In response to my recent question, “What do you worry about?” Ephelba replied,
I worry about state regulations squashing all the actual learning and delight out of education.
I worry about these same things. It’s why I’ve always loved museums, especially natural history museums, children’s museums, and science centers.
Last weekend, I was in Southern California and I visited the delightful Children’s Garden at the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens.
The garden features low flowing fountains, misting fountains, a vibrating pool of water, tunnels, topiary and whimsical sculpture, and even a very strong magnet with magnetic sand that together create awesome effects–you can literally watch the sand jump off your hand and onto the magnet. On the day my son, my parents, and I visited, there were a few dozen ethnically diverse kids from a local preschool visiting the site, and the learning and fun they were having really reinforced for me something I’d been musing on for a while: hands-on science is one of the best ways to create learning experiences for all children. Not all children might find their way to the Huntington’s ritzy Pasadena neighborhood, but all children should have access to the kinds of materials–water, magnets, sand, plants–that are available to them in the Children’s Garden.
I’m not saying that hands-on science learning is always entirely free of racial overtones, nor that it’s value-neutral, but it is an avenue for enriching curricula that, thanks to No Child Left Behind, emphasize math and reading comprehension to the exclusion of critical thinking in other disciplines. Just going to a science center to play–even if your child is too young to understand the exhibit labels or the concepts the activities reinforce–can trigger new connections in his or her brain. I still don’t know, for example, how the greenish wall captured and held children’s shadows in the old Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles (now the California Science Center), but as a kid I experimented with the distance I stood from the wall, watched the shadows fade as lights flashed again and again, and teamed up with other kids to create interesting silhouettes. That kind of play helped me think about how three-dimensional forms can be represented in two-dimensional space, as well as made me consider how much detail is lost when a two-dimensional image of a person is reduced to a single color.
I’ve read countless research studies on sustained hands-on science learning and its effect on the later academic and career achievement of girls and children of color. The research is not always conclusive–in some cases it’s too early to measure the long-term effects of certain experiences–but studies do seem to indicate an increased and sustained interest in science and a greater curiosity about the world.
That said, I’m not convinced most parents understand how best to take advantage of a family visit to a museum or science center. There’s a lot you can do in advance to prep your kids for the best possible learning experience, and most of it won’t take much time on your part. Accordingly, I’m working on a guide on how to get the most out of your family’s visit to a museum, science center, botanical garden, zoo, or similar institution. I’ve designed and built a number of science exhibits and activities for different institutions, and I‘d love to share with you some of the secrets of exhibition design–secrets that will help you better interpret and learn from the exhibits you encounter with your children.
But before I finish this guide, I want to know what your questions are about museum-going, exhibit development, hands-on science education, or informal learning with your kids. What information would you like to see included in the guide?