Quiet Moments: How a Washingtonian Family Does Spring Break


DSCN3881Spring has finally sprung in DC and although the cherry trees haven’t yet blossomed, the tourists have arrived. If you are anything like me, you prefer to stay away from the crowds, but still want to make the most of spring break with your family. The trick is choosing the right destination. Living in or around D.C. means we are fortunate enough to visit museums year-around. Consider leaving the big attractions like; Air and Space and Natural History for the winter months when they are less crowded and using spring to discover some hidden gems.

The Freer Gallery of Art

Gallery Visit: Japanese Screens
The Freer is scheduled to close next year for renovations so it is an excellent time to visit. This spacious room is a great place to have a seat and do some close looking, read a book or sketch. Remember, you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy or share art with your children.

Make a Connection

  • Read a book like Eliza’s Cherry Trees: Japan’s Gift to America by Andrea Zimmerman and sketch the screens.
  • Learn more about what a Japanese screen is from this teacher resource on page 65.

Finish your visit by walking out through the Sackler, which is connected to the Freer, and heading down Independence Avenue to the Tidal Basin to check out the blossoms. It will undoubtedly be crowded there, but at least you started things out quietly.

The National Museum of African Art

Gallery Visit: Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue
Inside this exhibit is one of my favorite pieces currently on display at the Smithsonian; a butterfly mask from Burkina Faso. It’s also located in a quiet nook of the Museum and perfectly situated for children to walk around and observe.

Make a Connection:

  • Children are often attracted to butterflies for their beauty and they will likely connect to this mask for that very reason. Bring photos of butterflies and compare wings. Look for shapes, patterns and color.
  • Discover the other animals represented on the mask.
  • Pose questions: Why is the butterfly important in Burkina Faso? Where is Burkina Faso? (this information is included in the link above)
  • Ask your children to design their own butterfly wing and bring paper and colored pencils to the gallery. Finish your visit up with a walk over to the butterfly garden.

The National Gallery of Art

Gallery Visit: American Masterworks from the Corcoran, 1815 – 1940 
This gallery might be a little busy, but its worth it because it closes on May 3. There are some breathtaking works in this gallery that are large and inviting for children and adults alike.

Make a Connection:
Since there might be a few more people in this space, choose what the family wants to see ahead of time by looking online. This will help you plan and will get the kids excited for the visit. Once there, find your selected works and share what you like about them. Do you notice anything in-person that you didn’t online?  If your children are too young to talk – that is ok – talk to them. They will still benefit from the experience.

Enjoy your spring break.

Looking Back: Family Workshop Review


In early November, we wrapped up our first round of family workshops for the year and the last few weeks have been spent reflecting and sorting through evaluations. We received positive feedback about the types of activities we provided in the classroom, the rapport teachers had with the children and the overall quality of the program. Our families were very thoughtful in the type of feedback they provided – really allowing us as educators to dig deep and see a different perspective.


Last week we met to discuss the evaluations and while we had a lot to talk about, the focus of the conversation was on the museum experience.  Many of our parents indicated they wanted more time in the museum. The art historian in me was excited to hear that parents were craving more of the museum! The early childhood educator, on the other hand, was challenged: How do we develop a longer museum visit without jeopardizing a positive experience.


When we develop our museum visits we think a lot about what is best for the child and what is developmentally appropriate. For example, with each age group we know about how much time they are comfortable and engaged during museum visits and try to plan visits that match the developmental stage of the students. We provide multiple exposures to a single concept in order to help them fully engage in the learning process.

This museum framework is also based largely on our experiences at the lab school. We work in an environment where our students visit the Smithsonian museums almost daily. When we plan our museum visits this ease of access is paramount. Our teachers are great at responding to the needs of the children from one moment to the next and can easily shorten a museum visit or cancel it altogether because they can always return. If there is a protest on the Mall or the weather is bad, there is always tomorrow. Not so with the family programs.

On the weekends, tables are turned; the museum visit has to work that day. We don’t have the option to return. We have to make it work!


Unlike the lab school experience, the parents are present and therefore, are also a key part to the workshop experience. They want to learn and explore the museums. For many this is chance for to visit museums they may not normally get to. They also see the workshops as a time of connection with their children where they can encourage, teach and engage. What they don’t want is a child who is starting to get antsy and is feeling frustrated. We have to carefully consider what works best for both the child and the parent.


