Can You Make Them Get Off Their Phones?

I had a chance to work with a stellar group of docents the other week. They are at a hands-on, play based, children’s museum and were brushing up on their skills for working with young children and their grown-ups

Hands down, one of the biggest questions they had was how they could “make” the parents participate and play with the children. I had tried to figure out how to break this to them gently, but I had to be blunt.

You can’t

Now, this is a different conversation then getting adults to supervise their children in a space (we covered that as well-let me know if you want details). This is about adults playing/participating/interacting with the exhibits and the young people that they brought with them.

I think one of the myths of becoming a parent or caretaker is that you automatically know how to play. It’s not true. Some people are amazing at playing with children, they can get down on the floor and get their hands dirty or their imaginations going without a second thought.

Other people though, are watchers. They may be the type that always observed, they may feel uncomfortable in this role, they may have a lot going on in the rest of their lives and they just don’t have the bandwidth to do this right now….and that is ok

If you were hosting a program and you had a child who just wanted to watch, you wouldn’t toss them into the center of the group and say “No! You must participate the way I say!” It is the same with adults, they need what that child needs. They need opportunities, to have interactions modeled for them and to have a chance to process it in their own way.

So, keep encouraging, keep modeling, keep giving them ways to tie it in to things they do at home with their children. Even if they aren’t doing it the “right” way (ie the way you think they should) it doesn’t mean they aren’t getting anything out of it.

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Museum Visitors are Incredibly Brave

As museum professionals I think we forget sometimes to step back and look at things from a visitor’s point of view. Our visitors are incredibly brave. They come up to a a strange building, with rules that they don’t know, and are expected to go in and explore (maybe on their own) and learn. That is a lot to ask!

For me, it really hit home when I dug into Elissa Frankle Olinsky’s “Hierarchy of Museum Visitor Needs” Based off of an educational philosophy commonly called Maslow’s Hierarchy, it really puts into perspective what visitors go through.

Just to get in the door, visitors are assessing if they are safe and welcome. Assuming they feel like they are able to walk in, then they need to make sure all of their basic needs can be met in this space. Can they find a bathroom, a place to eat, understand the rules and how they are supposed to behave.

Once they’ve jumped those hurdles they need to feel like they understand the purpose of the space. What they will learn and how they will learn it.

Only then, after overcoming three difficult levels can they start to take in, process and apply the things in your museum and really come away with those core components that they you have put so much effort into creating for them.

So, have you given your museum visitors enough credit? Are you recognizing everything it takes to just get into your space and be able to learn there?

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Bathtub Museum

When your 2 year old has been constantly asking to go to a “bathtub museum” you get your museum educator brain going and figure out what might fill that need.

Sure, lots of museums have A bathtub on display….but if she is asking for a bathtub museum I envision lots of them in all different shapes and sizes.

Which is how we found ourselves at a “bath and tile showroom” one cold Saturday. We looked at colors, shapes and patterns in the tile. We counted bathtubs and showers and she and her brother climbed in and out (with permission) of tubs of all sizes to her extreme delight.





It may not have looked much like a museum visit,  but it filled the need. The object she wanted to see was the centerpiece and we experienced it “in real life” in many forms and variations.

It was a good reminder that museum visits don’t have a certain “look” it is all about the exploration that goes on and the chance to get up close and personal with an object, a concept, a theme and ideas.



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But We Can’t Read!

I had such a cool teaching moment today. I work with 3 and 4 year olds. All I want to do is make them love books and feel like reading is something that will open doors for them. If I do that then I feel like the learning-to-read part will come when they are ready.

Well, yesterday I had my usual story time at the end of the day. As I read I ask questions, get them to notice things in the pictures and predict what will happen next. We had a little time left over so I got them to recap the story for me and we looked at the beginning, middle and end.

As I closed the book I remarked “You guys are getting to be really good readers!”

“We can’t read!” they said “We don’t know how to read!”

“Sure you do.” I replied “Maybe you can’t read the words on the page yet but you guys are really good at reading the pictures!”

I flipped open to a page with a little kid on it and asked them how he felt “Sad!” they said

“How do you know?”

“He looks like he is crying”

“See!” I told them triumphantly “You didn’t know the words on the page but you knew what he was feeling.” I could see this proud little look stealing over their faces.

Then, I drew a stop sign on the board “What does that say?” I ask them “STOP!” They all shouted.

“You read again!” I said

So today, I brought in a copy of “The Snowy Day.” I told them that I wasn’t going to read it to them….they were going to read it to me. Page by page we went through and they narrated what was going on in the picture. After, I went back and read it to them using the words that they had chosen. On each page one of them would say excitedly “Oh! This is the page that I read!”

In fancy education terms, what this is called is “emergent reading” Interacting with books, knowing beginning, middle and end, retelling stories and being familiar with common signs and symbols. All of it layering on the skills and confidence to begin reading the words on the page.

