A Playful Experiment

Originally posted May 2014:

This past week I had the chance to attend one of SEEC’s seminars: Play: Engaging Learners in Object Rich Environments. During the two-day workshop, we explored the meaning of play and how to use it when teaching with objects. We began the seminar by defining play as a group. Some of the key words were: fun, tools, free thought, child directed, social, emotional, intellectual. To help us articulate the discussion, we also read Museum Superheroes: The Role of Play in Yong Children’s Lives by Pamela Krakowski, which distinguishes play as:

active engagement, intrinsic motivation, attention to process rather than the ends, nonliteral (symbolic behavior) and freedom from external rules.1

I reflected on these concepts and how they related to my own teaching. I wondered how I could incorporate more play into my practice, especially when I was in the museums. I decided to try out some new play strategies on a recent visit to the National Gallery of Art with a group of preschoolers.

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Asher Brown Durand The Stranded Ship 1844 oil on canvas National Gallery of Art Gift of Ann and Mark Kington/The Kington Foundation through Millennium Funds 2003.71.1

My first playful endeavor was completely spontaneous. I began the discussion by asking the children to describe this painting by Asher Brown Durand. One  girl pointed toward the artwork and said:

The sun is always moving through the sky.

I took this opportunity to ask the rest of the class whether they had ever noticed the sun moving through the sky too. They immediately offered their own examples. At that moment, I decided we should play the Earth. I asked everyone to stand up and slowly turn their bodies. I grabbed a parent and had her stand in the center pretending to be the sun.  As we moved, I explained how it was actually the Earth’s rotation that made it look the sun was moving in the sky. This was a completely unexpected and child-initiated moment, which was great. I think it was the playful element though that really made the experience memorable. If I hadn’t asked the children to get up and pretend to be the Earth, they would have been less likely to understand and remember the concept of rotation. By having them participate in the experience the concept was made real, tangible.

Part of the seminar was inspired by our colleagues at Discovery Theater. This session was, as one would expect, more theater driven and honestly, really challenged me. As the class continued to describe the Durand painting, I added secondary questions to enliven the discussion. For example, when the ocean was observed, I asked them to show me with their bodies how the ocean was moving and then I asked them to make the sound of the waves.  The kids were happy to illustrate both for me so when it came time to talk about the clouds and wind, we added sound effects and movements again. These exercises captured the essence of the painting, encouraged different learning styles and made everything more fun.

photo 2 (3)As the last part of the object lesson, I laid out several objects and asked them to work together to recreate the painting. They needed no instruction, but went right to work, collaborating until the composition was complete. Was it exactly like the painting, no, but they had used these tools to create their OWN composition. They were quite proud and were completely engaged in the activity. I saw them looking back at the painting, rearranging objects and making their own decisions.

All in all, the visit felt playful and meaningful. I am continuing to think about how to make my lessons more playful and how play can be a tool for learning within the museum environment.  If you have any ideas, please share!!!!

1. Journal of Museum Education, Volume 37, number 1, Spring 2012, pp. 49-58.

Children are Citizens: A Collaboration with Project Zero (Part I)

Children are Citizens

Visiting the Smithsonian Castle

Visiting the Smithsonian Castle

On April 25, 2015 at the National Gallery of Art several DC schools, including SEEC, and Harvard’s Project Zero celebrated the launch of a book authored by over 300 students. The book was the result of a research and professional development project entitled: Children are Citizens: Children and Teachers Collaborating across Washington, D.C. The premise of this project is the belief that children are as much part of the community as their adult counterparts. They should not only be able to voice their opinions, but also participate in their community. Through their participation children will learn to see other’s points of view, work together, and understand how we are all interconnected, thus creating an informed and thoughtful citizenry who will become active participants in our democracy. To learn more about Project Zero and this collaboration visit here.

SEEC’s Role
The first phase of the project entailed some thoughtful discovery. Children and teachers had several conversations about what they thought of their city, what they would like to change, important people and places. The second phase culminated in a book where SEEC students focused on their relationship with the museums on the National Mall.

Three classes participated in this project—PreK3, PreK4 and Kindergarten. We will begin with the PreK4 class, also known as the Cinnamon Bears. Their section of the book focused on their favorite parts of the National Museum of African Art and the Smithsonian Castle and some insider tips, including that the Smithsonian Castle is not a real castle! It also featured a list of their favorite objects in the museums, a story entitled The Story of How the Security Officers Own the Museums and photos of museum collections taken by the children.

Below you will find the interview with Cinnamon Bear teacher, Carrie Heflin about her experience with the Children are Citizens project.

