Playing Authentically: Reflecting on Child-Led Gallery Experiences
Last year in a blog post for Art Museum Teaching, I explored the concept of control as it applies to working with early learners in the Museum. I asserted that, when trusted to bear the burden of control for themselves, and empowered to do so, children are fully capable of leading their own learning opportunities. In this post, I’ll delve more deeply into the idea of authentic learning. That is, learning driven by respecting young learners for who they are and what they can contribute.
Lilting echoes of giggles and flip-flops slapping the travertine floors floating around me like butterflies. I question my decision to give free reign to these families as they meander the largest gallery in the Museum. It’s too late to make changes, but it makes me nervous that I can’t see and gather everyone easily. I do a few laps around the gallery, and everything seems to be alright. The more controlling part of me would prefer an easy line of sight for each participant, a connection reminding them that I’m “in charge,” whatever that means.
I pull a large canvas bag from under the bench. It’s lumpy, full of irregular things. Something rattles, something clinks. I retrieve each object from the bag, laying them out on the bench in a neat grid. I spent the entire weekend prior to this moment considering these objects, searching through Museum storage cabinets and perusing my shelves and drawers at home, looking for the perfect articles. Compelling, but everyday. Sturdy. Tactile. A teacup, a rain stick, a tartan scarf, a wooden boat, a blue dinosaur, a crocheted cactus, a tree disc, a sand dollar, a floral bonnet, a magnifying glass, an empty notebook, an embroidered dish towel.
“Alright, my friends! Come gather ‘round!” I whisper/yell into each gallery space. As usual, some families are ready while others are still deeply entrenched in their first activity. I whisper, “whenever you’re ready!” to those families, assuring them that it’s alright to continue exploring where they are. After a quick pull from The Wiggle Jar and five rounds of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” at increasingly quick intervals, we’re ready. Breathless from our exertions, I try to explain the next activity before the children can grasp their objects of interest. It feels like I’m standing at the start of a race, participants pawing at the ground, angling for a better position.
I ask each family to choose one of the objects, then take it back out into the galleries and find an artwork that fits with it. It can fit for any reason (color, content, smell, etc.). There are no correct or incorrect answers. The only rule: when they find an artwork, they must connect their new object to it in some way. There’s a mad rush for the dinosaur and the boat, and I calmly remind a couple of crestfallen four-year-olds and a sullen adult that they can do this several times with several different objects. “Come back in a few minutes!” I suggest.
We disperse. I pick up an object as well. I get a laugh or two as I meander through the galleries wearing a bright floral bonnet, searching for a sunny painting. I circulate among the families, listening to stories, making jokes, asking questions. An adult worries they’ve misheard the instructions. A 6-year-old can’t decide which artwork to choose and plops down between the two.
A little boy with brown curls draws maps in the notebook, dotted paths connecting artworks. I welcome his interpretation of the game, taking joy in his deliberate marks and thoughtful travels. The sky-blue dinosaur goes on many journeys, resting camouflaged up in the sky above Venice, preying on sheep at the edge of a forest, and hitching a ride on a storm-worn sailboat. We share our stories with one another, marveling about all the different ways we’ve used our toys. We decide to try tying our stories together, weaving a lumpy and disjointed tale.
After the program ends, I locate an errant teacup sitting quietly at the feet of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Self-Portrait, filled with tiny scraps of crumpled paper. Reflecting on the day’s outcomes, I remember several discussions and trainings from my years at the Museum. In a group of docents or other adults discussing methods for engaging early learners in the galleries, the same questions always emerge:
How do I communicate on their level?
What if they don’t understand the terms I use?
How do I make the subject relevant to their interest and ability to comprehend?
All of this is fine and good, but when do we tell them the REAL information?
How do I communicate with THEM? How do I share MY information with THEM? Sure, playing games is fun, but when do we teach them the real actual facts? The perspective of these questions interests me, because they immediately pose an us/them dichotomy between the teacher and the child. The questions imply that there’s a specific chunk of information for each artwork. That people surely can’t leave without knowing this and such fact. But there’s no pause to question what the children and adults in their group might bring to the discussion, and whether the group will value the facts we have to give. These questions fail to ask what is, arguably, the bigger question:
How can we as facilitators enable a flow of information between, around, and through one another? And by the way, since when is fun not serious?
We should interrogate the idea of “dumbing down” what one might believe are the important facts about an artwork, and instead assume competence with every learner. It isn’t productive to presume that children aren’t capable of exploring complex topics. It is even less productive to suppose that children will always be interested in the same information or the same engagement strategies we have used in the past.
Instead, it’s our job to facilitate that complexity, to find multiple entry points to the discussion, and to implement methods of approach that respond to the developmental needs of each child. We do not give up after one try. There is no one complete museum visit, and our visitors will never be done learning and exploring, so why feel stressed about the nature of the knowledge they take away?
In fact, constructing opportunities for dialogue and play early on and then pivoting to say, “alright, now that all that silliness is over, here’s what’s REALLY going on,” totally negates the knowledge stitched together in the early parts of the conversation. Humor, play, and fun are serious work. As a method for working out ideas, practicing empathy, and growing comfortable with new skills, play is vital. When we set up a division between “real” learning and “just playing,” we’re disrespecting the very acts by which children learn. What outcomes are we trying to achieve when we do this?
Every contribution is a piece of knowledge. Every piece of knowledge is important. On my checklist of learning, there is no hierarchy of fact, other than what best serves the learner in front of me. And so, in conceptualizing lessons for my early learners, I add another question to the mix:
What environment do my families and I need in order to learn authentically?
In my experience, we need the following things:
We need novelty to keep us guessing, flexibility to allow for new explorations and insights, and understanding so that we can better communicate our ideas with one another. Everything else, all the materials and instructions and scaffolding, is icing.
By using our found objects as an open-ended platform, families looked, noticed, learned, and shared with one another in their own ways. There were very few rules and even fewer actual constraints for the families to follow, out of which blossomed opportunities for authentic, personal, learning. Learning about self, boundaries, communication, laughter, surprises, comfort, confusion, and, sure, throw in some early literacy and visual analysis skills while you’re at it.
In this environment, we all get to explore and share something new. We all get to be teachers and learners at one time. We can trust our youngest learners to take on the complex reins of facilitation when we provide them with the tools to figure it out. Choose a toy, find an artwork, tell a story.