Take a Step Back

Sometimes learning happens best when you step back and stay out of the wayHave you ever gotten to see a child learning? I mean really seen them go from “no idea” to “AHA!”  I know where we got phrases like “watching the wheels turn” it had to have come from someone watching a baby or toddler explore.

In the last few weeks, I’ve had three moments where I was lucky enough to catch my son’s discovery process from start to finish.

The first was when he asked for the broom.  He carried it over to the dining room and laid it carefully on the ground.  Then, he started bringing in cars and lining them up along the broom.  Each one was positioned with much deliberation and sorted and switched around until things were just right. There was a huge amount of purpose in what he was doing, even if I wasn’t able to quite see what the desired result would be.

The second was when we handed my son a flashlight.  You think cats have fun with a light, try it with a toddler! He started off by shining it directly into his eyes (don’t worry, it wasn’t overly bright).  He moved on to highlighting his feet.  Then, like a cat, he tried to run in circles and catch the light.  Soon, he was using it to illuminate the ceiling, different body parts and testing it out in a darker closet.  By the end of the day, he had invented a game where he had us name different objects and he would run and shine a light on them.

The third was when we were making dinner one night.  He really wanted to help so I pulled out the ingredients for cornbread muffins. Baking is becoming a familiar process for him so he scooped and stirred happily.  I turned my back for a minute and when I looked back he had a spoon full of batter lifted high above the bowl. I started to lunge for it…as he neatly dropped the batter into the muffin tin.  He worked very carefully to transfer batter spoonful by spoonful into the tin (scattering about a ¼ in the process of course) and was very proud that he had done the next step “by self.’

You might have noticed a theme in these three stories is me staying out of the way. Although I was nearby to provide tools and spotting as needed, the exploration was all his own. The time spent digging in and processing is such an important part of how a young child learns and one educators need to plan for.

When you are planning a museum program, make sure you build in time to let the child explore the materials and space on their own.  I know how hard this when you have a message that you feel needs to be shared and so many exciting components to introduce.  Look back over your plan, if you are having to push hard to get the message across…it means the message is too big. Simplify what you want them to come away with, bring it down to the very core message.

Although it can be hard, let go of them finding that message “your way” and trust they will get there.  You can still build in ways for them to show you that learning has happened, just with more leeway for their own exploration.  Also, you can provide materials for their caregivers to build on later that will let you expand what you wanted them to take away.

If you build into your programs time to breathe, kids will be better able to explore, learn and love doing it.  An unexpected benefit, you will be forced to step back and watch…which will give you ideas and show you what you can do differently next time.

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Look Don’t Touch

How “interactive” a museum is often how people judge whether it is “kid-friendly” or not. I’d like to challenge that.  Sometimes, even a space where you can’t touch anything can be a totally immersive, interactive experience for kids of all ages.

I have a new post up on American History’s blog “O Say Can You See?” that talks about creating powerful visits involving nothing but observation.

As a mom who works at the museum, I’m often asked for recommendations on what other families should see when they visit the museum. In one of these conversations with a friend whose son is the same age as mine, I immediately recommended America on the Move. I told her it had all the trucks, trains, and cars that her toddler could desire.

“Great,” she said. “Is it interactive?”

My immediate response was, “Oh yeah, it’s super interactive…” and then I stopped. Mentally reviewing the exhibition, I realized that, for the pre-reading crowd, America on the Move actually is not interactive in the typical definition.

There is excellent audio of the objects chugging and whoo-whoo-ing, there is a video of movie clips and the model of the Chicago L that you can “ride” on was a favorite of my pre-school classes and is now where my son beelines when we visit. But beyond that, there’s not much for my toddler to “interact” with in the exhibition.

So, why was my first response to say “yes” that it is an interactive exhibit… Continue reading here

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The Fun Doesn’t Have to Stop

The fun doesn't stop when you leave the museum. Creating meaningful pre and post visits for kidsMuseum Educators are constantly thinking about how to get people excited and KEEP them excited the museum. After all, they want you to come back!  Besides having interesting things to do when you are actually there, many educators (especially those working with schools/groups) leverage the “pre-visit” and the “post-visit.”

As it sounds, the “pre visit” happens before you even arrive.  There are activities, logistical information for the adults and things to get you thinking and looking the minute you arrive at the museum. Sometimes, the Museum Educator themselves can come to the school, but other times they send a kit or a “traveling trunk” so the teachers can present it to the class.

A “post visit” is a way for everyone to debrief and extend the learning when you’ve left the museum.  There might be activities that use materials or tools you can’t bring in the museum (like paint) or things to research and ways to turn what you’ve learned into projects.  The hope is, everyone is still buzzing with excitement about what they saw and they want to go further!