Carrie teaching

Carrie Heflin

What made you want to participate in this project?

Project Zero is such an influential presence in the Early Childhood community and I feel so strongly about encouraging children to be active citizens that when we were asked to participate in this project, my commitment was a no-brainer. I couldn’t have dreamed up a better idea for a worthwhile endeavor than to show the DC community and my students how capable and powerful they can be.

Could you describe the process through which your class participated in the project?

We spent a lot of time talking together as a class about our ideas for this project. Much like the process for the adult facilitators, at least the first fifty percent of the project was all planning and bouncing ideas around. We didn’t get to the actual field work—researching and putting together the data for the book until around February. I loved the sense of respect and community that I felt in the classroom when we had these discussions. It was so nice to take time to just talk about our feelings and opinions and to truly listen to each other.

Can you outline how this project was implemented in your classroom?

The teachers did most of the facilitation for this project. We started out with some casual discussions about the city and about the project and then moved on to talking about the book, how books are made, and what information we wanted to contribute to the final product. A member of the coordinating team, Ben Mardell, would stop by occasionally to check in on our progress and to talk with the students about their ideas and opinions on the project thus far. The last phase was the most active. We went to all the different museums we had chosen to showcase in our portion of the book and took pictures and gathered information in small groups.

How did the professional development portion of this project help or change your ideas of how to teach or connect children to the city in which they live?

I really enjoyed getting to know and hear ideas from educators at other schools. We got together about five different times over the course of the project and it was lovely to share our experiences and learn how other classrooms explore the city. I always left our meetings feeling so inspired about all of the wonderful ways other educators were making the city accessible to their students and it helped challenge me to reexamine the way I looked at the city and how I talked about it with my class.

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Bears Display at the NGA

The project seems to emphasize collaborations and discussion, is there a conversation you had among your students that really stands out?

One of my favorite conversations I had with the class happened after one of Ben Mardell’s visits. He had talked to a small group of students about the museums and they ended up starting a story about where the museums came from. Ben sent me the script of the conversation in an email and, when I read the story back to the class they all had something to add. Before long it had morphed into this origin story of how the museums came into being. I learned so much about my students and how they view our community. They had these wonderful ideas about how the security officers are the real owners of the museums and they protect them from all the “bad guys.” I was so taken with the story and the children were so invested in it that it ended up hedging out some other material that we had originally intended to include in the book and it is still my favorite part of our section.

How do you think your students views of DC changes during the course of the project?

I don’t know that their views changed so much as my views widened to include more of theirs. I don’t have any hard evidence of any of my students budging even an iota on their original convictions, but the sense of understanding we gained from each other and from all of our conversations and collaborations in the classroom strikes me as very profound- even if it wasn’t the original intent.

What was one of your more challenging moments during the process?

I was often challenged by trying to balance working on the project and teaching lessons on our current topic of study. I know some of the other schools that participated made the project their main focus rather than trying to add it on to their curriculum. I think I might try that track if I had it to do over again.

What was one of the most rewarding moments during the process?20150425_105806

The absolute most rewarding moment was at the book release event at the National Gallery of Art when I saw all of the students walking around wearing big red badges that said “Author” on them. The sense of pride, accomplishment and empowerment was palpable and I think that really was the point of the whole thing.

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

Easy At-Home Learning: Architecture

Why Architecture

As a parent, I am always on the look out for fun and easy learning opportunities. While I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, I noticed this great blog on shadows and I began to think more about architecture. We encounter architecture everyday– it is all around us. Whether we live in the city, suburbs or country – architecture is an essential component of our environment. And if you haven’t read any previous posts, SEEC staff has been busy thinking about the importance of environment and its impact on learning. Young children connect to architecture and at an early age, begin to notice its features. Don’t believe me….Well, just take a walk with a group of SEEC students across the Mall and ask them where their parents works. Inevitably, they will identify the museum by the building’s architecture. “My mommy works in the round one (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden).” or “Dad works in the one with a lot of glass (National Air and Space Museum).”

 

Seize the Moment

Maybe your child doesn’t spend their days in Washington, DC, but I bet they are noticing their own neighborhood. Ask them to think about their friend’s homes, can they identify a feature: color, shape, number of stories? What about their school? The first words out of my kid’s mouths when they set foot in their school cafeteria was, “There are a ton of windows.” Its true, one wall of their cafeteria is ceiling to floor windows that look out onto a wooded area. That feature made a strong impression and four years later, they continue to marvel at the fact these windows connect them to the outdoors. The point I am trying to make is simple: if your child notices these details seize the opportunity to take what they are interested in and run with it.

