The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, D.C. is a beautiful building. They have a great cafeteria and a super fun kid’s area. The exhibits are well crafted and incredibly full of information. So full, in fact, that it can feel like you are trying to wade through and grab whatever bits you can get your hands on. Even a history lover like me can feel a bit intimidated by it!
This is when going to a museum with young kids can be a really good thing. If you child is anything like mine, they also keep up a pace that prevents you from feeling too overwhelmed…since you are just trying to catch up! But, they also force you to focus in on small bites as they stop to explore and think about how to explain them in terms you both understand. I really looked in depth at all of the animal carvings as my son pointed out and named the ones he noticed. On my own, I probably would have glided by that case glancing, but not really LOOKING at what was in it.
Although I’m a big fan of just going to museums to look and without an agenda, sometimes having a “plan” can also help you feel like you are giving your child the right message about the museum’s content. When it is a topic I don’t know too much about, I want to make sure I’m telling him things that are true!
Today’s visit did have a plan and a specific purpose. We were meeting up with our “Little Muses” group, which is all parents of young children who either work/worked in museums or are museum enthusiasts (I talked about them on my post about visiting museums with groups).
It was my turn to design and lead the lesson and I focused it around a sculpture of Raven holding the sun. It seemed like the right move because it was a small enough piece of the story that the kids could grasp it, and I could help guide them correctly. Even though I had in mind a specific sculpture, the main components of the story (Raven, the sun, the sky) means it could be used ANYWHERE you can access natural history or the outdoors.
Outside of the exhibit I gave everyone a “spy glass” (in our case a mailing container but a paper towel roll would work just as well!) and showed them my Raven puppet (a scan of a book illustration). The youngest, who wasn’t quite ready to use the spy glass, held the puppet and helped it “fly” into the exhibit, while everyone else used the spy glasses to find the sculpture of the Raven. Once we found it, and had a chance to look at it and what it was holding, we settled in for a story.
I used the book “Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest” by Gerald McDermott because of the really vivid illustrations. Since the text is a little dense I had some “cliff notes” taped to the back and read an abbreviated version. The kids all helped guide me through the book pointing out the Sky Chief’s house, finding the box with the sun and pointing to where the sun was “stuck” in the sky at the end.
After the story, we used our spy glasses to look for the sun, moon and stars in the exhibit (there is a beautiful star display along the whole ceiling). On their own initiative the kids went into the side exhibits and focused in on other elements they noticed, a rainbow, animals and elaborate clothing. Giving kids something to look through can be great for focusing their attention AND giving them something to “touch” if there isn’t anything else available.
And, that was it. Very simple, very low impact for parents and kids alike….and that is ok. I think the temptation with a museum lesson is to try to cram too much into it. After all, you have a whole building full of unique artifacts! There is a story to be told! But, that is too much. Scale it back, keep it simple and everyone will more fully appreciate what you are looking at.