In the moment, it was all about their excitement that they themselves were actually readers. And that was a pretty good feeling.

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Processing through Play

When you have something new that is coming up, like a job interview, a party, or a trip, do you ever find yourself laying awake imagining the scene? You run scenarios in your head about how you’ll act, what you’ll say, how you’d react to different situations. Or maybe after something has happened you review it and shift and change what you’d do differently next time.

Kids do this too, they just do it through play. You may have heard the expression “play is the work of children” and that is very true. However, it is more then that. Play is also the way that children make sense of what is new and can try out where they fit in.

I saw this play out (pun intended) in my own house this week. We have not had the healthiest of months. Both kids have been to the pediatrician for various reasons and I got quite sick and even spent a week in the hospital.

Those are very worrying things for a 5 year old and a 2 year old to deal with, so the way they regained a little control is through play. Almost every day the doctor’s kit has been spread out on the coffee table and someone is being cajoled to lay down on the couch for a “check up.” The go through the whole routine, the 5 year old has even started taking your health history, and if you are good you get a sticker at the end. For maximum realism they even created a doll-sized x-ray machine (pictured at the top).

Sometimes, they bring in a doll or animal and play the worried adult, other times they are the doctor or the nurse and sometimes they get a check up themselves. Each different role lets them demystify the whole thing just a little bit more.

Watching their play tells me a lot about how they are feeling and what they understand about everything that is going on. I can see they aren’t worried or fearful but that it is still on their minds a lot. This lets me know what they might need from me to help them process.

Play isn’t just a “break” for kids, it is one of the best tools that they have to figure out what they know, where their place is in whats going on and how they’ll react. We need to make sure they have that chance.


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Make it Complex, They Can Handle It

When people tell me that teaching young children must be “easy” because you don’t need to know “hard” things like calculus I don’t launch into a whole discussion of social emotional development and differentiated learning. I keep it more simple then that.

When you teach young children you have to know a subject SO WELL that you can take difficult concepts and boil it down to the essential piece of information and then convey that in an age appropriate way. What is “easy” is thinking that to teach young children you just “dumb down” information or give them just the “easy” stuff.

Also, young children are capable of incredibly complex thinking and handling difficult information if it is presented in an age appropriate way. It is hardest on the adult, since we have to figure out how to say it in the “right” way.

This came into sharp relief for me as I was getting ready for the week before Thanksgiving. How do I avoid staying with a very comfortable narrative of American Indians and early settlers?

I would never pretend that the way I do things is the “only” way or even the “right” way. I am still fumbling my way through all of this. I just wanted to share it because it is A way.

We’d been exploring “Olden Days” through the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder in the “My First Little House” series. They were fascinated and what really caught them was all of the different types of houses that Laura had lived in. We’d explored a dugout, log cabin and sod house and they were still talking about them.

So, that was my hook. All of the different types of houses and how they used materials that were available and fit the needs of the people living in them. That weekend I gathered my supplies (the National Museum of the American Indian is a great resource!).

When I sat down for circle we looked again at the houses that Laura lived in. Then, I dove right in. I talked about how stories like Laura’s often talk about the land as being “unsettled” or “uninhabited” and say that no one lived there. I told them that was wrong, that there were a lot of people living there already. I showed them the map I had bought that had all of the names of the American Indian groups written on it.

I then went on to share that just like Laura, they lived in different types of houses depending on where they lived and what they needed. We might think of a Tipi first, but that isn’t all there is!

Each child got a picture of a different type of house. We looked at it, saw what type of material it was made of it and decided what type of environment it would work well for. Then, we put it up around the map in the right area.

The next day, I brought a whole box of different materials to circle and each child could create their own house. We talked about all of the different styles that we’d seen and why they’d been built that way (for the climate, because of materials available). I asked them to design their OWN house and think about those same things. We weren’t recreating an American Indian house, or even Laura’s, but we were using the lessons we’d gotten from how they had built.

The care they took in their building. The way they referenced the map and brought their families in to see the finished product tells me that this was not a wasted effort. It will be interesting to see where it goes from here.

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5 year old- “Why do all these books have girls in them?”

Me- “You know, it is strange, most books for kids have either boys as the main characters or animals! So, when I see a good book with a girl as a main character I get it.”

5- “Yeah! Because you are a girl!”

Me- “That’s right, and I’m kind of awesome”

5- “You are awesome”

Me- “Thanks! And think how your sister would feel if all the books in our house had only boys in them!”

5- “That wouldn’t be fair! Why do they do lots of boy books?”

Me- “Well, some people think that if a book is about a girl that boys won’t want to read it”

5- “What? It’s just pretend!”

Me- “Exactly! And, if the book is about a family, well, you have a family so it doesn’t matter if it is about a girl or a boy”

5- “Yeah! I like all your books Mama”

We need diverse books. If you are looking to add to your library you can check out a growing list of resources here: Early Childhood Book Resources


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