Surviving a Blockbuster Exhibit

If you are in DC right now, the hot ticket to get is the Hirshhorn’s “Infinity Mirrors.” Just go on your favorite social media site and look for #infinitekusama, you’ll see what I mean.

This is just one example of a “blockbuster” exhibit. Just like in movies, some museum exhibits are higher profile. Maybe they have never before seen works, objects that don’t usually travel from their home location, more of one type of object then is usually together…or some other “wow” factor.

Other things that are usually used to describe a blockbuster exhibit? Hard to get tickets and long lines. Not really the perfect set up for young museum goers.

So, what are you options? Assuming you don’t want to skip it entirely and don’t want to/can’t go on your own…. you make a plan.

Here are my 5 well tested (but not at all fool proof) tips for enjoying a blockbuster exhibit

  • Get There at Opening
    • If you are getting reserved tickets, try to get them for as close to the time the museum opens as possible. We had 10:00am entry to Infinity Mirrors and were only waiting in 5-10min lines for the different rooms. By the time the 11:00am folks were in the lines were much longer.
    • Arrive early and snag a spot in line. Yes, waiting in a line to wait in a line is tiresome but if you are near the front you have a better chance of seeing what you want to see. When we saw the Renwick Gallery’s reopening exhibit we waited in line outside before the museum open, but then pretty much could walk through the museum.
  • Keep Your Expectations Realistic
    • I didn’t plan to see every room in the exhibit, the fact that we did was an unexpected bonus. This is not going to be the visit where you read every curatorial note or detailed label. Be realistic about what you are going to see and plan to beeline for your highlights.
    • Also be realistic about what your kids might get out of it. They may love it, they may barely notice it…anything is ok. You are there and that is huge.
  • Divide and Conquer
    • If it is at all possible to go with another grown-up…do it! The more hands the better and you’ll be able to linger at something you want or let one person wait in line while the other takes the kid to the bathroom, look at other things etc.
  • Plan Ahead
    • It goes without saying, but hit up the bathroom, eat a snack and make sure all those needs are taken care of before you go in.
    • Also read up on any special rules or regulations in advance. Are strollers allowed? Bags? Cameras? Special security protocols? Less surprises are definitely better.
    • Beyond that though, prep your kids for what to expect. For Infinity Mirrors we talked about how we would have to wait in line. I practiced “Look with your eyes, no touching”with the two year old. We even went on Instagram and looked at some of the rooms so they’d know what they would be like (darkness, flashing lights etc.). Knowing what to expect makes kids a lot more comfortable and willing to explore
  • Enjoy it!
    • I know, I know, a cheesy one to finish on but it is worth repeating. If you can’t tell from some of my other posts, I am a planner and get VERY focused on how things will come togxether. If I let that take over I would never enjoy the visit, all I’d remember was the stress of planning. Once I’m there, I try to hit the one or two things I was really hoping we’d see, and go with the wonder and excitement of the kiddos.

So, will it all be worth it? Hard to say. You may leave the exhibit disappointed and exhausted. If you do, that is ok. Just regroup and try again with something else.  But, I haven’t regretted a visit yet. For the Kusama exhibit, every minute in line was worth it to have my 2 year old pulling me back to the “pumpkin room” three times so she could drop to her knees and go “Ooooooo!” at the art.

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Educating an Advocate

I never aspired to become an advocate. I didn’t know enough about the issues, I couldn’t balance that with my work and family life. I promised myself that I would focus on raising good kids, being a high quality educator and overall trying to be a kind human being.

This year I finally admitted that wasn’t enough.

It was a lovely sentiment to say I was going to focusing on being good and raising good kids, but that didn’t mean I was off the hook for sharing what I knew about the importance of early learning and museums and making sure that decision makers knew I cared and I was watching them. It is not a role that comes naturally to me, but I was determined.

But, the fact still remained that I didn’t feel educated enough about the issues or how to voice them in a way that people would listen to. I read articles and followed the change makers on social media, but I needed some more direct teaching. That was why I requested (Begged? Nagged? Pleaded?) To be part of the Virginia team for the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Public Policy Forum. I knew that I would get some focus, some foundation and a chance to test out this new part I was committed to playing.

