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

Classroom Snapshot: All that Jazz

Our four’s camp was in full swing with their study of jazz this past month. Even though it is summer, our SEEC teachers are still thinking of innovative and creative ways to bring our museum objects to life. As a museum educator who spends a lot more time behind the computer than in front of the classroom these days, I was very jealous of all the fun the four’s were having.

JAZZ 1

The week begins with a study of jazz instruments at the National Museum of American History.

JAZZ 2

The whole class made it up to the National Portrait Gallery where they learned about Duke Ellington and made some jazz gumbo!

Next up: Billie Holiday. The class explored the voice as an instrument.

Next up: Billie Holiday. The class explored the voice as an instrument.

 

After all that learning, the kids played with some instruments of their own and created their own jazz ensemble.

The kids played with some instruments and created their own jazz ensemble.

These lessons take place over a period of time and typically take shape as teachers discover and nurture the interests of their students. If you have questions or comments, please let us know. We see our teaching practice as constantly evolving.

Educators: Want to learn more about working with museums and early childhood audiences, please visit our list of professional development offerings.

Parents: These snapshots  can give you some great ideas of how to use museums with your children. You can also enroll in one of our weekend classes  or  our 2-day/week program for toddlers and experience it firsthand!

 

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:

_MG_4125_web

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.

 

 

 

Saturdays with SEEC Teachers

Posted on behalf of SEEC two year old teacher Javasa Finney:

Javasa at the Hirshhorn with SEEC's two year old class.

Javasa at the Hirshhorn with SEEC’s two year old class.

This spring I decided to volunteer with the museum education team at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center (SEEC) to help out with the weekend family workshops. I currently teach in one of the two year old classesthere and was interested in seeing how the experience changes once parents are involved, in the classroom and museum visit.

During the workshops I worked with the infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. The theme for the infants/toddlers was “Tiny Gardeners” and in these classes the children had the opportunity to explore flowers and gardens. The theme for the older toddlers and two year olds was, “Where Does it Come From” which focused on exploring different foods and the origins of food. Every week we met at the Natural History Museum and then headed to the museum where we would find out the topic for the day by focusing on a particular object, exhibit or art work. _MG_4180After our visits, we headed back to the SEEC classrooms for some hands-on activities related to our topic of the day. Time in the classroom was spent, planting, cooking, painting, reading, singing, and additional play. It was also wonderful to see the children socializing and making new friends.

In the museum the children did a fantastic job. They all seemed very curious and ready to explore. Everyone was respectful of the exhibits and stayed together as a group. We were often even able to sit down together to share a story and hands-on objects while we were inside the museum. Everyone seemed captivated and engaged. During our trips we visited exhibits that were directly related to what our topic for that day was. Some of the museums we visited during the four weeks include the American History Museum, Freer Gallery, the Botanic Gardens and National Gallery of Art.

As I reflect upon my time in the family workshops, I have many great memories. It was great to see the children so involved at the end of the session that they didn’t want to leave. Since several of our families return from one session to the next, I imagine that they are also finding the experiences together both meaningful and memorable as well. Museums have so much to offer, they are inspiring and educating. They are great for introducing new topics or re-enforcing facts. The most wonderful thing I saw during my time volunteering at the family workshops was the parents and children bonding, learning, and discovering new things together at the museum. What a wonderful way to spend a Saturday morning!_MG_4086 SEEC’s infant, toddler and pre-k Family Workshops will start up again in the fall. We hope to see you there!

Pondering Play

NMAH PG

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

Upcoming Teacher Workshop

LTOWell, we have made it to January. That delightful in between month—the month where we leave the stretch of holiday breaks behind and take a deep breath before the chaos of spring begins. Our students are settling back into familiar routines but experiencing the expected adjustments that time away from school brings. As educators, we too are experiencing the adjustment, searching for renewed inspiration in the face of the winter blues, unpredictable weather, and in my case, growing preschoolers. It seems almost daily one of my students leaves early for their five year preschool check-up.

