Sunday, May 31, 2015

Cultivating Collections

This article, by Museum Exhibits Director Robin Meisner, was also posted on Kidoinfo

Most visitors know Providence Children’s Museums as a collection of experiences in which children and families learn through play and active exploration. One of the defining features of our exhibits is that they are rich in discoveries and stimulating for the senses. We incorporate unusual and ordinary objects to make learning tangible, and are deeply committed to surrounding children with beautiful learning environments.

One way we do this is by sharing the Museum’s collection of childlife objects, which includes tin toys, penguin figurines and a wonderful grouping of marionettes created by Betty Heustis  (1901-1983). We also love sharing other people’s collections. This spring, children and families investigated intricate metal miniatures handcrafted by Cambridge, MA artist Abraham Megerdichian (1923-1983) and shared by his family, and colorful Chinese and Indonesian shadow puppets from the collection of Hilary Salmons, executive director of Providence After School Alliance.

Collections are fascinating – they tell stories about the objects themselves and the individuals and institutions that collect them. At the Museum, they provide tangible, powerful ways for children and families to engage in quiet moments of observation and reflection. And for individuals, collecting offers opportunities to build and share pieces of themselves.

From a very young age, children form attachments to things – favorite blankets or stuffed animals – and as they develop, they begin collecting objects that they enjoy in other ways, like rocks, stickers or postcards. Collecting is empowering. It allows kids to make their own choices about what to collect and how to display it. Their collections are their creations, which say something special about their identity and their world at a particular moment in time.

Museum staff shared some of their favorite childhood (and grown-up) collections:

“When I was maybe 10 to 12, I used to collect business cards from stores. Maybe I was inspired by the Laura Ingalls Wilder books – in one of them having a “calling card” was a very big deal.”
– Cathy, Education Director
“My dad traveled a lot for work when I was growing up and he would always bring me a snow globe from wherever he was visiting. I didn’t really have any special attachment to the globes themselves, but I loved he was thinking of me while he was away.”
– Turenne, Volunteer & AmeriCorps Coordinator
“As a child I was completely entranced by “The Wizard of Oz” and collected everything related to the movie. I had a set of miniature dolls, posters, books, costumes and even a marionette puppet of Dorothy.”
– Corrie, Membership & Marketing Coordinator
“In high school, I collected psychedelic polyester shirts from the 1970s. I think I had over 40 all together, and yes, I did wear them regularly.”
– Suzy, Research & Evaluation Specialist
“My 7-year old daughter and I collect chickens in a variety of forms (ceramic, wire, cloth). This started with a friend who made some artful chickens and gave them to us, and from there we have started buying chickens whenever we see them. They now roost in our home.”
– Jessica, Exhibit Developer
What do you and your kids like to collect? There’s almost no limit to what’s possible!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Learning About Learning: Circuit Blocks and Labels

The Museum is partnering with Brown University on a major National Science Foundation-funded project (award #1223777) to study how children develop scientific thinking skills and understand their own learning processes.  Museum researcher Suzy Letourneau shared this project update.

Last summer, the Museum opened the new Mind Lab space, which hosts ongoing research about children’s learning and development by the Museum and its academic collaborators.  When researchers aren’t in the space, there is a self-directed “circuit block” activity with batteries, motors and buttons that can be connected in many different configurations.  On the surface the activity is about electricity and circuits, but the deeper message we hope to convey is the important role of exploration and experimentation in learning about cause and effect.  The activity draws on scientific research that shows that when children make their own discoveries about how things work, they explore and learn more deeply.  Thus, we purposefully did not include step-by-step instructions with the blocks to encourage children to test their ideas and make discoveries.  While prototyping the activity, we found that children often systematically tried the blocks to see how they worked, experimented with different ways of making a circuit, and collaborated or shared their ideas with one another – all evidence of learning.

The exhibits team tested resources for adults to support children’s thinking as they play, including observation tools and prompts caregivers can use while playing with their kids (for example, questions to ask when kids get stuck or aren’t sure how to get started).  Caregivers who tried these resources were more engaged in the activity themselves, either by observing while their children explored and made discoveries, or by helping them work through challenges in different ways.  The team also created labels to communicate how children learn through experience, exploration and play, and offer research evidence to back up these ideas. 

The labels are based on Museum staff’s discussions and knowledge about the ways that play and exploration support children’s learning and development, and are informed by conversations with dozens of caregivers.  We asked caregivers what they noticed about their children’s play, what they thought about how children learn through play, and what questions they had about these topics.  Caregivers often agreed that kids learned through play, were very interested in research on children’s learning (including the research that happens at the Museum), and wanted to learn more.

We created prototype labels and resources using low-cost, temporary materials so we could get feedback and make changes easily.  Some show specific examples of different ways that children can learn through play, and others give illustrated summaries of research studies.  We asked visitors: What did the new materials make them think about or wonder?  Which parts were most interesting?  Was anything confusing or unclear?

Based on comments and suggestions, we revised the labels in the fall to make our messages clearer.  We’re also creating more illustrated research summaries, since they were visitors’ favorites.  And we added a “Guide for Grown-ups” to the circuit block activity to suggest ways that caregivers can support their children’s learning as they play together.  Over the next few months, Mind Lab will continue to be a site for ongoing research and prototyping that will help Museum staff learn alongside visitors.

Visit the Museum’s website and see previous blog posts for more information about the Learning About Learning project.