Telling the Story of Play

[ 1 ] December 20, 2011 |

By Mary Scott Hackman, Early Childhood Programs Coordinator, Providence Children’s Museum

At Providence Children’s Museum, we know that the child at play is often the child at work. And for some time now, we have been documenting children’s play, trying to capture that “aha” moment when, after interacting with materials and experimenting in different ways, he or she suddenly understands something new. In this process, which belongs entirely to the child, he or she is learning.

We call capturing these learning moments “documentation.” At the Museum, we have videotaped children as they learn, described their process on the Museum’s blog, and displayed work children have left behind. And now, in Discovery Studio, we are noting the stories of these moments on a documentation board, depicted in photos and words. In these displays, we share how a child’s learning is self-directed, focused, intentional.

One day a Museum educator noticed a 2-year-old girl playing with stones in Discovery Studio. There were several books on the shelf right at her height. Slowly, she turned the pages of one of the books, holding a stone in her hand. Watching the child, it was clear to the educator that she was looking for her stone. She was, in fact, doing research. The educator photographed the child and spoke with her about her process; the pictures and words went up on the documentation board. For a long time, the child returned to the Museum to see her photo and to revisit the story we had documented.

Play-Documentation Bulletin Board

Because we are inspired by these moments, we want to share them with our visitors, both children and adults. We think they will be inspired, too! Further, we believe that when we notice what children are doing as they play, they feel validated and become more competent as learners.

A few years ago, when I directed a childcare center, we documented children’s process in a similar way. It soon became apparent that our premise was correct: if a child feels his work is important, he will be eager to present it to you. One morning as I entered one of the classrooms, a child took my hand and led me across the room, saying “Mary, don’t you want to see what I’m working on at the easel?” And of course, I did.

We want to show the world, one story at a time, that play is as vital to the health of our children as food and sunlight. We invite you to join us in building a society of confident learners. Be a witness to your children, notice and appreciate their play. Know that they have a process and that doing something over and over again to gain understanding is the stuff of play — the serious work of childhood.

Providence Children’s Museum is the BEST place for school vacation fun with special programs all week long. See Sparky’s Puppets perform favorite tales from Aesop’s Fables. Sing and dance to funny original songs from rock ‘n roll trio Rolie Polie Guacamole. Join The Rhythm Room for rollicking world percussion, horns, drums, guitars and piano. And it’s a Block Party when kids build cities and create towering structures! For more information, visit

Category: community news, play, Providence Children's Museum

Children's Museum

about the author ()

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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  1. Ed says:

    Great article! You’re the best.

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