We are also in the period of resolutions: Join the gym. Use your phone less. Sleep more. Build up your savings. Be more creative in the classroom or museum. In the midst of the screaming gym ads and hyper students, come join us for some respite and rejuvenation. SEEC is offering a space to renew your creativity, collaborate with peers, and take some deep breaths. Our premier seminar, Learning Through Objects, is almost upon us (February 27th & 28th). This seminar brings together educators from a diverse set of learning environments such as classrooms, museum galleries, and cultural centers. Presented by our staff and representing work from our 25 years of learning with young children in museums, LTO may be the perfect antidote to the winter doldrums.

A LTO alum wrote of her experience, “I walked away not only refreshed and inspired, but also with a variety of ideas for how I can incorporate museums, objects, and artist studies into my classroom teaching. I am looking forward to sharing the lesson plan and field trip ideas I learned with my colleagues and of course to sharing the activities themselves with my students.” Additionally, for those in the DC area, LTO is accredited by the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education and counts as CEUs. Come be renewed, come be refreshed, and check one or two of your resolutions of the list. We look forward to seeing you.

LTO_2

Full registration info can be found here. Keep that “save money” resolution as well, register before February 14th for our Early Bird Rate and plug in discount code SEECPD14 for an additional 10% off!

Onwards!

Kindergartners and Exhibit Design, Part I

That there is a national emphasis on the value of early childhood education goes without saying.  So it makes good sense that museums are starting to think more about how they serve this audience.  At the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center, our students generally visit museums 3-5 times a week; it’s a space in which they are comfortable and familiar.  So when  staff at the National Museum of American History wanted to understand more about how young children interact with exhibits, they thought of SEEC.  Through a series of discussions, the staff agreed upon using Little Golden Books, an exhibit with obvious kid-appeal, to examine how children felt about their exhibit design.  Similarly, SEEC wanted to see the exhibit through the eyes of their students in order to inform our own teaching practices and professional development.  Finally, we decided to experiment with SEEC’s Kindergarten class because, at the end of the year, they will be asked to create their very own exhibitions.  The experience seemed like a great way to support their endeavor.

ClassCircleWe planned two visits to the exhibit.  The first visit was simply to familiarize the students with the content and the layout of the space.  Prior to going to the museum, Sara Cardello, Museum Educator, planned an interactive, hands-on lesson in which the students identified parts of the exhibit; i.e. object, case, label etc. and introduced them to Golden Books.  Almost all of them immediately recognized the Golden Books and were anxious to share their personal stories with the class.

Museum1

We headed over to the exhibit and first, met with the exhibit designer.  We then took turns walking through the exhibit in small groups, each with either a classroom or museum educator.  During that time, the children got to look and ask questions.  Educators came prepared with specific questions to encourage them to think about the exhibit.  Below are some of the questions and some of their answers.

What do you see, notice, or what is the exhibit showing you?

  • Really old books
  • TV screen helps us read the booksExhibit2
  • Some of the books have interesting ideas
  • Each display case has a theme: doctor, transportation, mining, cooking
  • Measurements along the sides of the larger illustrations
  • Really old (again)
  • Some are dusty
  • Some are new
  • Golden strip


What do you hear?

  • Wanted to hear the stories
  • Kind of loud because we are all in here
  • No music
  • Too loud
  • Conversations about all of our observations

What are you learning, thinking about, what would you add?

  • Who is in the picture with Mickey and Donald?
  • Beautiful, looks painted
  • I see some letters, and I see the same letters, but different pictures (referring to Little Golden Books)
  • I would add a kids book, like Toy Story 3, even though these are kids books
  • I would add toys that you see in the books to play with

Who is the exhibit for, who would like this exhibit?

  • Me and my mom would like this, she read these books
  • My grandma likes to read
  • Grandma and grandpa would like them because they haven’t seen them in years
  • Bullies would not like it because they do not like books
  • Giants would be too big and they like to break stuff

In addition to these questions, we had some open-ended discussions based on their responses to the objects.  Here is an example of one such discussion. 

