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Exploring & Explaining at Providence Children’s Museum

By Suzy Letourneau, Research & Evaluation Specialist, Providence Children’s Museum

Children learn through active exploration, play and experience with the world. They are naturally curious and explore with their senses, experimenting to find out how things work and noticing when one thing causes another to happen (causal reasoning). They also learn by interacting with others, listening to others’ explanations and articulating their own ideas. Each way of learning has benefits for children’s development, and caregivers naturally support children’s learning in many different ways — by playing, collaborating, encouraging and explaining.

Exploring and explaining are also important aspects of scientific thinking that happen in everyday life, especially in hands-on environments like children’s museums, where kids have many opportunities both to explore independently and to learn from those around them.

To learn more about how children and their caregivers explore and explain in museum settings, Providence Children’s Museum has embarked on a new National Science Foundation-funded research project (award #1420548) in collaboration with Brown University and two other children’s museum/research teams – the Thinkery and the University of Texas at Austin, and the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose and the University of California Santa Cruz. The partners are examining how open-ended exploration and parent-child interactions each contribute to the development of scientific thinking skills like causal reasoning, and how museum experiences in general might contribute to children’s cognitive development. The findings will help the three sites consider how exhibits and museum educators can better support children’s exploration and learning.

On most Wednesdays this summer, the Museum’s research team is inviting families with children ages 3 to 6 to participate in the project as part of their visit. If families choose to take part in the study, researchers video-record while kids and their caregivers use the exhibits. After families are finished playing, researchers and kids play short games exploring an interactive toy and then kids answer some questions about it. The first part of the study helps the team learn more about how families naturally play together, and the second examines how scientific thinking skills develop in young children. Whenever research is happening at the Museum, all visitors are welcome to watch the study in action and talk to researchers to learn more about the project and its implications.

So when visiting the Museum this summer, look for the research team in the exhibits or visit Mind Lab; to help Museum researchers and their partners discover more about how kids think and learn!

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