In the past, we’ve experimented with a hybrid model that includes a group learning component with a guided exploratory activity.photo (5)

For example, my colleague used a flip book for a toddler lesson on fire trucks. First families were asked to find the parts of the wagon and then came back to the group to share. Matching the photos encouraged families to look closely and the group portion gave everyone the opportunity to connect and share what they had learned.  This is a great example of how we can make the museum visit more focused and detailed, but it doesn’t work in every situation. Another colleague did a lesson with no group component for our infants at the US Botanical Gardens in which she planned four caretaker-directed activities. There was no group component and the class remained entirely at the Gardens – omitting the classroom portion because the walk was too long.  My co-manager is also excited to try out another model: adding a second object. By and large we only visit one object per a museum visit, but having had experience with toddlers using 2-3 objects, she is eager to see if this model might also prove effective.


I believe that all of these models have real value. As early childhood educators we often have to take the temperature of a group and make adjustments on the fly.  What works once, doesn’t always work again. Part of our challenge is being able to read those signs and being prepared with additional content (early childhood educators do a lot of content research just for this purpose) and being ready to present that content in a variety of ways. Sometimes all the planning in the world can be for naught the day of a lesson because no matter how good we have gotten at anticipating a child’s needs, they are still unpredictable.

I really look forward to experimenting and growing these family Javasa at Hirshhornworkshops. If you are an educator, post your ideas and thoughts. If you are a parent, come and check us out. Our next set of classes begins January 31st when we are offering infant, toddler and pre-K classes. Don’t be deterred by the weather families – what we lack in warmth we make up for in ample parking during this time of year!

Early Learning in Museums: A Thoughtful Process at DAM

Denver Art Museum
Denver Art Museum

We’ve noticed that more and more museums are thinking about how to create effective programming for children under the age of 6 years old. Why do you think that is? I know we have some ideas but would be curious to know what you all are thinking.

Just last month, SEEC had the opportunity to work with one such museum.  It was inspiring to see how thoughtful they are being about the process. Over the next year, the Denver Art Museum (DAM) will systematically develop programs for early childhood programs in their area. Implementation of these programs is scheduled to start next year.

Mud Woman by Roxanne Swentzell at the Denver Art Museum
Mud Woman by Roxanne S Wentzell at the Denver Art Museum

To get this effort off the ground, the education department has created a case statement that articulates why this initiative is important and how it ties to the mission and vision of the larger organization. In addition, they have brought together a team of stakeholders that will contribute to the development of concepts, monitor progress, communicate considerations and keep the process moving forward. They have considered external factors and internal implications and are working together in new ways to better accommodate the unique of early childhood audiences – whether they arrive in school groups or with a family.

In addition, they engaged the local teacher community. On a Classroom Shotbeautiful October morning in Denver, Colorado, over 20 early childhood educators devoted their time to talking to the Denver Art Museum about what their idea of an ideal early childhood program would include. The teachers were extremely enthusiastic about the possibilities and informed the museum educators that they would like to see everything from museum experiences led by visiting artists to workshop spaces that encouraged young children in “messy” but meaningful play.

We know that many museums are doing interesting programming for young children. If you have stories to share or lessons learned, we would love to hear from you!

Denver Art Museum

Denver Art Museum

What Makes a Good Museum for Young Audiences: The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden



Sometime back in the spring the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden closed a large part of its galleries to the public and the reverberations could be heard throughout SEEC. The Hirshhorn is hands-down one of our favorite stops along the National Mall. Thankfully, their second and third floors reopened this past week and they do not disappoint (more on that below).
The conversation among our teachers got me thinking: Why is the Hirshhorn such a favorite with our educators? I placed an idea web in each of our teacher lounges and asked them: Why do you love teaching at the Hirshhorn? What I learned in a nutshell: engaging collections + ideal layout = a great early childhood experience.


SEEC’s teachers are, without a doubt, drawn to the modern and contemporary collection. One educator noted; “…so open ended.” Her comment encapsulates our approach to teaching at SEEC. Whether it be through play, engagement, or lessons/curricula, our teachers provide students with the chance to inquire, investigate and explore their own interests. Similarly, the Hirshhorn’s collections offer children (really, all visitors) works of art that are open to interpretation. Teachers feel comfortable using such artworks because their meanings are layered and can be adapted to a variety of themes that resonate with young children.