That is exactly what our teachers did in the set of photos below of our three-year old class last year. I specifically chose to highlight this lesson because I thought it would be easy to recreate at home and inspire your inner teacher. Keep in mind, I am not suggesting that after working a 10-hour day (whether it be in an office or at home) that you whip up a lesson plus museum visit (for on-the-spot ideas, see below), but it is something to keep in mind for a weekend. These ideas encourage your child’s imagination, include some simple math and gets them to think about design, engineering and even aesthetics.

Since SEEC is located near so many buildings that feature columns that seemed like an obvious element to discuss with the class.

Since SEEC is located near so many buildings that feature columns – they were the perfect element to discuss with the class. Using the tablet, helps them visualize the idea before the headed out for their museum visit.

An over-sized can was another convenient choice - something easily pulled from the kitchen.

An over-sized can was another convenient choice for the teachers who simply pulled it from the kitchen. Each child got a turn feeling the weight of the can. This is an important step so that they experience of the weight of the can.

The teacher places the can on her 2-column building with disappointing results.

The teacher places the can on her 2-column building, made simply of cardboard and blocks. Clearly, the results were disappointing.

It turns out that by adding two columns, the house will hold the can.

It turns out that by adding two more columns, the house will hold the can.

The kids get a chance to see the real thing at the National Archives.

The kids get a chance to see the real thing at the National Archives.

And inside the National Gallery of Art.

And inside the National Gallery of Art.

 

On-the-spot Ideas

Don’t have time or energy to plan – don’t worry. Here are a few simple, spontaneous ideas that will get your little one to notice the architecture in their neighborhood.

1. Ask them to count the number of windows/columns (or whatever feature interests them) and draw their shapes with their finger – identify the shapes.

2. Ask them what they like or dislike about a building or a particular part of it?

3. Ask them to draw what they see or use their imagination to draw a building.

5. Play with building blocks when you get home and design your own space.

5. Play “I spy” with a particular architectural feature while riding home and describe its physical characteristics.

Hoping these ideas inspire you to get out and learn with your little one!

New Classrooms: Welcoming Environments

The First Week of School

This week marks the start of a new school year at SEEC and I took the opportunity to walk around and see the classrooms. SEEC teachers have been working tirelessly over the past few weeks, so I was pretty excited to check out all their hard work. I was especially interested because the classroom environment has been a hot topic amongst my colleagues and over the course of the last year, I have really seen the teachers contemplating the meaning and importance of their surroundings. This shift was well illustrated in an earlier blog by one of our teachers entitled:  Rethinking the Environment

The Power of the Environment

As early childhood educators, we think about arranging classrooms in ways that make sense – i.e. put the art area next to the sink or don’t put a reading area next to a noisy music area. We also think about safety and logistics too — all important. But the environment can be so much more – it can be a comforting, soothing locale that inspires children to learn, create and gain independence. Teachers are challenging themselves to think about how their classroom can engage and empower their students. The question of environment is, of course, of much broader scope than this blog, but I thought it would be great to look at some photos of our classrooms to see how our teachers are thinking about their classroom environments.

 

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Research has proven that bright colors like red, yellow and orange, can often be over-stimulating. These colors solicit a calmer, more welcoming feeling.

photo 4

This cozy corner provides a space for reading and a nook where a child can deal with feelings of frustration or anger. The canopy makes it feel especially protected and the green pillows evoke nature and feelings of calm.

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These photos were posted along a seated area in one of our toddler rooms. It portrays something that all children can relate to from multiple perspectives adding a multicultural component.

"Computer lab" has never looked so good. The bench and the table are the perfect height for the 4's intro to technology.

“Computer lab” has never looked so good. The perfectly sized bench and table encourage the four’s to tinker with the computer.

Visual reminders of how a preK class wants to approach apologies.

These visual cues help SEEC’s preK class remember their classroom conversations about apologies.

Your Feedback

Teachers – do you have a space you are particularly proud of? Please share it with us. Museum educators – we would also love to see photos of learning spaces in your museums.

You Teach Art History to Preschoolers?

Written by Carrie Heflin

Art History

The lesson on emeralds.

Twenty five thousand years ago our rapidly-evolving ancestors discovered a network of caverns in the region currently known as Lascaux, France. What they did there made an indelible mark on our species and our planet.

For most of our early years, man was focused solely on our own existence. But these images on the walls of the caves at Lascaux were created by human hands. We don’t know why they were created or by whom. All we know is that, as our most ancient ancestors spent hours in the dark musty interior of the caves at Lascaux recording the world around them in a way that would preserve their thoughts and feelings for thousands of generations to come.

