Thursday, April 9, 2015

More Children's Museum Love

Little Lipstick learning how to use a crane to move blocks 
As my girls get older I am getting more and more obsessed with children's museums. I love visiting them, especially if they are done well. When they are designed with children in mind and encourage tinkering, exploring, experimenting, and questioning they encompass what learning should be. Every time I visit one I start thinking about how we present learning to our students. Museums don't have a teacher in front of the room to remind students to pay attention and stay on task, instead they are relying on what they can physically present to engage their audience and get their information across. Of course they don't have standardized tests either, so their incentives are different than ours, but we can still steal ideas from them on how to engage students and create meaningful learning experiences.

Experimenting with the green screen
Over break my girls and I were in Charleston, West Virginia and were able to visit the Clay Center. If you find yourself in Charleston I highly recommend going to play. We only visited a small portion of the museum, but we were able to play in their room dedicated to exploring concepts of building, a five and under room with a ball pit and structures to climb, and their STEAM room with its exhibits that encouraged kids to experiment with animation, try out a green screen, perform puppet shows, write poetry, act on stage, and create their own puppets.
What I think I appreciated the most about it was the use of space. In the three rooms we visited everything was spread out. There was room between the exhibits within each physical room, which meant Little Lipstick could really focus and dive into the task at hand. She didn't feel an urgency to run as fast as she could to touch every exhibit in the room without fully experiencing it.  Although there was plenty to do in each room there was not the sensory overload one often feels in busy museums. The way the exhibits within each room were laid out with the use of strategically placed high panels created open but separate spaces so that even a corner of excited, noisy children did not interfere with other children's ability to focus and dive into learning.

The museum is so well designed with it's audience in mind that it even offers a quiet room for mothers with young babies (aka a nursing room). This is something I've come to appreciate greatly. Check out those comfy couches tucked away inside the tiny space.

Everything seemed to be created with it's true audience in mind. The quiet room, the stools at the bathroom sink, and the baskets of books throughout different rooms all called out, "this is for kids." This is not a space for what adults think kids might like- this is truly a kid's space. Simple yet engaging, with fun and play seeming to be as emphasized as learning. Even the massive ball pit had a pulley system where children could use buckets to pick up balls, raise them to the ceiling and have them fall down again. Play with physics thrown in for maximum engagement.

Even the cafeteria is set up with a giant two-story marble maze in the middle so that while you eat you can watch the wonder of physics. (And the food was delicious- fresh sandwiches and salads made in front of you.)

The puppet center was carefully laid out with four large, clear tables next to organized material bins so that it was easy to grab materials and get to work. Little Lipstick selected her own puppet-making materials in a heartbeat and was suddenly begging us to help her cut the pink yarn. It was as though you couldn't walk past the station and not make a puppet.

 The thoughtful and effective use of space made me think a lot about how we use space in our classrooms. Are we carefully designing areas of our classroom where students can engage in tasks without being distracted by what's around them? Are we creating child-friendly stations that give kids access to everything they need to perform tasks, and allow them to be independent with getting their materials? Are we creating places (both physical and metaphorical) for them to experiment and play with the world around them while secretly learning? We obviously do not have a warehouse-size room in which to spread out our learning areas, but we can think carefully about our audience and how we want them to interact with their learning environment. Do we want independence? Do we want to encourage questioning and experimenting? Are we asking for them to focus their attention, or for a general exposure? How are we thinking about our space in order to maximize what we want from our students?

A giant magnetic poetry wall
 My one wish for the space was that there were more labels and vocabulary to help parents explain the learning behind the exhibits. It would have been perfect to have a list of vocabulary words on the wall behind the crane so that I could introduce simple machine concepts. Sure, I should know it myself, but when I'm frantically trying to keep my eyes on a one year old and a three year old I'm not always thinking about the best way to explain why a crane works. I would have loved an explanation of why the green screen works so that I could have explained it to Little Lipstick who was enthralled with making herself disappear on the television. Having simple vocabulary words displayed near the exhibits would promote additional language between parents and their children.

A long wall with art encouraged visitors to write the background story, or even tweets to explain the paintings

No comments: