The Summer Blues: How Museums and Libraries Support Summer Learning

Summer Camp 2013Summer conjures up images of running around barefoot, catching fireflies, and endless hours at the pool. In reality though, it can be an insanely stressful time for families. Sometime in February (at least in the DC metro area), parents start enrolling their children in summer camp. In the nation’s capital there is no shortage of camps, but that is assuming you can pay between $300-600/week tuition. It doesn’t end there either. Many camps charge extra for before and after care, tacking on an extra $50-100. Now, multiply that times the number of children you have and you wind up with a pretty hefty price tag.

Many parents turn to alternative options: in-home daycare, families, neighbors or child-homeworkthey adjust their own work schedule. Your checkbook is likely to appreciate the break, but parents and educators worry about their children forgetting what they learned during the school year. While your child might have brought home a packet of worksheets or a mandatory reading list, neither are particularly engaging. The dilemma remains: How can we support children to learn in fun ways that support and maintain school year gains and not break the bank?

The Institute of Museum and Library Services recently published a paper entitled Growing Young Minds: How Museums and Libraries Create Lifelong Learners. With the national discussion on early childhood education at the fore, this paper examines the important role that museums and libraries play in supporting learning within the community. It makes particular mention of how museums and libraries can serve to lesson what many refer to as the “summer slide.” Utilizing libraries and museums makes a lot of sense for budget-minded families who are looking for ways to engage their children. Firstly, many of these institutions often offer free/reduced admission and programming for families. Secondly, their offerings are diverse in subject and increasingly, hands-on in nature. These institutions are more often taking into account what and how your children are learning in school and are offering programs that extend current studies or prepare them to be successful learners. Moreover, the museum and library environment lends itself to a family experience. Generally, child and caretaker can go together where they both can observe, experience, and discuss an exhibit or program together. Having a shared experience brings families together for one-on-one time and can inspire more learning at home or in the community.

What if you can’t make it to the museum, you ask? Go on-line! Museum and library resources are becoming increasingly child-friendly and parents can be assured that their children are having a safe and educational experience. Take a look at some of the tips below and get rid of those summer blues!

Parent Tips:

Spend time looking at what your local museums offer and have your child choose a few exhibits that interest them. Choice is the key word here – the more interested a child is in something, the more likely they are to want to learn.

Don’t forget about Smithsonian Story Times and Play Spaces:

Check out the Smithsonian Science Education Center’s new engineering game, Tami’s Tower 

Link the library and museum visit by checking out books pertaining to an exhibit or object of interest.

Find a good parent blogger (We love KidFriendlyDC and Beltway Bambinos) and follow them for ideas of what to do and special deals!

Visit the National Gallery of Art’s website for interactive on-line games.


Perfect Spring Break Family Museum Visit

signSpring and summer break are just around the corner and I know a lot of our parents are looking for some local, inexpensive family outings. Well, look no further than the Museum of Natural History. I am sure a lot of families have done it’s most popular features but, for this visit we are headed up to the top floor to  Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation. This jem has a lot to offer the younger child in your family.

First, it’s spacious, colorful and inviting. Read our recent blog on environment – it makes a difference.

Second, there are a lot of mirrors.  From infants to preschoolers, mirrors are fascinating portals to understanding more about themselves and how their bodies work.

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One of SEEC’s classes practices their yoga.

Finally, there are interactive sections where you can listen to music, watch a video and sit at a table set with Indian food. This will give your child different types of sensory input and provide a chance for some dramatic play.

Depending on the age of your children, you can choose to approach the exhibit from several perspectives, here are some ideas:

 families6 months – 18 months: Babies are learning to recognize themselves and their families. Take the time to look in a mirror and identify baby and yourself. Describe your features and talk about your similarities and differences. Head over to the family photos and pull up a family photo on your phone. Compare it to the families on the exhibit wall. At home, share a book about families or sit down and make a toy family. This is a great opportunity to begin talking about how not all families are the same. Even at such a young age, you can begin to lay a foundation for understanding and respecting diversity.

listening station19 months – 3.5 years: Toddlers love music and dancing, so it is great that this exhibit features a listening station. Pick a couple of tracks and see if you can compare their tempo or guess the instruments. You might simply ask which their favorite was. Give them a chance to dance to the music and then go to the outer hallway and see the images of Indian dancers. Notice how the dancers are moving their body and what they are wearing. Build on the experience at home by listening to more Indian music or discovering that of another country. Look up a few videos highlighting different Indian dances and watch them together on a tablet or computer. Similar to the infant experience, introducing your toddler to the arts of other countries will help them gain an appreciation of their culture and, those of others.

photo (5)Preschoolers – Early Elementary:  A great way to connect with young children is to begin with their personal experiences. Since food is universal, the table would be a great place to begin a conversation about the foods we eat at home or at our favorite restaurants. The exhibit can teach children about food from India AND about the many cultures that contribute to the food we eat in the United States. If food doesn’t interest your child, consider talking about some of the notable Indian Americans like football player, Brandon Chillar or fashion designer, Naeem Khan.

Finally, consider going to visit the Freer and Sackler’s collection of Indian art on another visit or grabbing a bite of Indian food at the Natural History’s café.

Like with any visit, keep in mind some of these helpful tips for visiting a museum with your kiddos and enjoy!!

Rethinking the Environment

Posted on behalf of SEEC Educator Amber Simatic:

For the past several years, my classroom left much to be desired: white walls, fluorescent lighting, and undefined spaces. However, at the beginning of the school year, I set a goal to create a more comfortable and inviting environment and to truly utilize the classroom as a teaching tool. I tried everything — changing bulletin boards, hanging art prints, displaying children’s drawings; but having mismatched, bright, primary colors everywhere was just not cutting it.

Early in the school year, I was unable to focus on the environment as much as I would have liked, given the challenges of settling in with a new class of students and getting to know a new team of teachers. However, within a few months we found our rhythm and I was able to focus again on the world around me. That’s when I noticed another SEEC center had used magnetic paint on a large wall to hang art with magnets instead of tape, which caused the wheels to start turning and brought me to my current realization: that I could expand the definition of changing my classroom beyond that of simply rearranging bulletin boards; that I could begin to think of my classroom as a home away from home and put just as much thought and care into it as I do my own home, because, after all, teachers and students spend a lot of time in their classrooms!

Once I realized my classroom’s potential, the possibilities became limitless.
A particularly challenging area of my room, above the changing table, could use some magnet paint, I thought:
“If that area can be magnetized, why not the whole wall?”
“And if I can use magnetic paint — why not colorful, magnetic paint?”
“Why not paint the whole room?”
“And if I can paint the whole room — what other changes, big and small, could I make to turn this classroom into a home?”
Each day at nap time, when the room was quiet and the soft music played, I would pat the kids to sleep and look around at the white walls, dreaming of color and comfort. For people who know me well, this concept is not a novel one: every apartment in which I’ve ever lived has been painted, if the lease allows.
I love having the creative outlet to change a space, but until recently I had never thought of applying it to my classroom.

To begin, I reflected on how the space worked, where the kids congregated, and how the placement of furniture influenced traffic patterns. I made several lists of what I liked and what I didn’t like; what I could change and what I couldn’t change; words that would describe my room and words that I would like to describe my room. These lists were extremely helpful in determining how to start the process.

There are a lot of things to consider when it comes to the physical classroom environment, the basics include: color, line, texture, form, and space. These five elements work together to create the physical environment.
Color can evoke certain moods and emotions. We even use this idea in our daily lives with sayings such as “green with envy” and “feeling blue”. Generally, when painting walls, cool colors like green and blue are calming while warm colors like red and orange tend to be stimulating.

Line can also set the emotional mood. Horizontal, vertical, curved, and diagonal lines all evoke different feelings. For example, diagonal lines suggest motion while curved lines relax a room.

Texture, both tactile and visual, engages learners and creates interest.

Form and space relate to how a room is set up. For example, does the placement of shelving units create symmetry and balance?


Thinking about all of these items at once can quickly become overwhelming. I started with color by painting the walls then branched into some of the other elements, such as line, by adding a curved curtain draped along a window, and texture, by replacing plastic toy bins with baskets. Other things started falling into place too; I brought in plants, made slip-covers for brightly colored pillows and bought rugs.

Full view

If there is one thing I’ve learned throughout this entire journey it’s that reinventing the classroom is indeed a process. It’s a transformation that doesn’t happen overnight. Plans change and the project must adapt to fit our needs, and, more importantly, those of the children.

I’ve also learned to be vulnerable. Parents, kids, other teachers, and any one who walks into our center will see my classroom “unfinished” and that’s okay. As it turns out, the process is about figuring out what works best and feels most authentic for you and your classroom.

The Power of Real

For too long school has taken place mainly within the four walls of a classroom. This has been especially true in early childhood where field trips are often viewed as a nuisance for the adults rather than a gift to young children. This is not the case at SEEC. I marvel daily as I see teachers happily bundle up children from babies through kindergarten to take them out into the museums and other sites around the DC area. You see, at SEEC, we believe in the power of real and that children learn in ways that are richer and deeper when they get a chance to see the real items.

Imagine how a study centered around the Wizard of Oz is more meaningful for a group of 4 year olds when it starts with the actual ruby slippers, extends to exhibitions about caves where emeralds come from and the gem exhibition to see actual gems; moves from visiting Marla the tin woman piece in the Smithsonian American Art Museum to compare it to the Tin Man in the story to the Library of Congress to see the original book where you discover that Dorothy didn’t wear ruby slippers originally!

Imagine how the study of wheels is richer for a toddler when they not only see wheels in books and photos but go to the National Museum of American History to see them on covered wagons, trains and old cars; to the Metro to examine the cars of the train there; to the Hirshhorn to look for wheels in art and notice that the building itself is shaped like a wheel before they even enter the museum. While we are lucky that we have all these rich resources outside our door, in reality every neighborhood has its own set of resources. A toddler class in the city could go out and look at buses, various cars, motorcycles and bikes. A class of four year olds could go to the local shoe store to see shoes, a jewelry store to look at emeralds and the library to look up the book. The key is to get out of the classroom. Make learning real. Let children explore the real objects and make connections to their own lives.

At SEEC we believe that museums of all types and in every city should play a more active role in the education of our children. We believe that learning should be a search for knowledge rather than sitting in a classroom being fed information. We are trying to share our work more widely to try and build stronger bridges between school, museums and home. At SEEC, we believe that it does, indeed, take a village to educate a child.

Posted on behalf of SEEC Executive Director Kimberlee Kiehl

Pondering Play


When museum folks think of “play,” the “go to” place that comes to mind is often one of the many amazing children’s museums found across the country. For many, when used together, the words “play” and “museum” conjure images of boisterous children engaged in hands-on learning experiences in an interactive museum play space or exhibit. On the other hand, early childhood educators are inclined to think about play in the context of their classroom. A carefully structured environment supports literacy development in the dramatic play area, pre-math concepts in block building and social emotional growth during “free choice” time. Whether working in a museum setting or classroom environment, educators that work with young children recognize the power of play in developing skills essential to one’s future success in school.Transportation line up

What does “play” look like for young children in a traditional object centered museum setting? Is it possible to help early learners embrace the “free choice learning” aspect of museums in a constructive and meaningful way? On RapidIn early May, SEEC will launch a new two day professional seminar called, “Play: Engaging Young Learners in Object Rich Environments.” Museum professionals and early childhood educators will collaboratively explore potential intersections between play and traditional object centered museums. The workshop will feature new approaches to museum learning used by SEEC educators as they determine how to best connect children’s emerging interests to museum exploration. This pilot program makes use of the Smithsonian Institution’s collection and enlists the perspective and expertise of participants as workshop content takes shape over the course of the two day Smithsonian based seminar. No doubt you have some questions, considerations, or examples of your own that come to mind as we post these thought provoking questions about play in museums. Please share!

Through SEEC’s flagship seminar, “Learning Through Objects,” we have had an opportunity to present ideas about using objects and museums to build critical thinking skills in young children to hundreds of museum and classroom educators. SEEC’s latest “Play” workshop takes this foundational information to the next level as we challenge ourselves to consider how to support positive learning experiences for young children through the use of play, objects and museums. Participants will consider the role that storytelling and question asking takes in play and museums as we encourage children to become curious explorers, creative thinkers, inquisitive learners and 21st century problem solvers.

Checking Out the Car

The Power of Questions

Posted on behalf of Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center Executive Director Kimberlee Kiehl.

When was the last time you tried something just because you were curious?  When was the last time you visited a place just because you wondered about it or you just wanted to know more?  When was the last time you asked yourself or someone else a good question and then looked for the answers? Young children spend many hours during their days doing just this….trying new things just because they are curious, exploring the world around them just because they wonder about it, and asking questions about what they know and don’t know. Here at SEEC our teacher curate experiences for children that allow them to do what Sugata Mitra calls “wandering aimlessly around ideas.” We give children time to explore an idea or concept in multiple ways over an extended period of time and encourage them to search for knowledge through this exploration.  We also know that questions are vital for learning and discovery and we help children learn to ask good questions and then to search for the knowledge that they are interested in rather than simply feeding them information.  In his recently published book “A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas” author Warren Berger discusses the power of questions– how they can result in change and how essential the ability to ask good questions is to growth and learning.  A lesson at SEEC often starts with questions from the children.  For example, one of our classes of four year olds recently were very interested in caves. This interest grew naturally out of a study of The Wizard of Oz. You might be wondering how…follow me here while I walk you through 4 year old logic….Wizard of Oz—Emerald City—emeralds—mining—caves! Look at the photo of their fantastic questions about caves!