Of equal importance to our educators was that many of their exhibitions explore

Two-year olds visiting Gravity's Edge Exhibit.

Two-year olds visiting Gravity’s Edge Exhibit.

broad concepts. For example, in an exhibition like Gravity’s Edge, where gravity was a determining factor in the works on display, students were able to see multiple examples of a single idea and we know that children, and young children especially, benefit from such repeated exposures. Similarly, the Ai Weiwei zodiac animals fountain was a huge hit with our students. While the animals were not the work’s main focus, it was an exhibition that engaged our students and offered them a portal to learning more about the piece itself.


Pre-K family workshop in front of Nick Cave’s Soundsuit.

Pre-K family workshop in front of Nick Cave's Soundsuit.

Pre-K family workshop in front of Nick Cave’s Soundsuit.

Our educators also appreciate that the collections demonstrate a unique and varied approach to materials. The introduction of new materials helps children think about things from new perspectives and activates their imagination. A great example is Nick Cave’s Soundsuit, which is currently on display. Cave’s use of unorthodox materials is an attention grabber that uses objects familiar to young children. It also encourages young children to open their minds and be creative.
Varied materials can also be beneficial to the young learner because they appeal to more than just the sense of sight. A few years ago, Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color and Space captivated the whole school because it was just that – suprasensorial. Young children learn better when all of their senses are engaged. Children reacted to and interacted with these artworks through sight, sound, touch and smell. Teachers used that space to explore color, light, lines and even swimming.

For young audiences, the layout of a museum or gallery can be almost as important as the lesson. Early childhood educators generally look for large spaces with little distraction and the Hirshhorn has all of that. Their spacious galleries make it easy for our teachers to have a circle and not block other visitors. The floorplan’s circular flow makes it easy and fun to move around. Teachers also commented on the building’s architecture and how its shape and outdoor sculpture appeal visually to our students. The fountain was also high on the list of why the children liked going there. (see our blog on fountains and learning spaces).

Having fun exploring the newly opened galleries.

Having fun exploring the newly opened galleries.

On Thursday, I headed over to see the newly opened galleries and I was not disappointed! This piece entitled The Dangerous Logic of Wooing basically sums up why the Hirshhorn is so appealing to young audiences – playful, imaginative and whimsical. What more could you want?

Sensory Learning – What and Why?

Have you scrolled through Pinterest lately and seen all the preschool or parenting boards related to sensory play? Usually it involves some beautifully crafted photos featuring a young child participating in a hands-on activity, but sensory learning is so much more than just getting dirty. As the name suggest, it is learning through the senses. Often times, it is related to the sense o

Sensory Play

f touch, i.e finger painting, water table, playing with sand. Sensory learning is not limited to touch and can encompass all the senses.

Why bother with all of this – children and adults learn best through their senses. Sensory learning also helps children retain information. Think about it this way: if you are cooking and your child inquires about the rosemary you are using you can, A: simply describe it as something that adds flavor to your dish or, B: hand some over and give them the opportunity touch, smell and examine it. I can guarantee that your child will be able to recount their rosemary experience better if they are given the sensory option.

Once a child begins to explore something through their serosemarynses, a lot of other things can happen. They can use the experience to practice and build upon their vocabulary. Ask them questions: “What color is it?; How does it feel?; What does it smell like?. A parent can also enhance this experience by adding objects that can be used for comparison purposes. , Add parsley, for example, and encourage basic math skills by asking them to find shapes or compare the size of the two herbs. You can also stimulate critical thinking by adding elements like, scissors or water. These elements prompt children to conduct experiments: i.e. “What will happen if I cut the rosemary – will it still smell? or, What will the rosemary feel like when I pour water on it? Adding these components not only gets them to investigate and hypothesize, it also gives them the chance to practice their fine motor skills. Cutting and pouring are everyday tasks that they hope to master one day and using these skills will also aid in developing the coordination required for writing.

