Smithsonian Early Explorers

We are about embark on our fourth year of the Smithsonian Early Explorers program. The upcoming anniversary is a little bittersweet as some of our long-time families are leaving the program and moving on to preschool. The toddlers who began this program have grown into competent three-year-olds who are capable, empathetic, and ready for their next big adventure. The adults will also be missed as they have become part of our SEEC community and really helped us reflect on the overall program.

To celebrate the development and growth of the program and it’s students, I thought it would best to tell the story of SEE through photos in the hopes of capturing what makes this program so unique.1

Like many early education programs, we begin our day with a schedule. SEE also includes a “Question of the day.” Our belief is that asking questions can lead to a life-long habit of analysis and critical thinking. These questions also help caretakers who are not present learn about their child’s day.

Each morning we invite our students to play and often include real objects or materials.  This helps create authentic experiences that support a child’s physical, cognitive, and emotional growth. By including real objects, children can have concrete experiences that engage their senses. The photo here shows a lesson in which children explored different types of green as part of a larger study on forests.

We also create imaginative spaces using traditional toys. Our class meets in the Natural History museum’s Q?rius Jr. space and our educators are thoughtful to design a learning environment that encourages imagination and creativity.  We also believe in getting dirty and having fun.

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Another cornerstone of our program is routine. Each morning the children look forward to ringing the bowl to indicate it is time to gather. Following that, we welcome each other with a our hello song. We often choose books that are regularly reread over the course of the trimester. As the children become familiar with a piece of literature, they delight in knowing what will come next and matching photos to the text. When we depart for snack and our museum visit, the children get on “trains.” They hear the sound of the whistle and know that they need to grab an adult hand and walk safely to their next destination. These routines help the children feel safe, know what to expect, and help the whole group transition.

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We are a museum school and therefore, regularly visit the museums on the National Mall. Learning in museums can be beneficial to young children especially because they are better able to learn when they connect more concretely with subject matter that they actually experience. SEE does not limit itself though – we see our classroom as extending beyond the National Mall and museums. Some of our highlights this year were the DC Circulator and the National Arboretum. We also take advantage of new exhibitions even when they don’t tie into the curriculum, as was the case with the Kusama show at the Hirshhorn Museum. Really, who could pass up such a fun experience?!

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We believe in play and we believe it should happen in museums. I know for some that might seem contradictory to museum etiquette, but we believe that play can and should happen in museums. With some forethought it can be done successfully with young children. Below you will observe how bringing some loose parts allowed one child to build a structure of his own. He was no doubt inspired by the house on view in the American History gallery where he was You can also see how we transformed a lesson on maple leaves into a game of placing leaves onto a tree. Finally, and perhaps one of my favorites, watch both the children and adults have fun practicing their penguin walk at the Natural History Museum.

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SEE is a program that not only supports the child, but the parent/child relationship. Our educators help parents in their role as their child’s first teacher. We try to educate our parents on issues of child development and assist them as they navigate specific situations with their child. Caretaking is hard work and we use daily interactions, weekly emails, and conferences as ways to help parents navigate these early years.

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It takes a village and SEE is a community which relies on it’s families and staff to help cultivate a diverse learning experience and strong community. Below are just a few examples: one grandmother shares her sticky rice after viewing bowls from the Sackler Gallery, our resident science educator, and retired entomologist, shares his expertise and live specimens, a small potluck marks the end of a trimester, and one child focuses during their monthly visit to our art studio.

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We are proud of the Early Explorers program for not only its use of museums, but its approach to educating the whole child, supporting families, and creating community. We wish our graduates well and look forward to meeting our new students in the fall!

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Do you have a child who will be between the ages of 18 – 24 months this fall? You may want to consider joining the SEE program. We are hosting our Prospective Student Day on May 24. During the day, we invite families to participate in the program to experience it for themselves and have the opportunity to talk to other families. Join us by registering here.

 

 

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.
table
  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 tohousehold objects 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. Flower PartsBuild 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. Looking at flowersTake 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!

 

 

 

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!!

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).

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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!

CREATING COLLECTIONS WITH YOUNG CHILDREN

Do you have a collection? What do you collect? If you are leaning toward “no”, think again.

On June 14th we ran our day-long seminar for professional development, Creating Collections with Young Children. After establishing soap, tea, buttons, and cooking pots are all valid collections we moved on to the Why?

Why do you collect?   Is it to preserve a memory of a moment? Is it because youwere inexplicably drawn to an item? Is it out of function? Or something you’ve just done for so long you don’t know anymore?   Weather it’s a stack of family photos, a closet of shoes, stickers for scrapbooking, or trinkets from your childhood, they all tell a story.

As humans, collecting is part of our hardwiring. From the days of our hunter-gather ancestors, we still use that natural instinct to process, categorize, and understand our world. The more exposure we have to a concept, the wider our knowledge becomes on that topic. Expanding our mind’s collection of “tree” allows for flexible thinking; it is no longer only a triangle on top of a stick but can flow from a sapling to redwood to a sculpture to a print.

We’ve all discovered the end-of-the-day pockets full of treasures on our toddlers, so we know that the drive to collect it there. They may not be able to explain to us why, but these items chronicle their story.

So how can we use this universal predilection to enhance their learning?   In our seminar we explored a collection on chopsticks, containing prints, text, advertisements, and plenty of hands-on time with the object. We discovered how important is to have a varied collection that presents one idea through multiple entry points. With this basic concept you can use collections to introduce a topic, explore a topic, or expand a topic.

Matisse chat

  • Talking about patterns? Give your students collections of wallpaper and fabric swatches. Throw in Matisse prints and shells to see how they come alive in art or nature.
  • Doing a unit on birds? Sort a collection of feathers, or create a collection of nest materials. Add in Audubon prints and binoculars and magnifying glasses.
  • Interested in the food? Bring in a collection of labels to sort. Top it off with Warhol prints and various containers.

These are just a few way that our wonderfully willing audience of teachers and museum educators brought collections to life. How can you bring collections into your classroom?

Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center – Museum Education

SEEC_Castle

The Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center or SEEC, as it is commonly called, was founded in 1988. It is currently housed in two locations at the National Museum of Natural History and another, at the National Museum of American History.  The school serves children ages 3 months – 6 years and boasts a staff of early childhood educators, art educators, a music educator, a resident scientist and a department of 4 museum educators.

It might seem odd for an early learning center to have a museum education department, but it makes a lot of sense when you consider all that museums have to offer young audiences.   And because of SEEC’s location on the National Mall, it is able to integrate the museum into the fabric of our students’ daily experiences.  Children are naturally curious and museums offer an ideal setting for them to explore, investigate and learn.  Encountering an object helps a child solidify their understanding of a concept and it sparks their imagination.  Whether it’s a trip to the National Zoo to see the snakes, a visit to the Castle to explore architecture or a stop at the Hirshhorn to see examples of modern art, the children are exposed to a variety of disciplines and ideas.

Sara_Vishnu1

Pre-K takes a trip to Arthur M. Sackler Gallery to see a statue of Vishnu

So, what do museum educators do here at SEEC?

  • We educate students within SEEC and the larger community – using methods unique to young learners.
  • We are a conduit between our classroom educators and the museums.
  • We maintain and offer resources to support the classroom in the form of hands-on objects, prints and books
  • We provide high quality research and information on objects within the collections and assist our classroom educators in framing that information in a developmentally appropriate way.
  • We plan special programs within SEEC and for museums across the country.
  • We have a unique understanding of museums and early childhood development and combine those perspectives to offer training to early childhood and museum educators.
  • We believe that young children can benefit from museums and we hope to encourage museum professionals to embrace them as an audience.  Similarly, we hope to encourage early childhood educators to see the museum as an informal learning environment for their students.

    Sara_Vishnu2

    Museum Ed leads Pre-K circle on Vishnu

Our hope is that our blog will open a larger dialogue about early learning and museums.  Please join us and share your thoughts!