Children Take Learning into Their Own Hands

By Farmer, David W. | Childhood Education, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Children Take Learning into Their Own Hands


Farmer, David W., Childhood Education


Although the first children's museums in the United States were established around the turn of the century, they did not begin to reach their full potential until the mid-1970s. Before that time, just a handful of children's museums were scattered around the country. In the two decades since, however, they have increased in number to almost 300.

During the early 1920s, the idea of a museum especially for children was brought to Indianapolis. The Children's Museum, Indianapolis, was founded in 1925 by Mrs. John N. Carey with the help of the city's children, who donated toys and memorabilia that once belonged to their parents and grandparents. Today, the museum is the largest and fourth oldest children's museum in the world, occupying over 325,000 square feet and entertaining approximately 1 million visitors each year.

"One of the reasons for our success," said Melinda Mains, the museum's director of communications, "is that we try to involve children in the discussion and planning process any time we make a change. We always try to put the visitor first and make sure that the things we do are going to light up the eyes and imagination of a child."

These museums have a unique role in the education process. They emphasize age- and developmentally appropriate activities that are interactive and contextual. "The basic idea behind children's museums is that children learn best by doing," said M. E. Burnell, the Director of the Children's Museum of Virginia. "We try to enhance the cultural, educational and recreational experiences of children, while encouraging a lifelong love of learning."

The Children's Museum of Virginia has operated in Portsmouth for 14 years, but just opened an expanded facility on December 10, 1994. According to Burnell, the museum has attracted more than 30,000 visitors since reopening.

The popularity of children's museums can be attributed to the nature of their exhibits. Each visitor, adult and child alike, can touch and interact with many of the exhibits. "Children's museums are special because we have an audience, not a subject" said Michael Herschensohn, Director of The Children's Museum, Seattle. "We make materials accessible to children, regardless of what their learning style is. The focus of our museum, and most other children's museums, is interactive, hands-on, play-based learning."

Many of the exhibits common to children's museums encourage role-playing and pretending. Visitors can go shopping or work the cash register in a grocery store or step behind the counter to see how a fast-food restaurant operates. Other exhibits allow children to dress in police or firefighter uniforms and play on vehicles appropriate to those professions.

"Children get to role-play and pretend. They are able to do adult things that they might not be allowed to do in the real world," Herschensohn said. "These kinds of activities help children better understand the world that their parents function in now and that, in the future, they will function in.... [The museum] really empowers the kids and lets them take control of the learning process."

Other exhibits that are common to children's museums include those based on history, multiculturalism and science. In Seattle, an exhibit called Time Zone shows visitors an ancient Mayan village or what life was like in ancient Greece. In Indianapolis, visitors can dig for dinosaurs or use a Passport to the World to explore how people around the globe celebrate, communicate, create and play. At the Albuquerque, New Mexico, Children's Museum, visitors can explore surface tension by making bubbles or capture their shadow on a phosphorescent wall. At the Children's Museum of Denver, Colorado, every 4th-grader in the city has the opportunity to learn how to ski on the museum's KidSlope. KidSlope is the first year-round outdoor facility in the United States designed specifically for teaching children to ski. It includes three slopes 120 to 150 feet long, covered by plastic tiles that allow skiing throughout the year. …

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