And that was exactly what it did. To poorly paraphrase one of the speakers, on Sunday we got our introduction, on Monday we got our content and on Tuesday we took action. Having the chance to take these skills and information and apply it, guided by others who had more experience, gave me more confidence then reading 1,000 articles ever could.

But now, it is Wednesday (proverbially) and it is up to me to figure out how to keep the momentum going and not just make an impact but be a supporter for early learning that can be counted on. I don’t have solid game plan yet, but thanks to the Public Policy Forum I at least feel I am on the right track.

PS: my museum colleagues, I would have done the American Alliance of Museum advocacy days…but they were exactly the same as NAEYC 🙂

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The Spooky House

This is the “Spooky House.” No, that is not its official title (embarrassingly I can’t find the notes where I wrote down its actual name) but it is what these two 4 year olds called the work. They spent ten minutes calling out in great delight all of the “spooky” things that they noticed about the house (a bear! A spider! A creepy mask!).

I snapped this picture as a reminder of two important things in museum education. The first is one I’ve talked about before, that “interactive” does not always mean it has to be literally hands on.

But the second point is that “hands off” has to mean only that you aren’t touching, not that you aren’t engaging and involving the visitor. These kids are very savvy museum goers, but even they would not be able to concoct and sustain a game of that sort on their own.

Not pictured is the other mom (and fellow museum educator) that I was with. She was encouraging, coaching, providing vocabulary and modeling delight and interest in the piece of art work. She did all of the legwork to set up the game, so the kids could then take it and run with it.

Even if you are setting up your exhibits to be observation based, or if they are going to primarily self direct, your presence is valuable. You are setting the stage for the visitors and teaching them how to interact. You are also showing them that they can be interested and excited by what they see and what that looks like.

Interactive does not mean “hands on” but it also doesn’t mean you can be completely “hands off” with your visitors.

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Sandbox Heretic

img_20161018_115141086Last week I reflected on “rule breaking” in early childhood. To prove I’m not all talk I wanted to share this story…

“Keep the sand in the sandbox!” An adult voice called out. It was the rule, it had been the rule. Another teacher walked up to the director “Do we have to?” she asked “Can’t we let them take the sand out of the sandbox?” The director thought for a moment, thinking through our budget and if we could refill the sandbox earlier then intended and any other negative consequences. “Sure” she said “I don’t see why not.”

So, we stopped saying no, and started watching what happened. In teams of three or four the kids worked to fill up a huge plastic jar. When it was full it took two of them to lug it around the playground. The wrestled it up the climber and dropped bits through the holes, watching it sift to the ground. They watched handfuls cascade down the slide and compared it to how mulch slid.

Another group arranged a tire near the sandbox and transported sand to it any way they could. Shovels, buckets, dump trucks. They worked efficiently giving suggestions and directions to each other on how to get it there faster.

Eventually, the kids moved on to other projects and left the sand where it was. New groups of kids came up and started using it for their projects. Creating a construction site, adding it to the mountain they were building in the sandbox. In the end, a lot of it ended up making its way back to where it “belonged” in the first place.

We shared this story with another early childhood educator “You are sandbox heretics!” she laughed “I love it!” It’s a title I’ll wear proudly. Something to remind myself that just because something is the common belief, doesn’t make it right.

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Rules are Rules

img_20161022_103234275.jpgThe hole was big, to kid eyes it was a crowning achievement. As we put the finishing touches on it a lifeguard walked by “You’ll have to fill that in” he said “it’s not allowed.” Slowly we started dumping sand back into the pit. My littlest cousin came running up “What are you DOING?” she asked. “We have to” I said “the lifeguard told us to.” She let out a big sigh and shrugged her shoulders “Grown-ups are grown-ups and rules are rules.”

I’m sure you’ve had that moment. You are told a rule, but not WHY. It doesn’t make any sense. You just are supposed to accept it “because I said so.” I pushed back on that idea this morning during my  workshop on outdoor play.

Together we brainstormed a list of playground rules. Things like “sit on the swings” and “only go down the slide” and “no throwing sand.” When we’d filled up the paper I read through it with them and then asked “Why?” Why did they have that rule?

