Object of the Month: Spoons at NMAI

With our recent post regarding Thanksgiving and breaking stereotypes in the seecstories-comclassroom, I found myself getting reacquainted with the National Museum of the American Indian. On one of my visits, I discovered a display case, near the Maryland/Independence Avenue entrance, full of utensils and thought this was the perfect group of objects to highlight during a month when we seem to find ourselves doing a lot of eating. The text adjacent to the case speaks specifically to the importance of spoons and ladles as they were traditionally used to serve oneself from a communal dish or pot.

I thought the collection was especially relevant to our early learners who are beginning to discover new foods and master how to use utensils. Finally, it is a collection that has the ability to remind young
children of how the human race is so often alike and yet, different at the same time.

Infants and Toddlers4

Eating is especially important to this age group as they are trying new foods and learning how to handle utensils. What better way to encourage a young child’s development than by taking them to see this collection and narrating the physical features of some of the objects – differentiating between spoon and fork and noticing differences in size.  As you visually explore these objects, introduce key vocabulary like; handle, mouth, scoop, or pierce. Before you head into the Museum, take five minutes outside to demonstrate how forks and spoons work with different types of foods. Give them time to touch and explore real foods and utensils.

Twos and Preschoolers5

By the time children are two, they are becoming more familiar with utensils and are more adept at using them. It makes sense to connect this growth and explore more details about utensils in general, i.e. steak knives versus regular knives or, teaspoons versus tablespoons.  Since the objects are conveniently displayed together, look at the utensils as a group and lead children in a sorting activity based on shape, material, use, or decoration. In addition to sorting, students would benefit from having materials to touch that reflect those seen in the case. At home or in the classroom, children can curate their own collections of utensils and continue to explore those from cultures around the world.

A visit to the case can provide a small glimpse into the types of utensils used by a range of Native peoples.  Two things are important to keep in mind. Firstly, these utensils are reflect specific cultures, which can be referenced in the labels. Parents and educators might consider using the spoons to demonstrate the wide variety of places and environments in which Indigenous Americans live.  Secondly, teachers want to be careful not to support stereotypes, namely that American Indian cultures exist only in the past.  The objects on display in this case represent a wide time frame and while, young children have difficulty with abstract concepts of time, they can benefit from being introduced to things that happen long ago and things that have occurred in recent history. Sometimes this can be done by giving context to an object for example, explaining that it was made long ago before your parents and grandparents were born. Or you could elaborate by creating a visual timeline that shows in what order a group of objects were made.   An introduction to a collection such as this one can help children begin to understand that Native peoples have a long history in the Americas that extends to the present day.

Below is a sampling of some of the utensils represented:

Serving Utensil from King Island Village; Bering Straits Native Corporation; Alaska; USA 

Gitxsan Spoon

Pueblo Dipper/Ladel

Lakota (probably) Spoon (Teton Sioux)

Tlinglit Fork and Spoon

Spoon/Ladel with bear effigy handle