I worked in the world of theatre and set design half of the week, the other days were spent nannying two hilarious miniature beings. Every week I took them to the Museum of Natural History, Met or Guggenheim, the large open spaces functioning as training grounds for Molly and Shane to learn to crawl and eventually walk. The open space was child friendly, but the exhibits were not. Lines that beeped when you crossed them, easily smeared glass and angry guards soon put an end to our glorious visits, and their exploring.
When I was told about the Children’s Museum, I was wary… I wanted them to be free to roam and investigate, not look at old school toys behind more glass… but what a surprise… What we found was five floors of exhibitions and objects built entirely for children to touch, hold, jump on, climb over and crawl through. A place where children could learn through play.
Life being ‘what happens while you are making other plans’, I moved to Italy (Rome) for four years, where I taught English and drama to Pre-primary and Kindergarteners. Eventually I made it home to Western Australia, and two years ago I began the quest to bring a Children’s Museum here to Perth.
Children’s museums present concepts concretely in ways that offer people of all ages opportunities to learn directly from three dimensional, tangible aids (ranging from entire houses to police hats, giant blocks, technical aids and live animals). Parents can use these aids as props to explain concepts that otherwise defy description.
Objects in children’s museums can be manipulated, and learning occurs because of interaction with the environment.
Within this informal learning space, visitors follow their own interests for as long as their concentration lasts, unlike schools where time spent on tasks is measured by ticking clocks and bells. This allows concentration and skill to develop, in an environment where concentration is nurtured and learning is contextual. Environments built to a child’s scale offer dramatic mini worlds in which to ponder, wander, explore, try and even taste. Information is linked to real experience, and children can associate the information they receive with other forms of communication around them.
A good exhibit in a children’s museum stimulates memory and imagination by eliciting emotional responses, making environments that are complex, or realistic, or beautiful or even scary.
Children’s museums are time honoured institutions relevant and vital in a child’s life, a powerful family experience, and a living and ever changing art form designed to teach and be remembered.
The ideal children’s museum would cater for children between 0 – 12, so the young children and their accompanying older siblings and adults learn together through play-based learning. Activities are designed to allow children to take control and share their imagination and creativity with others. The best designed activities ensure accompanying adults have as much enjoyment as children, sharing the experience as co-learners and creators.
The Children’s Museum of Western Australia has the possibility of becoming as iconic an institution as Perth Zoo and AQWA, serving as a draw-card for people from the local area, wider Perth Metropolitan Area and International visitors alike. It will be a self-sustaining model, and profits would be put back into the museum and used to expand the reach to schools, hospitals and surrounding organisations and communities around WA.
Play is as natural to a child as smiling, crawling or reaching out to a loved one for a hug…it is also recognised as a powerful developmental force that encourages exploration, risk taking, the development of social networks and higher engagement with their environment.
Peek inside a children’s museum and you’ll see babies and toddlers touching a variety of textures, stacking blocks, crawling through a tunnel or blowing bubbles. Take another look inside a children’s museum to see boys and girls enter a 19th century ship where they hoist a net full of fish, take part in a fishing derby, raise and lower sails and semaphore flags, all the while building an understanding of maritime history. At a children’s museum, the general rule is: Please Touch!
*** All pictures shown are examples from children’s museums across the globe.