Play Watching

[ 0 ] January 9, 2013 |

By Janice O’Donnell, Executive Director, Providence Children’s Museum

If you’ve visited Providence Children’s Museum in the past couple of months, you may have noticed members of the staff with clipboards lurking in the Museum’s newest exhibit, ThinkSpace.  Mystery Mazes PCM KidoinfoDoing some lurking of my own, I spent nearly 20 minutes watching a very small visitor push big wooden beads along the wire and bead maze, watch them slip down, push them up again.  Twenty minutes — amazing concentration for an 18-month-old.  I tracked a 7-year-old who solved one block-stacking challenge after another, translating abstract drawings into three-dimensional models, and a 9-year-old who was determined to map all of the mystery mazes.  I took notes, timed how long they spent at activities, and listened for spatial language: “Rotate it!”  “I need another parallelogram.”  A mom asked what I was doing.  “Observations,” I told her.

Careful observation is as important to the exhibit creation process as planning, designing, building and installing.  It’s how we know what’s working well, what activities engage kids of what ages, how adults respond, and what we should change.  We expect to be surprised.  No matter how carefully we test prototypes and how much experience we have, kids will do something we didn’t foresee.  And sometimes we know we don’t know, so we might put up a temporary label or try out a series of easily changed activities and see what happens.  We observe systematically for several weeks after opening an exhibit and make adjustments.

But our observation isn’t limited to new exhibits — it’s a constant.  We record and share stories of the power of children’s play in the Museum’s newsletter, on our blog, and on our documentation board in Discovery Studio.  Watching kids at play helps us understand and appreciate their capacity for and ways of learning, and we want our visiting adults to be as delighted by their children’s ingenuity as we are.  That toddler freely exploring cause and effect at the bead maze encountered a perfect learning opportunity, developmentally and physically within his reach.  One child, solving a mystery maze, said each of her steps aloud: “First it goes down, then when I do this it goes that way, and then it goes back and then down…”  Another silently drew his solution.  Different styles, same determination.

Children can navigate social situations as deftly as they solve a maze.  I watched two previously unacquainted kids, ages 6 and 7, working together to assemble seven large, unusually shaped blocks to build a cube.  A Museum play guide supplied well-timed hints, suggesting that they “try rotating it” and offering other clues.  The boys worked diligently, incorporating the hints: “One two three four — that side’s too high!”  “Start again!”  “Rotate!”  Five-year-old sisters of one of the boys joined them and even when the younger ones sat on the blocks and generally got in the way, the boys carried on.  “Give me the yellow,” one ordered his sister, who hopped off the yellow block and handed it to them.  After at least four start-overs, they could see the solution.  Some silent understanding developed among them that the little girls would put in the last two pieces.  The last block.  The boys could see exactly how it fit in, but the 5-year-old couldn’t quite get it.  “Rotate,” her brother told her.  She turned it around and slid the final piece into place.  The boys climbed atop their completed cube, arms raised in victory, while everyone cheered.

In a recent blog post, museum planner Jeanne Vergeront suggests there ought to be an app for play spotting, which she describes as  “… pausing and observing children at play.  It is watching them and getting to know them and their thinking through their play.  It is noticing what fascinates them and glimpsing the intensity they invest in play.”

Children take their play seriously.  We learn so much when we take their play seriously, too.

Category: kids, local ri area, play, preschool, Providence Children's Museum

Children's Museum

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The mission of Providence Children's Museum is to inspire and celebrate learning through active play and exploration. The Museum creates and presents interactive play and learning environments and hands-on programs for children ages 1 - 11 and their families. Located in Providence's Jewelry District. Museum educators and other staff contribute monthly articles about topics related to children's play and learning. Articles advocate for the importance of play to children's healthy development and are full of great ideas and resources, activities to try at home, and much more. For additional ideas and resources, visit the Museum's website and blog. Also join the conversation about the need for play on the Museum-hosted PlayWatch listserv (

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