Today we seem to have lost sight of this earliest vision of our forefathers. As we slash budgets, we often do so at the expense of museums and their programming, art classes in schools, and extracurricular activities. Art and its history are not just some frill belonging to the upper one percent of modern society. They are an element of our most basic nature- a calling in our souls.

I am in my third year as a pre-kindergarten teacher at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center and I use my art history degree every day as part of the curriculum. I teach my children to be critical thinkers and careful observers from early on.

The Wizard of OzLooking at a pair of emerald earrings.

One of the first topics we explored at the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year was Frank L. Baum’s timeless classic, The Wizard of Oz. We talked about everything Oz, from men made out of tin, to things that melt when they get wet. At the end of the unit I had two anecdotes that reaffirmed for me that the way that I implement art as an educational tool in my classroom is vital. The first was from a mother who had spent the weekend trying to design her family’s annual Christmas card with her two sons. As they sat in front of the computer trying various filters on the images, her older son became intent on using the dreaded sepia tone filter that makes everyone look like they’re in an amusement park Wild West saloon shoot. To appease him the mother clicked on the sepia option and her younger son (who is my student) immediately pointed at the screen and yelled, “Hey, it looks like we’re in Kansas!” This comment refers back to the first week we studied Oz almost a month prior when we went to the Hirshhorn Museum to look at two Wall Drawings by Sol Lewitt. One piece was in color and the other on the opposite wall was in black and white. We explored the art and how it was created and then we talked about how different color schemes make us feel and how the filmmakers in the Wizard of Oz used this concept to show viewers how Dorothy felt in Kansas.

The second comment was made during a morning circle on the letter “B.” We asked the students to think of words that started with “B” and one boy called out “beryl!” We asked him if he remembered what beryl is and he exasperatedly explained that everyone knows it’s the main ingredient in emeralds. He is four. Did you know what beryl was before you read this paragraph?

As much as I would like to tell you that they are, my students are not all geniuses. They are not smarter because their parents read to them in utero or played Baby Einstein movies in their nurseries. They are able to process and retain knowledge because they have learned critical thinking skills the likes of which I was still honing in high school. They answer open-ended questions with thoughtfulness and clarity that floors me on a daily basis and they remember what they have learned and apply it to their future endeavors. These are the skills that we as educators strive to instill in our students because they are the tools to success. Being able to analyze and apply what you have learned is the only thing that makes knowledge useful.

Conquering the climber with our hand-crafted emerald vision spy glasses.I firmly believe that the work we do in the museums is the key to unlocking these skills at such an early age. Every day I see my students connect with art and with objects. I see their eyes light up when I tell them stories of people who felt and questioned long, long ago and who made beautiful wonderful things that we can see and explore today. I hear their questions as we wander the halls of our nation’s most expansive art collections- “Why is that so blue? Who made those statues? Is that a sculpture or a painting? Is that Hermes or Zeus?”- and I watch them implement their knowledge in their play. My students have used dress up to be French flaneurs and turned our climbing structure into a ship sailing to see Claude Monet and Edgar Degas. They can tell you who the Neanderthals were and what their favorite Shakespeare play is. They are sensitive and passionate and insatiable learners. My greatest fear is that they will leave our school and become less curious and more focused, less passionate and more dedicated to trying to memorize information and facts.

Final ThoughtsLooking at Elizabethan clothes at the beginning of the Shakespeare unit.

As we rang in 2014 the Smithsonian was preparing itself for budget cuts that may have required our nineteen museums to close one day a week for an indefinite period of time. One day a week, we were told, we might not be able to go see the art. While it was only one day, it felt like the beginning of something very big and very bad. When the largest and most renowned museum network in our country is forced to consider closing its doors it seems like only a matter of time before other institutions must follow suit. It didn’t end up happening, thankfully, but it did make me want to sit down and put my thoughts to paper. I didn’t write this article to protest government budget cuts.

There are already plenty of people doing that. I just hope that what I have to say can make my fellow educators stop and think about the enormity of the task before us and I want to offer a suggestion for a way to make it more manageable. Use the mistakes and triumphs of our species’ long and winding path to show your students a better way into the future. Don’t let those critical thinking skills that we worked so hard to develop be lost on a future generation of people with endless knowledge at their fingertips, because the more we depend on our gadgets for answers the less we will seek them ourselves. Instead, use the tools that you have been given- tablets, projectors, laptops, and yes, museums to encourage your students to seek out and interpret knowledge. Immerse yourselves in the passion of human creation and discovery and you will be amazed the places it will take all of you.

Sensory Learning – What and Why?

Sensory PlayHave 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 of 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.