Learning Lab as a Tool for Early Educators

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We are pleased to share a guest blog post by Maureen Leary, Director of Kindergarten and Toddler Programs at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center. Prior to becoming a Director at SEEC last summer, Maureen spent 16 years as the Kindergarten Spanish teacher, among other roles at SEEC. Maureen is also the parent of three SEEC alumni. 

Technology has immense power to improve our lives and put a world of information at our fingertips. However, for those who work with young children, the relationship with technology may sometimes feel a bit complex. Screens are ever-present and young children are true digital natives, meaning they will never know a world devoid of online tools. So, while it’s important to be mindful of reasonable uses of and limits on screen time, it’s also critical for adults to lead the way in modeling positive online behavior and habits for children. Finding appropriate and interesting tools to achieve is a quest I’m sure many teachers share with me.

What Is Learning Lab?


From the first moment I was introduced to the Smithsonian’s Learning Lab, the platform has been an inspiration to me as an educator. In a nutshell, the Learning Lab is an online database of Smithsonian collection items that also includes lessons and tools created by users. I have found the Learning Lab to be a unique, dynamic resource with the potential to enrich and enhance both museum and classroom learning experiences. In the year since I first explored the Learning Lab, I have created a number of my own collections to both use in the classroom and to share with families. Using collections allows me to have all my digital resources in one place, both readily accessible and easily customizable. I always include information for families about how the individual resources were used in my lesson, and how the lesson was structured overall. My hope is that the shared viewing of these these collections by adults and children will both offer insights into the learning experiences and spark meaningful conversations about them.

Learning Lab In Action


One of my favorite Learning Lab experiences with students was during a Kindergarten lesson on Spanish artist Joan Miró. Before leading my students on a visit to two pieces of art by Miró at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, I created a Learning Lab collection to introduce his life and work to my students. We watched a video of the painter at work and listened to family members talk about his art and how it affected them as viewers. We looked at various images of his work on screen. Finally, we watched an animated version of one of his paintings – the individual components moving playfully across the screen to gradually create a cohesive whole. These technological pieces laid the groundwork for a more hands-on exploration of Miró’s work, both in the classroom and in the museum. To wrap up our classroom time we played a dice game that I found online called “Roll-a-Miró” that encouraged the children to create their own Miró-inspired drawings. Later, while settled in front of “Woman before an Eclipse with her Hair Disheveled by the Wind” at the Hirshhorn, we discussed what we saw in the painting and looked again at prints of the images we had seen on screen earlier. The children were given various loose parts to experiment with (foam pieces, pipe cleaners, etc…) and they worked together to create Miró-inspired pieces of art. Over the course of the day the exploration moved seamlessly from the screen to the classroom to the museum, and demonstrated that hands-on activities and screen time are not mutually exclusive concepts.

1For the Miró collection and others I’ve made, I’ve found that the customizable aspect of the Learning Lab is one of its most appealing features. Users can search collections and adapt already existing ones, or create their own from whatever resources they find, both on the Learning Lab and on other platforms. The Learning Lab also has tools embedded to help users customize their resources to suit their needs. I’ve enjoyed making use of “hot spots” to mark places on works of art that I wanted to focus the kids’ attention on, and to feature open-ended questions to spark discussions. Another teacher I work with tried using the hot spots in a more child-led way, by asking the kids choose a spot to mark, and to include their own observations or questions. Her class had a great time making notes on a photo portrait of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, which the teacher then shared with families via email. Not only is this a fantastic way to expand the learning experience to include families, but it could provide inspiration for adults to do a similar exploration on their own with their children, on whatever topics interest them. Similarly, the sorting tool offered by the Learning Lab allows users to create activities that include whatever images are relevant to their particular topic. Searching the Learning Lab for images is a great place to start, but users are not limited to that content.

Learning Lab and Families

In addition to my classroom work, I have also used the Learning Lab in an outreach project with preschool children and their families who live in the Kenilworth neighborhood of Washington, DC. I was very encouraged by the enthusiasm for Learning Lab that I encountered from both kids and adults, and how they connected it to other experiences. In one case the collection was tailored to a museum visit the children had just completed, and they were visibly excited to make the connection between what they saw on the screen and what they had seen in the museum. (“Look, mom, it’s the animals we saw today!”) The adults in the group were reassured by the educational nature of the Learning Lab and and the age-appropriate digital environment it provides. The interactions I observed in this setting reinforced the importance of adults acting as “digital mentors” with children. Technology is everywhere, and children have a natural interest in using it in an active way. It’s up to us to create a positive relationship with it for ourselves and our children and students.