Although museums may not offer something as formal for visiting families, you can create the same benefit for yourself!  Your “pre visit” might be as simple as looking up how to get to the museum and planning some of the sites you want to see (if your kids are old enough this is a great activity for them to take part in!).  You could also read some books about the topic or look up information online to give you a head-start.  Talk to your local librarian and they might be able to send you home with a stack of books all about it!

Not only does incorporating a “pre visit” get you excited, it also takes some of the nerves away.  For kids (and adults!) that like to know what to expect, seeing the map and figuring out how you are getting there, where you could eat and what you might see can take some of the anxiety out of visiting a new place.

The “post visit” is where you can really let your imagination run wild.  Maybe now you go to the library and get out books on the subject. Recreate the art styles you saw at home, sculpt with play-dough, use figurines and blocks to build the museum yourself, turn your photos into a scrapbook (physical or digital) and get your kids to narrate what they saw and why it was important. For more ideas, you can visit my Pinterest boards or keep an eye on Facebook

It doesn’t have to be a formal “project” like you would do at school, but any follow-up will help them feel connected and interested in learning more about what they saw. As a bonus, for the kids that might not resonate off of the visit itself they may be more able to get into the messy, creative, aftermath at home.  Training yourself to think about your museum visit in three parts (planning the trip, actually going and how you’ll turn it into play after) will help keep the excitement going long after you’ve left the museum.

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You Don’t Have to Be Quiet in a Museum

You don't have to be quiet in a museum. Ways to talk, move and enjoy respectfullyThat’s right, I said it…you don’t have to be quiet in a museum. This is one of the most persistent myths I hear about, that museums need the same reverent silence expected in most houses of worship. It isn’t true!

Now, do museums need to be treated with respect? Yes!  Do you need to take into account the experience of others? Absolutely!

In a museum there ARE certain expectations, first and foremost probably being don’t touch the stuff you aren’t supposed to touch.  However, nothing in there says you stay still and silent through the visit.

Talking with each other is one of the best ways to experience a museum.  Ask questions, point out things you notice, giggle at the silly looking portraits, give each other “I Spy” mysteries to unravel. Even my 1 1/2 year old loves to look for “two hats” or “paintings with apples” and finding all of the animals in a room can keep you busy together for a while. If your little one gets a bit too excited and shouts something out, that’s ok.  You can help them learn the “museum voice” they need to have, even if it takes a little practice.

Let them move, within limits.  If you are in a room full of Degas’ portraits of dancers…ask your little dancer to imitate the pose. If there are instruments, ask them what it would look like to play them. With animals you can imitate the posture and walk. Obviously, you know your child and whether they can follow directions to make you feel comfortable doing this. Keep an eye on your surroundings…you don’t want to bump into people or priceless works of art…but if there is the space then use it.

Use media to add to the experience. I love bringing books to read in a quiet corner (they can also become the basis for a scavenger hunt).  Little artists might love to sketch in a notebook (pencil only please, to protect the objects). You could also use digital technology to look up things by the artist, access clips of movies or music to add to what you are seeing. Take pictures (if it is allowed), better still let your KIDS take pictures and make them tell you why they wanted that particular shot. As long as you aren’t disturbing other people’s experience in the gallery, what does it hurt?

A large percentage of families I’ve talked to shy away from going to the museum with their young kids because of this perception that “youthful exuberance” will be unwelcome. Well, it is true, you might get a raised eyebrow from someone…just like you do at the grocery store or anywhere else in public. I just don’t want that to stop you from visiting and enjoying your time there.

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Does it Roll? Embracing small science moments

Ramps tunnels and does it roll Science with toddlersIn a post for the National Science Teachers Association I talked about looking out for the “small science moments” throughout the day.  Toddlers will joyfully embrace science  (especially if it is science related to gravity!) so all we have to do is watch what they are exploring and help them expand on it.

In our house we play with cars a lot.  I mean, a LOT.  Since he could express interest in something, my son has been obsessed with cars and trucks.  He would sit at the corner of our street and watch and exclaim over each vehicle that went by.  Inside, he wants to play with cars and trucks almost exclusively.  I’m mostly fine with that, it uses his imagination, keeps him entertained.  But…I’ll admit…I get tired of it after a while.  So, I started looking for things that could take our car play to the “next level.”

First, we made a ramp.  I figured it would be fun for a while Toddler Science with Rampsbut I can’t believe how long it has held his attention.  He will run back and forth to his car basket and pull different vehicles to test on the ramp.  I just let him explore his way, but I try to draw attention to the cars that are going fast or slow, which ones are going farther and just build in as much vocabulary as I can.

Our ramp is a serving tray turned upside down and propped up on a box or chair…pretty simple.  You could also use a piece of cardboard or even a hardcover book.

After the success of the ramp, I looked around for other options. I finally had convinced myself to get rid of the various boxes and cans that I had saved (you can take the preschool teacherToddler Science with Tunnels out of the classroom…) but I saved three and cut the bottoms out of them.  Now, we had a series of “tunnels” to explore with.

