Thursday, July 24, 2008

Exploration and Play: From Staff to Visitor

As staff of a children's museum, our jobs not only allow us the opportunity to experiment and play, but also often require we do so! The many great examples of what our experimentation and play have generated can be seen in each of our neighborhoods and exhibits. However, the fun doesn't end once an exhibit is on the floor. The experimentation and play continue as we add and alter these exhibits to enhance the learning experience for our visitors.

At DCM, exhibit staff generally follow a process in which they collaborate with the Museum's early childhood specialist and interdisciplinary arts specialist to discuss developmental goals and outcomes before brainstorming prototypes, observing their use, reviewing the model and offering a final product. But what happens when they want to improve or maintain an existing piece?

Mark Wickart, Manager of Exhibit Fabrication and Maintenance, states that since he began working for DCM seven years ago, "Everthing here we have made stronger." Existing exhibits need to be maintained, fixed or sometimes altered to enhance visitors' experiences.

One recent example of an exhibit which we have some fun revisiting is our Baby Wind Garden, inside the Build It Young Explorers neighborhood. The exhibit is designed to introduce infants and toddlers to the concepts of air, shape and surface. Young children experiment with cause and effect, trial and error and the sensory experience created by wind spouts and the many manipulatives (small balls and scarves) provided.

Staff noted that although the Baby Wind Garden exhibit did indeed introduce these concepts, it was not attracting visitors. It was at this point that Wickart began to brainstorm permanent manipulatives that would be immobile but draw attention and interest to this exhibit. Prototypes using plastic bottles of different kinds and ribbons, yarn and pompoms of different weights were created and observed by floor staff. Wickart drilled several holes in bottles and jars in an attempt to adjust airflow and alter materials' movement to create maximum visual stimulation.
This trial and error process continued until a plexglass cylinder containing one pompom was placed over a wind spout in the garden. Staff observations demonstrated increase in interest, the brightly colored pompoms' movement drawing attention to the exhibit. The prototype was a success! From there, the stronger, more durable and larger model currently in use was created. Able to now hold more pompoms, once over the wind fountains the contents create a "popcorn" movement - which draws infants and toddlers attentions to explore and interact with this exhibit.

Look What I See! See What I Learn!

These young children toddled over to take a peek at the "popcorn" jars in Baby Wind Garden and were soon giggling and laughing, enjoying the sensory experience of playing in the "wind." Mom then picked up a small ball and demonstrated the Bernoulli Effect (objects floating on streams of air). Soon both boys were experimenting with balls, large and small trying to create Bernoulli Effects themselves. Mom did a great job modeling vocabulary like air, wind, and float during their time in the exhibit.

As a museum professional, have there been times where you have found yourself using play and experimentation or trial and error to make improvements on an exhibit? Share these with us!

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