At first you could tell people were a little offended. It is a rule! We have it for a reason! It is for safety, for fairness, for…but I gently kept pushing. Some of the rules DID have a reason, it was a licensing requirement, or a real immediate safety threat but there were other rules that seemed to be there because it had always been that way.

We talked about “only go down the slide” something that is pretty common on many playgrounds. What would happen if you got rid of that rule? “It’s for safety” was the first response “They’ll crash into each other.”Will they though? They can learn to navigate up and down ladders and stairs and other structures, why not slides?

Like any situation where you encourage kids to take a risk they need to know the limits and the expectations. One playground had only tube slides, it would be harder for teachers to monitor that one. A kindergarten teacher said her kids knew they could do it when it was just them but when the toddlers came out they stopped.  We also acknowledged that different groups of kids would be ready for the rules to relax at different times and they might have to make a call based on group dynamics.

In the end, what I was encouraging wasn’t for all rules to be thrown out the window, but instead to think about why the rules were there in the first place. If they couldn’t come up with “why” then did they really need the rule? Or, could it be changed around a little bit?

This is something I’d encourage educators AND museums to do. Often rules started out for a good reason, but have stuck around because “we’ve always done it” Or maybe the rule is there because the alternative would be a hassle for us…but if we were being honest it isn’t unsafe or really a problem. Thinking through the “whys” for your rules will let you see if it is really the best way to meet your goal.



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Narrowly Defined Grief

I think we have too narrow a definition of when we are “allowed” to grieve.

The morning after the election, my Mom sent me a text asking “how are you doing?” I wrote back that I was “Only ok I think. I’m grieving.” I was not being dramatic, that was really the best description.

Grief isn’t just for when a loved one dies (which sometimes seems like the only “acceptable” time to use that word). It is a personal emotional response to loss. So, you can grieve the loss of a society you thought was coming, you can grieve the loss of a pet or the selling of your childhood home. There is no big or small grief, only personal ones

I think it is important that we open up our definition of grief. I was talking with a friend who was coming to terms with not having any more children. She has a lovely, healthy, happy family…but part of her always saw herself with more kids. She was trying to brush off her feelings but I told her she should give herself permission to grieve. It doesn’t discount how happy she is with what she has, it just acknowledges that there is a loss she is adjusting to.

It is also important to accept that young children feel grief, but in different ways then adults do. It is our job to help them weather and recover from losses…it is not our job to rate for them which losses are “important” or when they are “fine” and should “get over it.”

Sometimes with our wider adult view of the world we trivialize the things that young children are feeling. They aren’t used to the big emotions that swamp them suddenly. Their worldview is different then ours, closer to home and much more personal. They won’t react the way we think they “should” but that doesn’t make it wrong.

Moving forward, I hope you give yourself permission to feel loss in all of its forms. You aren’t wrong for feeling true grief, even if it doesn’t feel like something you “should” be “so upset” about.

And please, extend the same compassion to the children in your life. By all means, teach them how to deal with the big emotions they feel…but make sure to teach them it is ok to feel them.



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I am a superhero…I can


The morning after the election I sat in circle facing my wiggly, wonderful group of 3 and 4 year olds. It was the first time I’d brought a script with me to meeting. I didn’t trust myself to get through what I wanted to say and I didn’t want to leave anything out.

First, I pulled out our superhero poster. They’d worked hard on coming up with all of the things a superhero does and how they can be superheroes. It was our way of talking about being kind to each other, whether you were “best friends” or not. Together we read

I am a superhero, I can:

  • Help other people
  • Protect myself
  • Be a boy or a girl and like any color

I become a superhero when :

  • People need help and I come
  • I ask for help

Then I told them I had something VERY important to tell them about superheroes.

“Did you know that we are all superheroes?

“As superheroes we have a really important job, more important then getting the “bad guy,” do you know what it is? It is protecting and helping each other

We are team together. It doesn’t matter if we look the same, like to play the same things or are best friends. We are a team

If ANYONE tries to make you feel bad, or tell you to make others feel bad, say “NO! We are a team!”

We’ll repeat this. Over and over again we’ll read our list. It is one conversation out of many…but it is a start.

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