Once again, I was shocked at how engrossing three containers could be.  He had to take every car and see if they would fit.  He’d hold it up and say “fit?” and we’d look together and exclaim about whether it fit or was “too big” or “too small.”  Even though the tunnels have been around for a while, he still goes back and pulls them out to re-test if things fit or not.

I didn’t have to look hard for either of these “science moments,” they were right there for me to pounce on.  Sometimes though, the moment is much more subtle..and may even look just like a mess.

One night, my son started grabbing crayons off his table and running into the kitchen.  He would throw it down on the floor, exclaim with delight and then run in to get another one. I got up and followed him, fully intending to stop him and make him help clean up the mess.

Once I was closer, I could hear what he was saying.  As he threw down each crayon he would yell “ROLL!” as the crayon spun across the floor. I watched as he tested each crayon to see if it would roll too.

If I had just stormed in there and demanded that he stopped, I would have cut off this amazing little moment of scientific discovery.  Now, I still made him help me clean it up when he was done, but it wasn’t hurting anything to let him keep exploring. If I needed access to the kitchen, I could just redirect him to try it on his ramp instead.

That is what I always have to remind myself, is it really a problem or just somewhat inconvenient for me? If it isn’t a problem, I try to let it go forward…but I also feel fine putting a stop to it when it doesn’t work for us anymore.

It may take practice to spot a “science moment” and figure out what to do with it, but you will get there!  Even if you just point it out and use some new language to describe it you are laying the ground work for them to keep loving and discovering science.

Ramps tunnels and does it roll Science with toddlers

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Choose Your Own Museum Adventure

Use your child's interests to pick the perfect museum visit in DC“What museum should I go to?”

That is by far the question I get asked the most frequently…and it is one of my favorites!  I love hearing about the someone’s interests and then trying to match them up with the perfect museum visit.  Since I can’t keep all of you on speed dial, I wrote up a piece for Kid Trips that will let you “choose your own museum adventure.”  Hopefully this will be useful for you either with your own family or when someone comes to visit!

People who visit museums fall into a few distinct categories.  You have the purists, the ones who feel you have to see the museum from front to back and top to bottom.  Often, these are the visitors who are determined that this museum visit will “teach them something important.”  You also have the fans, the ones who revisit a single museum (or sometimes a single piece of art) and just revel in that one experience over and over again.  Finally, there are the fun seekers, the ones who choose a museum because it will be a fun thing to do with the people they are with. 

The amazing thing about being in the D.C. area is that you don’t have to tie yourself down to one type every time.  You can feel a little pity for the visitors doing the “museum march” through every Smithsonian museum; after all you can breeze downtown and just visit the elephant your kid loves and then head home. Since many of the museums are free (or offer good discounts and free days you can take advantage of when you are close) you can spread seeing the whole museum out over a summer, or just go in for the “blockbuster” shows that look like fun.

All of this flexibility also offers you a way to get your kids excited about a museum visit.  Maybe all of you love museums and don’t need any convincing…if so, great!  However, maybe someone in your family has a bad memory of being shuffled through a museum on a family or school trip and just feeling bored.  For them, I want to offer the “Choose Your Own Adventure” model of museum visits….continue reading

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Eureaka! Science in the Bathtub

Water Science Fun for Babies and ToddlersScience can happen anywhere!  For caregivers with infants and toddlers you learn quickly to grab any chance you have to help your child explore and learn about the world.  In fact, if you look closely at your day you’ll find that you already help facilitate a thousand wonderful moments of learning..you just might not realize it yet!

In our house, some of our best science moments have happened in the bathtub!  I wrote about our experience for the National Association for the Education of Young Children.  Hopefully it will reaffirm the awesome job you are already doing AND help inspire you to continue embracing the learning moments that you already have in your day.

There is a reason that the story of Archimedes shouting “Eureka” in the bathtub persists.  Baths are a great time for thinking and an excellent place for scientific investigation.  At our house, my 1-year-old son’s baths are one of his favorite times to explore and one of my favorite times to support his learning. There is so much to explore and learn with very little equipment, and clean up couldn’t be easier! 

These same explorations  could happen in a pool, bucket, or any body of water with very little adjustment.  This gives the opportunity for children to explore together. Just make sure to keep safety in the forefront.  NEVER leave a child alone during water play…even for a minute. I can’t stress that enough.  Make sure that any toys or containers dry out completely between uses, and sanitize toys if multiple children will use them.  Be sure to monitor toys for mold and replace them when needed.  More complete water safety tips can be found through the Red Cross.

When I think about it, during the course of my son’s bath last night we touched on physics, marine biology, anatomy and acoustics, and he was squeaky clean by the end of it…continue reading

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