This past week I had the chance to attend one of SEEC’s seminars: Play: Engaging Learners in Object Rich Environments. During the two days, we explored the meaning of play and how to use it when teaching about objects. We began the seminar by defining play as a group. photo (5)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 the open-ended discussions I was leading in the galleries with 4-6 year-olds. It occurred to me that there were several strong ties between play and these gallery conversations.  My process begins with a set of questions that I carefully craft based around the lesson, are mostly open-ended, and/or encourage careful looking.

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

Asher Brown Durand The Stranded Ship, 1844 National Gallery of Art, Gift of Ann and Mark Kington/The Kington Foundation through Millennium Funds, 2003.71.Once in front of the object, I begin by posing the first question. I am careful to use these questions as prompts and listen carefully to responses. Eventually the children take over and the conversation is being driven by them.

For example, I was recently looking this Durand painting with a group of children and I asked them to find the sun. One l girl pointed it out 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. They immediately offered their own examples. And right there, at the museum, we stood up and pretended to be the earth by slowly rotating our bodies. As we moved, I explained the rotation of the earth in relation to the sun. This was a completely unexpected and child-initiated moment.

When the moment was right, I referred back to my questions to re-engage with the painting. Looking back on the lesson, I wish I had asked some more imaginative questions like, “What do you think happened to this boat? “ This would have been a chance for the children to engage their imagination and build their own meaning. I have done this with other lessons and this technique definitely gets their creative juices flowing. What I also noticed was that, like play, it promotes social skills. During this playful storytelling, children are required to take turns and listen to each other. Moreover, the children will sometimes build upon each other’s ideas or even, contradict them. They are essentially building skills that will later help them to collaborate and appropriately challenge their peers.

I continued to be inspired by the two-day workshop and especially, a session provided by Discovery Theater. This session was, as one would expect, more theater driven and helped me challenge myself by incorporating more symbolic play in my museum visits. So when I asked the children to identify parts of the Durand painting, I added secondary questions that would 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.

As the last part of the object lesson, I laid out several objects and photo 2 (3)asked them to work together to recreate the painting. They needed no instruction, but went right to work, collaborating until the composition was completed. 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 the kids were not restless at all. I am continuing to think about how to make my lessons more playful and how play can be a tool for learning, especially 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.

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