You can take the sensory experience a step further by adding some art supplies too. Put out some glue and construction paper, but don’t give them explicit instructions. Let them be inspired to create what comes to their mind. You’d be surprised at what they can come up with! Finally, try including a friend or sibling in the experience, which will encourage social interaction and compel them to practice taking turns and listening to one another. It also encourages them to work as a team and build on each others ideas.penguins food

So the next time you see a beautifully crafted sensory experience pop up on your Pinterest feed, don’t feel daunted. Remember, sensory learning can happen organically during the course of the day and you can add to the experience by simply including common art tools and other found objects in and around the home. Too busy to clean it up? Don’t worry leaving it out for awhile and letting your child return to the materials will actually enhance the experience.

Parents Are Part of the Class Too

Besides being an educator for the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center, I am also a mom. I know all too well what it is like to be unsure of oneself as a parent. That is one of the reasons we have set up our programs with the parent in mind. We want to encourage your confidence as a parent and, as your child’s first teacher.

One of the ways we do this is by encouraging one-on-one _MG_4086interaction during the museum visit. Often we ask parents to lead simple activities in the galleries that are open-ended and encourage observation and conversation. For example, we might ask infant/toddler parents to find all the boats in a gallery space or simply describe an object. If it seems odd to talk about having conversations with your little one, remember recent research is making direct correlations between how much a parent talks to their child and their literacy.

_MG_0715_72dp_webiPreschooler families might be asked to create a story  or make a list of questions they have about an object. In both of these scenarios, we are encouraging independent thinking, literacy and providing time for you and your child to learn together. It is also giving the parent practice having  open-ended conversations and ideas of how to use museums when there is not an educator around.

All of our classes include a classroom component, where teachers have carefully thought out and prepared art projects, dramatic play areas and sensory experiences. The classroom experience is less structured and gives you and your child time to explore their interests. In order to help our parents make the most of their time, we make the following suggestions:


1. Let your child choose the activity and how long they want to stay at that activity.
2. There is really no wrong way to do something – let them be creative and get dirty.
3. If they are frustrated, ask them if they want help. Otherwise, let them solve the problem on their own.
4. While you observe your infant, narrate what they are doing. Ask older children about what they are doing or why they made certain choices.

With these guidelines, parents can feel confident that they are giving their child autonomy and encouraging their interests. They are also giving them space to figure out problems on their own – this will lead to more confidence.

Are there things that you struggle with as a parent when participating in classes with your child? Let us know, we would be happy to help.




What is a Smithsonian Early Explorer?

Recently SEEC and the National Museum of Natural History formed a new partnership. We are already lucky enough to have two spaces inside this amazing museum and now, we will be offering a very special program in NMNH’s Q?rius jr. Discovery Room. This brand new early learning initiative, Smithsonian Early Explorers (SEE), builds on SEEC’s 25 years of success combining the best in early learning practice and the rich environments of the Smithsonian Institution. A small cohort of young learners, together with their caregivers, will have access to the best of the Smithsonian Institution and a curriculum focused on STEAM: science, technology, engineering, art and math.

Here’s a small taste of what to expect.



Free Play

Learn More

Smithsonian Early Explorers FAQ’s
Cynthia Raso: rasoc@si.edu or 202-633-0121

Fountain Fun

DSCN3881Pools, beaches, lakes, sprinklers…it’s that time again! Children all over the US are enjoying summer-time to its fullest and likewise, parents are looking for water-inspired activities. Here in DC, we are lucky enough to have a number of public fountains that are both beautiful and refreshing. Fountains capture the imagination of children, so why not take this opportunity to create a learning experience?

Duckling FountainInfants
Infants often have mixed feelings about water, it can be both scary and exhilarating. Why not introduce them to water through their senses, especially sight, sound and touch. Simply draw their attention to different aspects of the fountain.

  • Do they hear that sound? Mimic the roar of the fountain.
  • Describe the color of the water.
  • Connect the fountain to the actual feeling of water by getting their hands wet.
  • At home, identify other places where you might find water and remind them of their visit to the fountain.


Toddlers are excited by new things and fountains are no exception. Take the time to explore the fountain and ask simple questions about its design:

  • What direction is the water moving?
  • Is there water that is still, where?
  • From where do you think the water is coming?
  • What else do you see besides water?
  • Do you see any pictures or decorations?
  • Try making your own fountain at home with a hose and baby pool.

