Word Expeditions

PrintIn the fall of 2015, the Friends of the National Zoo, National Museum of African American History and Culture, National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of American History, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Associates’ Discovery Theater, and the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center, together with the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative (DCPNI) were awarded a two-year grant through Grow Up Great, PNC’s initiative focused on early childhood education, to launch Word Expeditions. The grant’s objective is to build vocabulary in preschool students from the Kenilworth-Parkside neighborhood in Northeast DC. DCPNI works exclusively with this neighborhood supporting all members of the Kenilworth-Parkside and describes its mission as “improving the quality of their own lives and inspiring positive change in their neighborhood.”  The group has a strong foothold with families of young children and so it seemed natural to integrate Word Expeditions into their already existing Take and Play structure. Once a month, Smithsonian representatives visit Neval Thomas Elementary School during which time, families participate in activities that teach about the Institution’s collections, build vocabulary, and support a child’s development. The evening concludes with a meal and families take home a kit from DCPNI outlining fun and simple ways to incorporate learning and vocabulary skills at home.

DSCF1330A few weeks later, families are invited to come to the museum that co-hosted the
Take and Play. During their visit, families engage in similarly fun activities that reiterate the vocabulary and theme from the Take and Play. In addition to the literacy component, the Smithsonian wants to create a welcoming experience that will make families feel at-home and inspire them to visit again. We also hope that through these programs, they will begin to see how museums can be used as a place to learn and explore together as a family.

As part of the grant, SEEC was tasked with creating a unique map featuring the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. The map displays the museums on and off the Mall and includes the Smithsonian Gardens and Discovery Theater. Each one is represented by an object, which isWord_Expeditions_Map Word_Expeditions_Map2accompanied by what I like to call, conversation starters. These conversation starters include key vocabulary terms that help families define some big ideas they can use to discuss the object. They also pose open-ended questions and suggest easy ways to engage with the object and use the vocabulary in ways that will help children understand and recall the word’s meaning.  For example, The Smithsonian Gardens description asks families to look closely at an elm tree and find its parts. The children will walk away with a concrete understanding of terms like roots, trunk and bark.  The National Portrait Gallery’s entry asks families to imagine what they would see, hear and taste if they jumped into the portrait of George Washington Carver and suggest that parents use the term five senses and, of course, portrait.

These conversation starters also motivate families to stop and take a look – conveying the importance of observation and careful looking. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden encourages families to walk around Juan Muñoz’ Last Conversation Piece and try to pose like the figures. The description features the words pose and conversation and also asks families to imagine what their conversation is about. Using a concrete analogy to the vocabulary is so important for young learners.

To keep families returning, we offer them four free tickets to Discovery Theater after visiting five museums, and a free book after visiting ten. Perhaps more important to the map’s success is the presence of Ariel Gory, Education Specialist for Early Learning, from the National Museum of American History. She speaks directly to families about the map. Her presence has been important in communicating the purpose of the map, encouraging families to use it, and creating a sense of community. She shares her experiences:

DCPNI NASM Photo1 (002)I find that dinner time at the Take and Play program provides the perfect opportunity for me to get to know families on a deeper level as I talk with them about the maps and their museum visits. Recently, I engaged in a conversation with two families who have become “regulars” at the workshops and museum visits.  When I asked what museums the families had visited lately, the mothers immediately began to list all of the museum trips they had been on since the program’s inception in the fall and what’s more, they described their visits in detail – recalling the vocabulary that was introduced and the activities in which they participated. It was exciting to see their enthusiasm for the program and it was clear that the map had helped foster and grow their interest in museums.

 Getting to see the map in action is one of the most uplifting aspects of this program. During a spring visit to the National Museum of American History, I noticed one mother rustling through her backpack before pulling out a well-worn map. “I can’t forget to get this signed!” she said. As I took a closer look at the map, I noticed that she had a signature for the National Air and Space Museum. I asked her when she had visited and she responded that they had gone the day before because her children had the day off from school. She noted that even though they weren’t in school that day, she still wanted them to “learn something.” Seeing that this mom had used the map to independently seek out a museum to expand her children’s learning shows the importance of programs like this.

So often we realize that local families are unfamiliar with the Smithsonian or feel that it is a place that they don’t belong. We hope that the map and the Word Expeditions program not only help to build young children’s vocabulary, but also encourage families to explore the opportunities for wonder and learning located in their backyards.

Supported by:




In cooperation with:

Friends of the National Zoo
Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center
National Air and Space Museum
National Museum of American History
National Museum of Natural History
National Museum of African American History and Culture
Smithsonian Associates/Discovery Theater
DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative