Thursday, August 27, 2009


Museum Hopping

This summer we've made a point of taking the kids to every children's museum and science museum within a day's drive. (TG loves the local art museum, too, but TB can only do so much art.) They're good rainy day or too-hot-day activities, and the kids really enjoy them. We bought a family membership in our local museum, and discovered happily that it carries with it reciprocity for some pretty nifty museums in other relevant locales. We've already made back the membership fee twice in just a few months, and that's without even counting the tax deduction.

The kids are actually becoming pretty sophisticated museum critics, for their ages. This week we went to a well-known children's museum; within the first ten minutes, TB did a quick compare-and-contrast of one exhibit with a similar one at another place. I quietly beamed.

Children's and science museums are way better than they were back in the 70's, when I was that age.

I don't recall any such thing as a children's museum back then. They may have existed somewhere, but I don't remember ever seeing one. Science museums existed, but the whole approach was much drier. Look at the taxidermy. Read the cards. Listen to the docent talk about how the colonial settlers used to eat tree bark all winter and read the Bible by candlelight and wear brown wool twelve months a year, and they liked it that way. Yawn. The planetarium was cool, but other than that, the museum felt a lot like school without friends.

Now, it's all about hands-on. The current approach seems to be to get the kid doing something, and then hope that the kid finds his way to asking why. Usually, if the task is engaging enough, that actually happens.

(Sometimes it even happens when I'd rather it didn't. Earlier this week, The Boy announced proudly that he had found his way around the parental controls on the computer. Great.)

The Boy has a bit of the engineer in him. Several of the museums we've attended included variations on pvc-pipe-bits-on-a-wall, wherein the kid is supposed to arrange the pipe bits to allow a golf ball the longest continuous ride. (The bits are bolted to brackets with magnets, which keep them on the wall.) The Boy can do that for an uninterrupted hour, and would probably keep going if we'd let him. When he locks in like that, he's oblivious to boredom. Just watching him is fascinating; you can almost see the wheels turning in his head. At one point he had a structure with four distinct changes of direction and a bell at the end for the ball to ring when it hit, and he made it work. It reminded me of the old Mousetrap game, except that he designed it himself.

The Girl never tires of climbing. Any climbable exhibit or object, and she's there. I don't know what that portends, but she enjoys it so much that looking for meaning just seems churlish. Today she even made pretty good headway on a rock-climbing wall without help, which I think is pretty good for a five-year-old. Many children's museums have climbing structures for the kids, which give the kids much-needed exercise and the parents much-needed breaks. TG will climb down to get out of the way of other kids, then climb back up again. I used to think she was being overly deferential. Now I think she's just looking for an excuse to climb more.

Last night the kids did a "puzzle museum" in TG's room. They assembled every jigsaw puzzle we had until her floor was completely covered. Then they announced the museum opening. TB took my ticket and TG stamped my hand. Then they explained what was on each puzzle, and how they did it. I gushed, of course, and they beamed with pride. As a parent, it doesn't get much better than that.

This Fall I hear they'll have new seasonal exhibits. Hmm...

"The current approach seems to be to get the kid doing something, and then hope that the kid finds his way to asking why. Usually, if the task is engaging enough, that actually happens"

That's the most succinct statement of contemporary educational philosophy I've come across.
Childrens' museums did exist in the 70's; I fondly remember our local one from my own childhood. It was very hands-on: a working telegraph, snakes you could pick up, etc. Our local "big" museum had lots of stuffed-animals-in-glass-boxes, of course, but it also had a room that was supposed to simulate a severe thunderstorm in the Adirondacks, and my folks say it was hard to get me out of that particular exhibit. I will say that science museums have gotten much better, though: more doing and reasoning, less passive looking.

DD, have you taken the kids to any of the places that do living-history sorts of things? Many of them have hands-on exhibits as well, and they can be fun.
The museums in Northern Town were indeed dire back in the olden days. The "hands-on" theory of museum design didn't reach our backwater until after we left. my head is filled with images of glass-front life-sized dioramas containing mannequins of Native Americans farming.

Were those dioramas actually dusty, or did it just look that way? Hm.
The new push for hands-on activities to engage children of all ages is a definite plus in the museum and local historical society and historic site world.
You have super kids. Of course, your kids have super parents! :-) Thanks for an "it's not all bad" news day!
Let me throw this one out to your readers. I've just spent a good chunk of time searching the Internet for pvc pipe projects and plans for TB and TG to set up downstairs. Any ideas????? Wouldn't that be glorious if they spent most of the day building, learning and - more importantly - off my back?
If you can find some old Construx on ebay, those are AWESOME for kid building projects. Also, they're the right width apart for rolling tennis balls, if TB wants to make loooong, complex tennis-ball-rolling machines that take up your entire bedroom but roll the ball back and forth across it six times with loop-the-loops and nifty drops to change direction. Just sayin'. :)
A quick google for "lego marble machine" brought up some interesting ideas. If the young engineer isn't already knee-deep in legos, he probably should be!
This is expensive but SO.MUCH.FUN.

Less expensive but also fun

I love how curious kids are at this age - why that fades or gets beaten out of kids over time is a mystery to me.
Heh, it's hard to stay curious and self-focused when one needs to socialize.
The Indianapolis Children's Museum is huge with things for children of all ages. That Eli Lilly money was spent well, making it well worth a side trip if you are in the area.

The only problem in working with PVC pipe would be the solvents used to bond the parts that need to be permanently connected.

I like the idea of a giant network of pipes in TB's room. Could end up looking like something out of the movie Brazil!

In addition to what you saw, I have seen a pipe organ-like device made of PVC pipe. Hard to describe in words, but each vertical pipe was attached to a U shape at the bottom. You hit the open top end of the short part of the U with a leather paddle (like whack-a-mole) and the echo produced a pure tone from the pipe. Set up a group with the appropriate lengths and you can play music.

This would make a great gift, since no one in their right mind would bring it into their own house.
Brooklyn Children's Museum founded 1899

Eli LIVED there
@The Wife: Having worked at an extremely low-budget hands-on science center, I can attest that even better than PVC-pipe building is the old rolled-up-newspaper and scrap-paper + masking tape challenge. Have the kids roll up long pieces of newspaper and tape them together into structures. It works best in a room where they can also tape the support to the floor (or to some heavy books). See how high they can make their structure.

And DD is absolutely right about the mission of science centers and children's museums: It's less important that children arrive at the correct answer than that they get a chance to think through some interesting challenges.
Another great science/children's museum from the 1970s was the Toronto Science Centre, now the Ontario Science Centre. I recall many trips, and sometimes I find myself still using explanations that I learned there when I was a little older than TB.

@TW - Perhaps building the PVC + magnet contraptions could be part of the fun for TB and TG, as long as the glue was safe? Perhaps very large straws, thumbtacks, and pegboard can be an alternate method, maybe with a marble instead of a golf ball?

@DD and TW - let me know when you're visiting a museum out my way.
"Heh, it's hard to stay curious and self-focused when one needs to socialize."

Ha! Very probably true. Learning how to be socially adept is a lot of work for most people, and takes a lot of time. Intensely focused intellectual curiosity is not cool and does not make the other kids want to invite you to parties.

Those of us who were nerds and geeks (hi!) were the ones who never paid enough attention to figuring out how to be popular, and probably didn't care enough to try very hard. (As an adult, I am in a geek-centric profession and have a big network of geeky friends, so it's all good.)
I've been to both the Indianapolis Children's Museum (early 90s) and the Brooklyn Children's Museum (80s) and they both are pretty cool.

One of my favorite memories from high school was being a volunteer at the local science museum. I'd do demonstrations or help faciliate the hands on stuff. For instance on I did things like mumify a frog or help experiement with different ways of blowing bubbles. That's something you might want to keep in mind for The Boy and The Girl when they get older.

My parents were so happy for me have something constructive to get involved in right away because were new in town, that they have been loyal members for more than 20 years now.
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