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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