When looking at the case displaying the Here Comes the Parade the students quickly identified Donald Duck and Mickey, but were stumped when it came to Howdy Doody.  This was a great time for us to look at the label and see if we could get some more information.  Although the name didn’t ring a bell, it did give us a chance to talk about when the book was made and how our parents or grandparents might know about this character.  I asked this group if they could tell me where they thought the characters were and after some investigation, they concluded it was a parade.  This line of inquiry prompted me to share my own experiences watching the parade on Thanksgiving morning.  This encouraged others to share their own Thanksgiving traditions and/or recollections of parades.  It was a great conversation and before we knew it, we had been standing at that case for close to 10 minutes, which is considerable for a Kindergartner.

Following the visit to the exhibit, we had a chance to debrief as a whole group (there are 18 students in the class).  Below is a glimpse of that discussion. 

What did you notice?WrapUp2

  • A new book, Little Red Hen
  • An interesting book about cars
  • A girl cleaning up
  • Boy and girl playing doctor
  • I noticed #65 on one of the books

Who would like this exhibit?

  • Grandma and grandpa would like it because they haven’t seen them in years
  • Grandma and grandpa would like the books because they would remember them
  • Moms and dads like books, they would like to visit

How did you feel about the exhibit?

  • Really like it because they are lots of interesting books to see
  • Cool. Cool books, cool answers, moms and dads would like it too
  • I felt surprised when I saw the spine but then I realized that’s why it’s called Golden Books

What would you add or change?WrapUp1

  • More books!
  • Add books that you might know
  • You could bring your own Golden Books once you were done with them
  • Add a book or a chair to look at books
  • I love Golden Books
  • I would add airplanes, they are more interesting
  • I would add my own books

What questions do you have for the curator or designer?

  • Why did you choose Golden Books?
  • Why do they make Golden Books?
  • Dinosaurs are big and you have to think about cases and storage, you have to think about the size of objects for exhibits

How much did it cost to build this exhibit?

  • $100 because books can break easily
  • $60 because book are expensive
  • $15 because it is a really big exhibit

Smithsonian Pre-K Classes

Renaissance Composition 2

Acting out a Renaissance Composition

In our first blog, I talked about what the museum education department does at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center. Just to recap, we have two educators who work specifically with our classes here at the lab school. Our director, Betsy Bowers, heads our professional development efforts (more on that later) and my main responsibility is to promote and coordinate our outreach efforts for families who are not enrolled in the school.

Comparing Jackson Pollock paintings

Comparing Jackson Pollock paintings

With Labor Day in our sights, I thought it was the perfect time to take a look ahead at what we are doing for our community families. Last year, we started offering preschool courses. These courses took place over a four-week period, meeting Saturday mornings. Each course had a theme (more information) and met for two hours. In the first portion of our morning, we would do some sort of introductory activity. This activity ranged from exploring a discovery box featuring cultural objects to comparing two paintings. Almost always these activities were meant to be done independently, meaning child and caretaker working together separate from the teacher. (These classes are very literally family classes, so caretakers play an important role). After our initial work, we would come together in a circle to discuss what they had done. Our discussion led us to an introduction to the museum visit.  

Cary teaching

Using hands-on objects to teach in the galleries

After bathroom breaks and the putting on of coats, we head to the museum for what is typically a 20-30 minute visit to one to two objects. During our visits, we use hands-on objects to engage the children in a multi-sensory experience and inquiry to guide the conversation. Museum educators are likely familiar with these approaches of object-based learning and the inquiry method. For educators who are unfamiliar with these approaches, let me suggest SEEC’s line of professional development seminars and/or MOMA’s inquiry course offered through Coursera (just completed it myself, very informative).

