Never Too Young

Opening

This blog was first published last spring during NAECY”s Week of the Young Child. We decided to re-post it as we so often get ask the question, “What do you do with babies in a museum?” We hope this answers some of your questions. If you are interested in seeing our work in action, families are welcome to join us for one of our Infant Investigators  classes that occur most first Saturday and Sundays of the month.

When I first discovered that the theme for NAEYC’s 2016 Week of the Young Child™ was “Celebrating Our Youngest Learners,” I was excited by how clearly it related to my work as an infant and toddler teacher. Most people who read the phrase “Celebrating Our Youngest Learners” would immediately think of children older than the ones I work with every day. Even among the early childhood community, the term “young learners” often refers to Pre-K and Kindergarten students. I believe that we should include infants and toddlers in our celebration of the youngest learners. In my mind this is something that is both natural and necessary. In fact, it has so permeated my life that I sometimes forget that not everyone feels the same way that I do.

As an infant and toddler teacher at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center, I take my class on daily outings into the museums that line the National Mall. Upon seeing a group of infants or toddlers in a museum, visitors often remark on how amazing it is to see so many young children or how engaged my class seems. But far too often we get another response; people will come up to my class and say “Aren’t they too young for a museum?”

While I understand that a class of infants and toddlers may be an unusual sight in a museum, I can’t help but be baffled by the very premise of their question. My audible response to this accusation is a cheery “Never too young,” but my inner dialogue consists of wondering “Too young for what? Too young for learning?” I believe that museums make ideal places for self-directed learning. For an infant or toddler to be considered too young for a museum, then the extension of that logic is that the child is too young to learn, which cannot be further from the truth.

Infant’s and toddler’s brains are ripe for learning and processing. In fact, they are learning at a faster rate than at any other time in their life. They are learning language, how to move their bodies, pre-literacy skills, how to interact with others, and whether or not their world is a safe and secure place. Beyond that infants and toddlers are discovering what interests and motivates them. All of these things and more can be learned in museums. Below are a couple of examples:

 

Hirshhorn

We visited Shirin Neshat’s The Book of Kings, My House is Burning Down (2012) at a recent Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden exhibit as part of a unit of Eric Carle’s From Head to Toe. We were looking at the parts of the body and a favorite movement came from the line “I am a gorilla and I thump my chest. Can you do it?”

 

NGA

To discover more about different types of shoes, such as wooden clogs and ballet slippers, we went to the National Gallery of Art to see Paul Gauguin’s Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven (1888)For a toddler, shoes represent a way for them to start creating a sense of autonomy. In my class, my students often come dressed in pink cowboy boots or purple rain boots that they picked out themselves. They are expressing their new found independence by choosing what shoes or clothes they want to wear.

 

 

Infants and toddlers expend much of their energy discovering how they can move. Here my class of mobile infants visited a termite mound, which they were able to crawl through.

Infants and toddlers expend much of their energy discovering how they can move. Here my class of mobile infants visited a termite mound at the O. Orkin Insect Zoo in the National Museum of Natural History, which they were able to crawl through.

 

Getting new teeth impacts so many aspects of the lives of infants and toddlers. It allows them to transition to eating solid food, affects their mood, and is often detrimental to their sleep. What better way to learn about what is happening inside their own bodies, than to examine the jaw of a great white shark and touch a replica of some of the shark’s teeth?

Getting new teeth impacts so many aspects of the lives of infants and toddlers. It allows them to transition to eating solid food, affects their mood, and is often detrimental to their sleep. What better way to learn about what is happening inside their own bodies, than to examine the jaw of a great white shark and touch a replica of some of the shark’s teeth in the Sant Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History.

Great strides have recently been made in explaining the importance of Pre-K and Kindergarten to the public. People across the nation now believe in the importance of these early learning experiences. While there is more work to be done, it is important that do not waver from celebrating and supporting the youngest of the young learners — infants and toddlers.

Infants and toddlers are active learners, so the environment and the people they interact with impact their learning. Infant and toddler educators need extra support and should be encouraged to see the myriad of possibilities for learning that occur with infant and toddlers every day. I hope that one day everyone who hears the term “youngest learner” will automatically include infants and toddlers in that group. I am excited for the day that I am greeted with “What are they learning about?” when I am walking in the museum with the infants and toddlers in my class.

 

BioMeredith Osborne is the infant and toddler specialist at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center. She received her Master’s in museum education from The George Washington University and studied history and psychology at Ohio Wesleyan University. She has experience working with both children and adults including positions at Playgroup in the Park, the Children’s Museum of Cleveland, teaching adults literacy classes, and interning at the Supreme Court of the United States.