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A Playful Process: Planning Play Power

Play Power Air TubeBy Carly Loeper
Exhibit and Program Developer,
Providence Children’s Museum

I recently witnessed two brothers in Water Ways connecting pegs and boards to build a simple dam. Over the next forty-five minutes, they cooperated to refine their creation: “The weakest spot is right there.” “We need to raise the level!” “That’s a great idea!” Throughout their extraordinary play process, they tried stuff out, dusted themselves off when a plan didn’t work, encouraged each other, used materials in unexpected ways, and never lost sight of their goal.

The Museum’s exhibit team (the “X-Team”) worked and played together in the same ways as these children to create Play Power, a major new exhibit celebrating the power of children’s play that opens October 28. From exploring other children’s and science museums to tinkering with interesting, open-ended materials like tubes, magnets, and lights, the team and I played every step of the way.

Early in the exhibit planning process, we shared our childhood memories of play, which often included creating spaces of our own — building outdoor “forts” with sticks and rocks or making elaborate tents from furniture. We asked ourselves how we could create that kind of experience in Play Power.

During a Museum program called Play Spaces, we noticed the innovative ways children used long foam “noodles” and stackable shapes and realized the possibilities these objects could bring to the new exhibit, so we fabricated hexagonal foam shapes to connect with noodles in a domed play structure. We often prototype ideas — testing them as “rough drafts” — in programs like this before they become Museum exhibits. Prototyping is serious play. It lets us try things out, get messy, take risks, and see what works.

In Play Power, children explore air as they launch balls and fabrics through air tubes and, with a change of pressure, propel the objects to the ceiling. To answer the questions: “How much air?” “What objects are playful?” “What will kids do here?” we had to experience the magic of air ourselves. We built and tested a giant wind tube with delighted visitors on the exhibit floor and later invited families to play with a refined prototype at our fabrication workshop. The busy children rocketed, popped, and floated balls, weaving their own stories into the action. Watching (and appreciating) their play, we learned we should have longer tubes for greater pressure, clear ones to show the path of the balls, which balls were perfectly sized, and which didn’t work at all.

The final and most anticipated step is seeing how families engage with the finished exhibit to determine how it works, if adjustments need to be made, and how to support ways of play that we couldn’t have even imagined. Visit Providence Children’s Museum this fall when it reopens and be a part of the Play Power process!

News and Notes from Providence Children’s Museum:
Occasional posts about things to do with our kids – from places to go, things to make, ideas to think about, and ways to explore. Providence Children’s Museum – 100 South Street, Providence, RI. 401-273-5437 (KIDS).

Photo caption: Children play with a Play Power air tube prototype at Providence Children’s Museum’s workshop. Photo credit: Susan Sancomb

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