Preschool and UpFirefly Fountains

By now your child has seen a few fountains and you can begin to investigate the concept further. Here are some fun multidisciplinary ideas:
  • Rainbows, light and water. This blog has some nice experiments you can easily duplicate.
  • Experiment with force and getting water to move in a certain direction. You can even perform this experiment at home if you are feeling adventurous.
  • Discuss why fountains are used: are they pretty, do they help us remember something, are they for cooling off, do people seem to like them?
  • Ask them to choose a location in your community and design their own fountain.

Favorite DC Fountains

Fountain at the Hirshhorn

Fountain at the Hirshhorn

  • Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
  • National Museum of American History (Constitution Ave. Entrance)
  • US Navy Memorial Plaza
  • National Gallery of Art
  • National Museum of the American Indian
  • Senate Fountain
  • WWII Memorial Rainbow Pool
  • Bartholdi Fountain
  • What is your favorite community fountain? Leave us a message!

    Ready Set Go

    Post by Betsy Bowers, Director of the Center for Innovation in Early Learning
    As another school year comes to a close and we begin to say farewell to the many children who have spent the past 5 years or so with us, it’s hard not to wonder what’s ahead for them. Our educators tirelessly support SEEC students as we help them make sense of the world, love learning and grow into thoughtful young citizens. Over the course of this past year, a group of SEEC educators discussed what our students should be able to do when they leave SEEC.

    Critical thinking and analysis.

    Critical thinking and analysis.

    There’s quite a long list. A few of the things we agreed on were that our students should leave SEEC being able to solve problems, be responsible, take risks, understand their role in the community and their ability to affect change, have compassion, respect and empathy for others, and communicate their ideas.

    It’s a lot to ask a 5 year old if they know how to solve a problem or be responsible, because of course they will say, “yes.” We are, after all, working on having them leave SEEC with self confidence so a positive response is expected. Because I wanted to find out if our 5 year olds are entering Kindergarten as independent thinkers, I asked a few of them this more indirect question: “If I told you that five of your friends wanted you to climb up the Washington Monument so that you could jump off, what would you say?” One student gave me an odd look and responded, “That’s not really a good idea.” One student did say, “Yes.” We’ll hope that she has some clever ideas about how to do that safely. One student simply said, “Ouch,” while a few others were much too busy to want to elaborate and so responded with a “no.”

    Ability to share ideas.

    Ability to share ideas.

    The response, though, that reminds us that all these skills are intertwined and expands our notion of “independent thinking” was this – “Only if we could jump off like a cannonball and onto a big trampoline!” Of course, why didn’t I think of that?

    Here’s hoping that this playfulness, creativity, critical thinking and overall healthy outlook on the world that we have worked so hard to nurture is embraced by our elementary school colleagues and the world. Good luck, dear friends, as you now go and bravely pursue life.

    Self esteem and confidence.

    Self esteem and confidence.


    Summer Fun: Building Collections with Your Child

    If you have a child in elementary school, they have probably come home with some sort of summer packet. I’ve seen the “packet” take various forms: from a list of innovative ways to encourage reading to a dull packet of worksheets. Either way, parents and educators alike want to encourage learning outside of school and during a time that has been characterized as the “summer slide.”  I hope some of the ideas on how to build a collection will inspire your family to engage in playful learning this summer. Adjust as you see fit for age and your schedule.
    household objects
    Flower Parts
    Looking at flowers
    1. Choose a topic in which your child is interested and then find a space in your home where you can place a table and don’t mind hanging things on the wall.
    2. Begin building your collection by visiting your local library and selecting several books.
    3. Find other toys and household items that you don’t mind donating to the cause.
    4. Use these items in a way that they can explore them with their senses, i.e. what does the flower smell like or what sound do seeds make in a bottle. Also allow them to manipulate the toys or objects so they are using they are able to discover how things work and practice their fine motor skills.
    5. Build a model, draw pictures and display.
    6. Add vocabulary words.
    7. Take it outside of the home and “experience” the topic, i.e. pick flowers or keep a journal of flowers you see during your day.
    8. Take to the community and visit a museum, local store, etc. Take pictures and post in the collection area.

    Helpful Hints

    • Collect, create and display together!
    • Keep the collection at their height.
    • When they are ready, change it up or expand on the topic, i.e. flowers – gardening – water cycle.
    • Let them come and go on their own and edit along the way.
    • Have fun!