Over the course of several weeks they explored these questions and more, visiting museums and using the community and technology to find answers and explore ideas. Children who learn how to ask good questions will be adults who know how to ask good questions. Adults who know how to ask good questions are good leaders, change makers, and innovators. Unfortunately, as adults we too often squelch children’s questions rather than explore them. We are hassled by their questions, joking about how often a toddler asks why, instead of reveling in the sheer beauty of the questions. Even Einstein knew the beauty of a good question and attributed his genius in large part to his ability to question.  Imagine how beautiful education could be and how rich life would be if we all just spent more time asking beautiful questions and searching for information.

Pedagogies of Wonder


On February 22, 2014, Miriam Calderon was recognized by SEEC for her thoughtful work in the field of early childhood. She has held influential positions such as Senior Advisor on Early Learning to the Obama administration, Director of Early Childhood Education for DCPS and Associate Director of Education Policy at the National Council of La Raza. She currently supports the work of School Readiness Consulting.

We would like to share Miriam’s presentation comments from SEEC’s Excellence in Early Learning gala: Miriam Receiving Award

“Thank you Kim, and the leadership at SEEC for this recognition. It’s truly humbling to be at this wonderful event with all of you – Dr. Sullivan, the first woman in human history to walk in space, and to precede Josh Bernstein – who shows us the power of what can happen when we allow children to approach the world with wonder. Thanks to my husband, my friends and colleagues at School Readiness Consulting for being here this evening. I do want to use the honor of this award to share with you a few thoughts and conclude with a question for us all.

First, I cannot speak highly enough of SEEC! SEEC works so intelligently to light the fire of curiosity in young children – connecting children to a world of wonder using the Smithsonian’s rich collections – it is truly inspirational. To some it may look easy, but it’s not! Teaching in this manner is a craft. SEEC teachers apply developmental science daily to inform their teaching and interactions with children. As early learning gets more attention nationally, it’s absolutely critical that places like SEEC exist as a model and vehicle for others to see what it should look like.

This last point brings me to a second thought. Simply put, America needs more SEEC’s…SEEC serves over a hundred very lucky young children annually, but there are not enough SEECs for all the children that need a place like it. Millions of children in our nation endure poor quality early learning or go without it. D.C.’s children are fortunate enough to benefit from universal pre-school under Mayor Gray’s leadership but nationally the reality remains grim.

Only about half of three- and four-year olds nationwide attend preschool. That alone is a problem given the strong evidence linking the lack of quality early childhood experiences to delinquency, school drop-out, poverty and poor health in adulthood.

That National Institute for Early Education Research estimates that about nine out of ten children in the top 20% of America’s wealthiest households attend pre-k. Compare that to just under half of middle-income children, and less than half of poor children. Less than 5% of infants and toddlers in low-income households are in quality programs.

Unfortunately, despite the overwhelming and preponderance of evidence demonstrating that 90% of a child’s brain forms before the age of five, high quality early learning is only guaranteed to those families that can afford to pay for it. We also lack equity in the quality of children’s early learning experiences – how they are taught. Children from more affluent families are more likely to get richer experiences rooted in creative play with an eye to nurturing a skilled sense of wonder. This we might call a ‘pedagogy of wonder.’ In contrast, children from families who lack resources are more likely to be in environments where they are drilled on their letters and numbers, tied to tests, and punished for misbehavior, what Martin Haberman has called a ‘pedagogy of poverty.’

The science of child development and the craft of early childhood tell us that all of these children can learn in the same manner. All children come into the world with an innate curiosity and love of learning. Indeed, we need more SEECs to spread a pedagogy of wonder and ignite a curiosity in a child that will last them a lifetime. Nothing short of this will ensure that a child’s zip code doesn’t determine whether or not they realize their full potential.

So the question I want to leave you with is this:
How do we make this happen? How do we spread pedagogies of wonder?

All of our children – and their development – must be a shared public responsibility.

Thank you.”