Inspired By Museums—Both Outside and Inside the Classroom
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At the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center, where I work, teachers take children to museums and other sites around Washington, DC, almost daily. But your program doesn’t have to be located next to a museum—there are rich learning opportunities in every community.
The power of real: Objects, collections, and exhibitions
Real objects have more power than photographs or words alone. Learning is richer and deeper when children see, touch, and explore real items. Objects can be used to teach careful looking skills that are critical for everything from reading to researching. Through their experiences with objects, children come to see learning as a search for knowledge rather than a process of being fed information.
For example, when one class of 4-year-olds was interested in exploring the Wizard of Oz, the children’s learning was made more meaningful by touring museums to see Dorothy’s actual ruby slippers, to visit an exhibit about caves to learn where emeralds come from, and to view a gem exhibition to see real emeralds. Discussion was rich when children met Marla, a tin woman sculpture that they compared to the Tin Man. The study ﬁnished up at the Library of Congress, where they saw a ﬁrst edition of the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by Frank L. Baum—it conﬁrmed their earlier discovery that Dorothy originally wore silver shoes, not ruby slippers!
How can you do this in your community?
Every neighborhood has its own unique resources. Think about experiences that go beyond traditional ﬁeld trips. A preschool class interested in the Wizard of Oz could go to the local shoe store to see different types of shoes, a jewelry store to look at emeralds, and the library to look up the book. The children could create a collection of shoes or create an exhibition about extreme weather. Simply leave the classroom and make learning real. Let children explore objects, ﬁnd connections to their own lives, and make new discoveries.
Children are natural collectors, ﬁlling their pockets with rocks and sticks. Building a collection in the classroom is one way to expand learning, involve families, and encourage questions. Almost any topic can inspire a collection! One class engaged in a multiweek study of light and created a collection of things that light up. Another classroom’s monthlong study of dishes included a collection of cups—one from each family. Collections allow children to compare and contrast, look carefully, and feel personally connected to a topic.
Exhibitions are a fantastic way to conclude a study, share learning with families, and allow children to look back on their learning. Exhibitions can consist of one type of item, like seashells, or multiple items grouped to ﬁt a theme, like the ocean. Honor the importance of exhibitions by creating signs and thoughtful displays that describe the work the children did. Like a real museum exhibition, hold an opening—children help plan food for the event and create invitations for families and friends. They walk their parents through the exhibition, perhaps sharing their ﬁeld journals (notebooks with their drawings and observations) and other individual contributions. Children gain knowledge from the experience and conﬁdence by sharing it.
A classroom study about bugs
Here is an example of a class project to help you think about ways to incorporate community resources in the curriculum. One classroom recently explored bugs. The seven-week exploration began with talk about spiders, then moved on to a study of insects and other small creatures.
1. The class visited a large bronze spider sculpture in the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden, where they did careful looking and asked the teachers questions about spiders. The teachers brought out spider toys for the children to hold and to compare with the sculpture.
2. After talking about spiderwebs, the class headed to the American Art Museum to look at an artwork made with string wound in an elaborate pattern around a piece of clear plastic. The children compared this work to photos of spiderwebs they had brought along, and they sat in front of the piece to read Eric Carle’s The Very Busy Spider.
3. Back at school, they used real tree branches and yarn to spin webs for spiders. Through careful looking at real spiderwebs, the children realized they needed branches with an L or a Y shape, which make the best spots for spider homes.
4. They visited the Insect Zoo at the National Museum of Natural History and watched a tarantula feeding on crickets! They also looked at other real insects they had already seen in books and photos. They drew pictures of their observations in their ﬁeld journals.
5. Children conducted scientiﬁc studies of bugs in class— comparing them, examining their habitats, asking questions, searching for answers, and learning how each insect might help in the playground garden. They noticed similarities and differences in detailed drawings of crickets and grasshoppers, and then they brought real crickets into the classroom.
6. Using their careful looking skills to examine photos and real specimens, they studied the difference between moths and butterﬂies. The teacher brought caterpillars into the classroom to live, and the children watched them turn into butterﬂies.
7. Children spent time playing with pretend worms in dirt in the classroom sensory box and used pretend worms for painting.
8. They created insect sculptures for their ﬁnal exhibition, which was complete with an exhibition case and labels.
Through a combination of art and science and museum visits, the children learned a great deal about insects, spiders, worms, butterﬂies, and moths.
Bring museums to you
If your school is far from accessible community resources, bring museum practices into your classroom!
Bring in real objects related to the ideas that the class is studying. Let children touch and hold them. Take the objects with you if the class is visiting a place where touching is not allowed.
Use objects as starting places for asking questions:
“What do you see?,” “What do you think this is?,” “What do you notice about this object?” Encourage careful looking by asking children to describe the objects.
Invite families to contribute items to build a classroom collection related to the topic the children are studying.
Plan an exhibition with the children, and help them create objects for it. Consider the concepts you want the children to understand, and include activities that develop that learning.
Think outside the box for places you might visit and connections you can make. A great way to do this is to ask children what questions they have throughout the study. The Wizard of Oz study started with the story but moved on to an investigation of caves, emeralds, and bats, based on the children’s ideas!
You don’t need to go far, and you’ll likely plan to stay at a location for only 20 to 30 minutes before returning to the classroom. You might be surprised by how engaged children are and what they retain from these visits. Explore your community and have fun!
• Look into local museums and community organizations (e.g., theaters, orchestras), many of which offer resources for preschool classes. Check on grants and scholarships if there are costs involved.
• Explore the online resources of museums around the world for virtual trips—for example, go to http://collections.si.edu/search for Smithsonian Institution resources or to http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online for the Museum of London.
• Help children create their own online collections around almost any topic, using Smithsonian Institution’s new Learning Lab at https://learninglab.si.edu/.
• Keep children’s museums in mind as a resource or potential trip site. They are dedicated to supporting young children and their teachers and families. But don’t rule out art, history, science, or other museums!
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