t fall off?” When he was finally able to get the ball to go all the way down, he was so proud of himself. He showed everyone how great his ramp was and everyone thought it was very cool.

Later, his teacher told me that he had never spent so long working on something and usually gives up very easily when things do not work out for him. I’m glad that I was able to help him stay focused and not give up on his task even though it took him a while to work it out.

Redirection: Boys & Girls Club Stories

We’re reflecting on the incredible contributions of our AmeriCorps Museum Educators over the 2013-2014 service year. These stories were shared by members of the team that facilitated a Museum Learning Club at the Boys & Girls Club on the Southside of Providence and provided engaging STEM enrichment activities to 190 2nd to 4th graders. 

One of our 2nd graders has trouble acclimating to lessons and is often reprimanded and scolded throughout the school day because of such issues. This day, he was acting out by knocking down the cup towers other children had made. I told him that I know how much fun it is to knock things down and we could do so together if he built his own tower first. When he responded that he didn't know how, I realized what the problem was and jumped on the learning opportunity. I tried several different methods until he finally grasped the concept of building cup towers, smiled and became completely engaged in the activity. A couple minutes in, one of his so-called rivals came over and he started to shoo him away. I suggested we could all build together and my heart melted as he handed his maybe-no-longer nemesis a cup and began teaching him how to build a tower the same way I taught him.

Meg Conery

We were facilitating Imagination Playground and our kids were a little restless. There was a lot of pretend play happening, some of it becoming chaotic and all of it becoming loud. Right as the activity was reaching the point where we were going to have to reel everybody back in, I heard a shout. "THE QUEEN IS HERE! ATTENTION! EVERYONE LOOK UP!"

It was like magic. I had tried to get everyone's attention to lower the volume or remind them to be safe without success, but a small girl with a big voice froze the room in an instant. She announced the queen's arrival and made all of the subjects sit on the floor. She hired the other kids one at a time to work on constructing the castle, channeling what was loud, undirected play into thoughtful, purposeful pretend play. Every time the castle subjects were off task, the girl would redirect her peers. It was incredible to watch their ability to self-regulate and establish peace in their blue foam kingdom.

 – Sarah Schnurr

Engagement: A Learning Club Story

We’re reflecting on the incredible contributions of our AmeriCorps Museum Educators over the 2013-2014 service year. This story was shared by Alison Rutsch, a member of the team that conducted after-school Learning Clubs exploring fun hands-on STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) activities for low-income elementary school-age kids in Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls. 

Throughout our spring Learning Clubs we ran a lesson called “Meet a Worm,” in which kids learn all about worms and then observe real live night crawlers. “Meet a Worm” is the lesson I’m most proud of creating. It included time for in-depth exploration using drawing as an observation tool, a dialogue with students about worms, and a crazy worm race on the carpet. We also created a worm true or false game and had a great time making up untruths about worms. I think the beauty of lesson is that it shines a new light on something that is part of our everyday environment, showing that the world is a really exciting place if you're just willing to look closely. A testament to this fact: one of our Learning Club kids went home and collected his own pet worms!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Saluting a Year of Service to Kids in Need

The Museum has been an AmeriCorps site since 1997 and has hired and trained AmeriCorps members to bring play-based literacy, science and math activities to more than 20,000 children in under-resourced neighborhoods. 

This week, we’re celebrating the graduation of the Museum’s 18th remarkable AmeriCorps team and their 22,000 hours of dedicated service over the past year.  This group of 12 full-time members and four additional summer members extended the Museum’s reach to children and families in underserved communities in Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls and had a tremendous impact. There’s so much the Museum simply could not do without the dedication and passion of these committed and talented individuals.

The Museum’s 2012-13 AmeriCorps team:
  • Facilitated imaginative activities that celebrate diversity to help improve school readiness for 1,000 Head Start preschoolers in 58 classrooms
  • Engaged over 500 elementary school-aged children with inspiring play-based math and science activities during after-school and summer Learning Clubs at Boys & Girls Club of Providence, Highlander Charter School and other community-based programs
  • Welcomed 1,600 low-income children and family members to free Museum family nights, where they received complimentary year-long admission passes
  • Recruited and trained dozens of Museum volunteers
  • Engaged Museum visitors in hands-on exhibits and developed interactive public programs
  • And much more!
Some of the tributes shared during their graduation ceremony:

“One-thousand Head Start children experienced your creativity, your passion and your enthusiasm – please know you have made a difference in the life of a child.”
– Ellen Morey, Children’s Friend
“Thank you to this wonderful group of talented individuals. You each brought your passions, talents and skills to this incredible institution.”
– Marisa Petreccia, Serve RI
“When the Museum first moved from Pawtucket to Providence, my dream was that our audience would be as diverse and varied as our community. You are the hands and voices and hearts and minds that bring our message to the community, and we do attract a richly diverse audience because of you. I’m very grateful for that.”
– Janice O’Donnell, Museum director
“Thank you for keeping the Museum’s mission at heart all the time and for putting children first.”
– Olga Lerner, Museum Early Childhood Learning Programs Developer

Our heartfelt thanks and congratulations to Ali, Alison, Amanda, Ashley, David, Faina, Hannah, Jack, Joey, Meg, Samantha, Sarah L., Sarah S., Tracey, Vanessa and Zoe!

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 for the Head Start and Learning Club programs.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

At the Circus

There’s a whole lot of clowning around in a charming new display created by AmeriCorps Museum Educators Amanda Howard and Jack Read.  See clowns juggling, balancing and swinging in a silly circus scene showcasing the Museum’s collection of historic Betty Huestis marionettes.

Amanda and Jack shared some thoughts about their inspiration and process:

Amanda: We saw that there was an abundance of clowns and that no one had used them in a while.  So we thought, what about a circus?

Jack: I have some background in stage clowning, so I thought it was such a neat theme. 

Amanda: We wanted it to be more about the marionettes than our own designs.  Once we chose the clowns we were going to use, we came up with ideas of what they could be doing.  We wanted someone getting a pie in the face and thought that having the clown on skates juggling would be funny.  And Uncle Sam is the ringmaster.

Jack: As first, we were going to have so much stuff – we thought we should spend more time in ThinkSpace to develop our spatial thinking muscles!  We learned to scale it back and be okay with simplicity.

Amanda: I really think the case captures both of our personalities.

This circus is in town through the end of the year, so be sure to check out the clowns’ playful antics!