Story 03: Birth of Playspace

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Story 03 Introduction

Written by Mike Spock

I have learned to work with a number of new people and have also learned about limitations—my own and others. At this point in the museum's history, the whole institution is working under considerable stress which makes it doubly more difficult to sort out the issues. Are creative processes always so confusing and trouble laden? Would a real set of procedures serve as a deterrent to creativity?

I have grown through this experience. More than once I had to stop and ask myself why I continue when I feel so negative about it. In the past, I might have just quit, thinking nothing was worth such pressure and conflict. But I know to some degree I too am caught up in the dream. Ever since I came to the museum nearly six years ago, the "move" had been discussed; now only a year away, I had the desire to see it through. Instead of running from the conflict I wanted to find a way to work it out, at least for myself.

—Jeri Robinson

It made me uncomfortable. Jeri Robinson was proposing an area—an exhibit, a gathering place—designed and set aside specifically for preschool-age children and their parents, caretakers and teachers.

Logic was on her side: the proportion of families with toddlers was definitely increasing, fast; maybe as much as half of visiting groups included very young kids. In fact the word was that the museum was one of the few places where you could find a good, safe, publicly accessible early childhood play environment. The museum seemed to be a good fit for those families.

But I resisted. Jeri's proposal seemed to challenge my deepest professional values. I believed museums—all museums for all visitors—were about offering provocative experiences with interesting things and significant ideas. I thought we were a real museum. Even if we went about things in surprisingly playful ways, underneath, The Children's Museum was about important, serious stuff. The fact that we had skated at the edge of what a museum was by inviting kids to do things, explore things, pretend things, figure out things, make things, enjoy things, rather than just allowing them to look and listen, did not, at least in my view, place us outside the museum tradition. We were merely living the famous old Chinese aphorism: "I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand."

Personally and professionally, I thought I was in the museum mainstream, too. As a ten year old, wandering alone in New York museums, I was attracted to cool stuff which in turn led to profound thoughts. From my childhood perspective there were fascinating, memorable—important and serious—things to learn in museums.

And looking at old photos of The Children's Museum next to the Pond in Jamaica Plain, there were my New England contemporaries doing equally important and serious work with Native American handling materials in a school class and with the stuffed birds in the July Jaunter's summer camp. And in the '60s we had elementary-school-aged kids learning how movies moved by animating strips of paper in a zoetrope, interpreting replica artifacts from an ancient Greek archeological site, participating as guests in a formal Japanese tea ceremony, stimulating cross-generational conversations in Grandmother's Attic, or dissecting and matching up the parts of cut gladiolas at a table in What's Inside?. All these were important and serious museum experiences that used interesting things to explore challenging ideas.

I also took comfort that The Children's Museum had real collections with real accession numbers and real collection records. Collections were central to our claim to being a real museum. Even if some exhibits, programs and classroom kits did not contain true artifacts and specimens they were based on using tangible things (science apparatus, stage settings and costumes, functional replicas, etc.) to illuminate the world and ideas.

What gave me the most pause with Jeri's proposal for an early childhood area and program was that I also believed that uncovering the meanings of objects in our collections and the ideas in our exhibits were necessarily limited by the ages of our youngest visitors. Very young kids have powerful but limited capacities. That dinosaurs were not hunted by cavemen was something that could not be understood nor appreciated by a five year old. What happened in the past, making sense of other cultures, how complicated things work—ultimately terribly important things—would have to wait until the developmental stages when those capacities ripened.

So I was loath to surrender the museum to a more "primitive" developmental level and put aside exploiting sophisticated objects and complex ideas where I thought museums shone and where I learned so much as a grade school child myself. I felt that by catering to the youngest visitors and their caretakers we would accelerate the downward spiral of the museum's intellectual horizon, even making the rich learning resource of our collections beside the point. I imagined older kids, surrounded by much younger kids, asking themselves: "Should I be here? I'm having fun, but isn't this just a place for babies?" I thought that older kids, not babies, were the ones that should be encouraged.

Even if Jeri Robinson's seemingly innocent proposal ended up challenging the very core of what The Children's Museum was and might become, the babies were coming anyway. Although we thought that up to that point we had made no special accommodation to the intellectual or physical needs of very young kids, they seemed to be having a great time, totally absorbed in their "work." And of course we laid claim to the idea that the museum—the name said it all—was a client-centered organization. Unlike art, history and science museums that were about something, a children's museum was for somebody. Therefore, if we truly believed we were client-centered we'd better decide what to do about this profound shift in our visitor profile.

But Jeri had another, deeper agenda that turned me from a grudging skeptic into an enthusiastic supporter. She understood that setting aside a special place and program for our youngest visitors would create a terrific learning opportunity for grownups too. By installing cozy seating at the edges of play spaces Jeri thought it might encourage adults to observe, compare and speculate among each other about the developing capacities and learning behaviors of their kids. And if that strategy worked, she knew those caring adults would become more knowledgeable about early child development and more surefooted and relaxed in their roles as parents, teachers and caregivers. I realized that for me if the parents were the learners, the preschool kids were the exhibit—the vehicle—for delivering sophisticated understanding in much the same way as the school-age child's encounter with a challenging experiment at a science museum.

Like all creative breakthroughs, Jeri's idea was so obvious and to-the-point that it won the day—thank god—and the rest was history. Once convinced, I only had to get out of the way so Jeri could do her thing and make her program, Playspace, the museum and me (perhaps undeservedly given my early opposition) famous.

Next: From An Idea to an Exhibit: The Before You Were Three Project