Objects Teach Us

This blog was originally posted in 2016. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog featuring more staff favorites. Want to learn more about using objects to engage young children? Come to our Learning Through Objects workshop on March 14 and 15.

As I walked through the doors of the National Air and Space Museum (NASM), the four-year-old holding my hand gave a squeeze and whispered, “This is my mommy’s museum.” This was, technically speaking, untrue. Her mother was a scientist who worked with NASM’s meteorite collection – which is an awesome job – but she did not own the museum. But to that four-year-old, the museum where her mommy worked belonged to her mommy – the same way that the toy she played with during morning choices and the seat she sat in on the Metro that morning belonged to her. Children’s concept of ownership is cut and dry. If I am using it, if I care enough for it, if I take it from you, then it is mine. As we grow we learn that this is not the case. Ownership is much more complex and nuanced than possession, but little bits of our childlike tendency to lay claim to the things we love linger.

Think about your favorite bench in the park by your house, the street that makes you smile as you drive past because of its silly name, or the statue you eat lunch next to every year on your anniversary because it is the spot where you and your spouse first kissed. These things are not ours, but they belong to us because we have connected to them in deep and meaningful ways, and we remember them and the stories that go with them long after other memories have faded. In fact, many people pass the most special object stories onto younger generations and the stories and the connections live on past the lives of the people who created them. Objects that evoke these kinds of reactions are all around us, everywhere we go, and we can use them to tell our stories and to teach children how to make their own stories and meaning.

Here at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center, the objects we encounter most often are museum objects, and staff and children alike form strong attachments to the objects they see on a regular basis. Some of our staff took the time to tell us about the objects that mean the most to them. Each of their stories is an example of how connecting with objects teach us in a variety of ways.

Objects Teach Us About Our Identities:

Dana Brightful is an educator who works with three, four, and five-year-olds. Her favorite object is Michelle Obama’s gown from the 2009 Inaugural Ball. Dana says, “Michelle Obama’s Inaugural Ball gown is my favorite object! It speaks not only to my glam side but my African American side as well!”


Objects Teach Us To Remember:

Brooke Shoemaker is a Museum Educator who supports the classrooms for ages three through six. She shared, “I chose Miss Piggy and Elmo, the Muppets that are currently part of a rotating exhibit at the National Museum of American History.  The Muppets are special to me for several reasons.  They remind me of time spent with my family as a child reading Muppet books, and watching Muppet programs (admittedly my family and I still watch “A Muppet Family Christmas” every year).  The creator of the Muppets, Jim Henson, went to my alma mater, University of Maryland. And lastly, the children tend to gravitate towards them too, and I love sharing that connection with them.”


Objects Teach Us To Explore:

Will Kuehnle is a Classroom Educator currently working with four and five-year-olds. He told us why his favorite object at the Air and Space Museum is special, “A replica of the Spirit of Saint Louis hangs in Lambert International Airport in my hometown of Saint Louis, so every time I went on an air bound adventure growing up I saw it and became inspired by Charles Lindberg’s incredible story. Having the real thing at the Smithsonian is such a treat. Every time I see it I am reminded of the power of curiosity and exploration – from the sails of Columbus to the footprints of Armstrong.”


What objects do you connect with? Do these stories remind you of your own stories and memories? Are there objects in your community that can provide this kind of connection and these kinds of teaching opportunities for the children in your life? Explore these questions and their sometimes surprising answers with the SEEC team this October 19-20 at Introduction to Objects and Informal Learning Environments.