F2003.2

Freer Gallery of Art
Shiva Nataraja, ca. 990
Chola Dynasty, India
Bronze
Purchase–Margaret and George Haldeman, and Museum funds F2003.2

After our visit, we head back to the classroom where we wrap up with a final project.While it’s most often an art project, I do not limit myself to that platform. This is extremely helpful for two reasons; first, sometimes it is not developmentally appropriate for children to recreate the art they have just seen and second, sometimes it’s not culturally sensitive to recreate the art either. A good example of the first scenario is when I did a lesson on the Renaissance and I wanted to talk about composition. They were not up for the challenge of creating a masterpiece that depicted, balance, dynamism and fluidity. However, they could connect to these concepts by acting out their own birthday party photo and seeing the results. And when we do our class on Hinduism and visit the Freer’s Shiva Nataraja, we opt to look at videos of Bharatnatyam dance, do a sample of mudras and keep a beat with bells on our ankles. All activities are meant to build upon the concepts introduced through the lesson in a way that is interactive and self-directed.

This year we also offering infant and toddler class, so keep an eye out for future blogs about these audiences. In the meantime, let me know what is working for you with young audiences in your museum!

Building Meaning for Young Children in the Museum

still lifeWhen it comes to teaching young children using the collections along the National Mall, there are some obvious candidates; Wayne Thiebaud’s cakes or traditional still lifes at the National Gallery of Art and the Mammal Hall at the National Museum of Natural History.  But, what about objects that seem less approachable from a young child’s perspective.  Do we forgo teaching about them altogether? And if we do decide to take that leap, how do we approach it?  It’s a question we consider a lot at SEEC and in effort to understand the process a little better, I share this story.

ImageA few months ago, I was teaching a course for children, ages 3-5 on different genres of art; portraiture, landscape, etc.  It occurred to me that the art of the book would be a nice topic to add to the curriculum.  I had for a long time reserved the theme of Islamic art to classes I taught for early elementary-aged children. But, I love the Freer’s collection of Islamic book art and so,  I decided to take the plunge.  Typically I correlate the beauty of the art form with the importance of the Koran in Islamic culture, but with 3-year olds as my target audience, I had to rethink that strategy.  I was plagued by questions: How do I define religion?  How do I explain the meaning of a holy book?  How do I address the topic by respecting different traditions?.  Basically, how do I teach about these objects without overlooking their cultural significance, but in a way that is developmentally appropriate?

The answer was: exposure.  Early learning often takes the form of introducing students to something new.  By simply visiting the Koran pages in the Freer, we were bringing to light a new concept.  To help them understand the unfamiliar, I built on their own knowledge of books.  Before heading to the museum, we looked at classic children’s books and discussed their different features, specifically; text, pictures and the front cover.   I featured a song that helped them remember these and by the time we got to the Freer, the children were able to identify the Koran pages as pages that would be in a book.  They also noticed the writing and easily observed that it was different from the letters we saw in our classroom books.  With a picture of the Arabic and Roman alphabets in hand, we explored the visual differences between them.  For many, the knowledge of more than one alphabet was novel.  They also compared their classroom books and noticed that the illustrations often included people and the Koran pages illuminations did not.   Armed with real flowers and leafs, we explored the similarities between these objects and the Arabesques on the pages of the Koran.  Finally, we looked at examples of book covers and talked about how we had to put the pages together to form a single book.

It felt like a good lesson, but I still had a nagging feeling that I wasn’t do the subject justice. That was when a colleague reminded me that over the course of their development and education, these children would, hopefully, return to the Freer or another museum and build on their knowledge of the Koran and Islamic art, in general.

ImageCertainly, we see that happening with students enrolled in the SEEC program.  When they pass Henry, the elephant in the Natural History rotunda as babies they are learning to identify him as an elephant.  By the time they are toddlers, they can recreate the sound elephants make and most will be able to show you from where that sound comes.  As they reach the age of two, they can learn more specifics like what Henry eats or where he lives.  By the time they are in the Pre-K program, they have a solid foundation and are ready to explore more complex issues.

Instead of cramming a lot of information into one session, I focused on encouraging parents to return to the galleries on their own.  Letting caretakers know the importance of returning to the same object and seeing it from multiple perspectives became part of all my lessons.  It really sets the stage for multiple exposures over time, that will help children understand the complexities and nuances that are often in contained in just a single object.