Students in the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center early childhood program make frequent visits to museum exhibitions. We asked these mini-museum experts to review our Little Golden Books exhibition before it closes on January 12, 2013. Sarah Erdman shares lessons for meaningful museum visits from the students' trip.
The question of what kids really get out of a museum visit is something that parents, teachers, museum professionals, and even this blog have been talking about. Many people feel like they do get a lot out of a museum visit—but might not be able to articulate exactly what. Others feel like it is important to go but maybe aren't as convinced that their younger children are actually learning something.
A kindergarten class visit to the Little Golden Books exhibition recently offered proof of the benefits of museum visits for kids. They arrived charged with a very important mission: review and evaluate the exhibition. Over the course of two visits, the kids went through the exhibition with their teachers SEEC museum educator Sara Cardello. The first time they simply observed, and the second time they used an evaluation sheet with a smiley face rating system to record their thoughts. We weren't worried about the class getting bored by visiting twice—re-visiting familiar sites helps kids get more comfortable and notice new things. You can read more about the first and second visits on SEEC's blog.
The kids were asked about what they noticed in the exhibition and how they thought other visitors were enjoying the space. By giving the kids very specific elements to examine, they were focused on their "mission" and spent a lot of time looking at the exhibition. While other visitors, children and adults, took a quick pass through the space and then left, these kids minutely investigated every display and eagerly shared what they saw with the adults. For example, they observed that the exhibition featured "really old books," and they noticed that display cases had themes (doctors, transportation, cooking).
The first things the kids noticed were any connections to something they were familiar with from home or their classroom. They loved comparing and contrasting with what they knew and were also very eager for their families to see the space because of the connection they would have to the Golden Books. One little boy exclaimed, "I think my grandma has one of those! She should come because she hasn't seen one of these books for years." Another observed, "I liked the objects because they were cool because they were from a long time ago and still make them."
Just watching these kindergartners in the space seemed like living proof for how powerful museum visits can be for kids. The core of the experience was that the kids were given guidance by the adults. Instead of being instructed to simply walk through, which probably would have meant they looked at the pictures, exclaimed over the books they recognized, and moved on, they were asked questions, challenged to look closely, and given an opportunity to provide feedback and share their opinions.
Being asked "What do you think?" is a pretty powerful thing for a young child (or anyone, really). It lets them feel empowered to speak up. For example, some of the kids weren't wild about the lighting once they were asked to notice it in particular. "Dark but good," said one, while teachers explained that light levels must be kept low to protect delicate paper documents.
Starting by asking, "What do you notice?" lets you build off of what catches their attention and helps guide them to think more critically about what they are seeing. Kids have an amazing capacity for seeing things and understanding them, if they are given help by adults. For example, one child looked close enough to notice that the cases were designed to protect the objects, remarking, "The books were having a good time because they were safe in the glass and no robbers were breaking in." Another observed, "I felt surprised when I saw the spine [of the book], but then I realized that's why it's called Golden Books."
Want to try this for yourself? Bring your child to an exhibition and inform them that they are going to be exhibition critics and that they need to rate the exhibition. A pencil, paper, and small clipboard will make even pre-writers feel very important, and children who can read and write can record answers on a simple evaluation form (feel free to use ours). Walk through the exhibition and ask questions. The key is to ask questions that are open-ended and have no right or wrong answers. Give your child time to think and respond—even if it seems like it is taking a while. Some sample questions you could use include:
- What do you see or notice? What is the exhibit showing you?
- What do you hear?
- What are you learning or thinking about?
- Who is the exhibit for? who would like this exhibit?
- How did you feel about the exhibit?
- What would you add or change?
- What questions do you have for the curator or designer?
You may be surprised by what answers you get (some may be totally unrelated and others may just seem to be). You also might be surprised by how much time they want to spend in just one exhibition. If you try it, we'd love to hear about your experience!
Sarah Erdman is the Goldman Sachs Fellow for Early Learning at the museum and the founder of Cabinet of Curiosities. She has also blogged about the best things to pack for a museum trip with kids, how to handle tough topics in museum exhibitions with kids, as well as why toddlers and babies belong in museums.