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The Value of Playing with REAL Stuff

By Cathy Saunders, Director of Education, Providence Children’s Museum

Children in the U.S., for the most part, are not growing up in a “hands-on” society. Toys are bought, not made by hand, and are not designed to be fixed if they break. Classroom time is more focused on test preparation and less on project-based learning as this Washington Post article outlines. Cooking from scratch has largely been supplanted by microwavable meals and fast food. The list goes on.

This lack of hands-on experience with real stuff creates real deficits: children are not learning about materials. At 8 years old, I remember being surprised to learn how much easier it was to hammer a nail into a two-by-four than a piece of plywood, and discovering that honey does not make a good substitution for sugar in a frosting recipe. (What a gooey mess!) A recent study found that toddlers are more likely to correctly identify foods by name if they have been able handle them.


Hands-on experiences also provide opportunities to develop important learning behaviors, like observation, experimentation, persistence and risk taking. I recently watched two children parallel playing in our Water Ways exhibit, working to connect the fountain pipes. The 5-year-old was alternating between watching the 7-year-old and working on her own construction. The children made adjustments to their fountains that didn’t work — sometimes bringing them crashing down — but both went back to building, trying new ways to connect the pipes and move the water.

In recent years there’s been a trend toward working with real stuff again, which goes by many names — DIY, crafting, tinkering and maker movement — all of which share the basic tenant of learning by doing while using real materials. They all provide great inspiration for creating a “hands-on” environment for your child.

For some easy activities to get kids experimenting with materials, see these recent posts from the Children’s Museum: Home Grown Fun, Celebrating Engineers Week and Cardboard Challenge. If you want to take it up a notch, our friends at the Exploratorium in San Francisco have developed the Tinkering Studio which has a terrific website — find instructions to make a wearable circuit and read bios of many interesting grown-up “tinkerers.”

Take a field trip! There are plenty of opportunities to create with and explore materials at the Children’s Museum. There are also events that showcase and celebrate making and tinkering such as Maker Faires held around the world, including in RI, MA and CT.

Providence Children’s Museum is the best place for April school vacation FUN! From April 18-25, meet bunnies, chicks, goats, lambs and ponies. Build with big blue Imagination Playground blocks. See a show and try activities celebrating Earth Day. Encounter lizards, snakes and other incredible creatures. And explore Mad Science in a mind-bending interactive show! Learn more at Providence Children’s Museum.

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