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Summertime Learning in Museums

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By Helen Shwe Hadani, Ph.D.
Contributing Writer and Goddard School Educational Advisory Board Member

Summer is here, and for many families, that means a shift in their schedules.  Hopefully that shift is to more relaxed mornings, long afternoons by the pool and spontaneous outings to parks, beaches, zoos and museums, which are all great places for playful learning. Science centers and children’s museums, in particular, are perfect destinations for parents, caregivers and children seeking a break from the heat and a chance to learn something new.

While the term “museum” may not bring fun, hands-on, interactive experiences to mind, many children’s museums and science centers have reinvented themselves to provide these types of experiences for children as young as toddlers.  When visiting museums with your toddler, preschooler or older child, keep the following in mind to make the most of your visit.

  • Let your children take the lead. Child-directed experiences motivate children to learn because they are engaging in activities for the joy of the experience, (i.e., intrinsic motivation) not for a reward. Research suggests that making choices promotes intrinsic motivation, which boosts creativity. Additionally, letting your children play a role in planning your outing helps them develop important decision-making skills;
  • Encourage your children to take risks. One of the hardest things to do as a parent is to let your children take risks, but letting them test their capabilities and push their limits are critical components of learning and other creative processes. Children can take physical and social risks in a museum setting. They might have the chance to climb high obstacles; use their fine motor skills to work with a new tool; or cut, shape and take apart objects in a museum program. They will also have the opportunity to share or collaborate with other children whom they have never met;
  • Allow time to explore and be creative. Research speaks to the value of providing opportunities for young children to experiment with a range of ideas and actions and then work out the consequences. Try to leave enough time in your museum visit for your children to engage in what researchers call exploratory play. Taking part in open-ended exploration and tinkering often lead to further questions. Museum activities are designed to be open-ended so children have time to generate, test and revise theories about how things work. Ask your children questions, such as “What do you notice about that machine?” or “How do you think that works?” to guide their learning and deepen their thinking.