The Boston Children’s Museum on Fort Point Channel is teeming with children and parents during school vacation week. So it’s a good time for Jeri Robinson, vice president for education and family learning, to lead me on a guided tour of some of the museum’s early learning spaces. On the way, we pass children scrambling up and down the multi-story climbing maze. We pass children and parents sitting on colorful “musical” chairs that each emit a different sound and together can create a symphony. We pass children checking out the blocks and Bobcat in the Construction Zone, all in what is essentially a giant indoor playground for children of all ages. Prompts on the walls and parent tip sheets provide ideas for adults to engage children.
“Our critical message is there’s a lot of learning in play,” Robinson says. “In everything we do, we have a hidden or overt learning activity. Play has gotten a bad rap that it’s a waste of time. It’s not.”
In fact, research tells us that play is how young children learn. Science tells us that the kind of language-rich, playful adult-child interactions that the museum encourages enhance the actual wiring of the young brain.
In 1978, when the museum was housed in a Jamaica Plain mansion, Robinson established the nation’s first play space for infants and toddlers in a children’s museum. In 1998, she co-founded Countdown to Kindergarten, a partnership with the Boston Public Schools. Originally conceived to help parents navigate the logistics of entering the public school system, today it focuses on the early learning that will help children enter kindergarten ready to succeed.
Now Robinson is coordinating a project with the commonwealth’s children’s museums and libraries – “two very strong places of informal education,” Robinson says — as part of the four-year, $50 million Race to the Top — Early Learning Challenge grant that the Obama administration awarded Massachusetts in December. “We want to take what we’ve done with the Boston Public Schools in terms of Countdown to Kindergarten and have that kind of work go on across the state,” Robinson says. “How do we honor what’s already going on? What can we add that complements it and goes to the next level?”
Robinson, who has lived in Boston’s Dorchester and Roxbury neighborhoods her entire life, began her career as a kindergarten teacher at the Highland Park Free School in Roxbury. She was fulfilling a dream she’d had since she was a kindergartner herself at the Nathan Hale School in Roxbury and decided that she wanted to teach kindergarten when she grew up. (Note to readers: Robinson reveals her favorite children’s book at the end of this blog post.)
The museum, which was founded in 1913, is also planning a centennial celebration from April to October 2013 that, Robinson says, will include an early childhood symposium (a follow-up to last fall’s Early Childhood Summit), a parent fair, a major gala, and smaller activities in the museum and neighborhoods.
Back in the 1970s, the Jamaica Plain museum was designed to serve school-aged children. No strollers were allowed, so the museum offered parents backpacks to use to carry the young siblings of the museumgoers. Parents couldn’t even see their babies’ faces, much less interact with them.
“Babies and toddlers were a package, not a visitor,” Robinson recalls. “The issue for me was our target audience was school-age and parents were coming with babies and toddlers. The babies start to cry, and the family leaves.” The play space was born as a play pen for these younger siblings.
The current PlaySpace, the first stop on my tour with Robinson, is an expansive, gated area designed for infants and toddlers, up to age 3, last updated in 2000. Outside the space, there is a parking area for strollers. Inside it, a child- and parent-friendly haven beckons with colorful stations for gross and fine motor activities, dramatic play, scientific exploration and socializing.
The average PlaySpace visit is 2½ hours, a length of time that, Robinson explains, wouldn’t be possible without extensive seating for adults, whether on stools in play areas or banquettes along the perimeter.
There are enclosed areas for the youngest visitors. The water bed for babies is “a sensory activity,” Robinson says. “You get a lot of impact for small motions. It encourages babies to move.” An open-ended soft house is a crawl-through bridge – “a hideout that’s not too scary.” There are soft undulating hillocks. A fish tank has goldfish and zebra fish. “There are lots of textures and destinations,” Robinson says.
A large model train set-up, with wood Brio cars, occupies part of the main area of PlaySpace. Children have brought dinosaurs and dolls from other stations. Children stand playing around the edges of the track, and they pop up through prairie dog holes that both extend their reach and have them face the parents or caregivers seated along the perimeter instead of playing only with their backs to the adults.
“A lot of it is dramatic play. And there’s a lot of sharing going on. Somebody takes my train. How do I get it back?” Robinson says. “The trains are magnetic. It’s magic to them. You’ll see kids try putting the different ends of the cars together. There’s a lot of spatial learning. What fits through where? How do I have to maneuver to keep my 12-car train in one piece?”
The tree house is “gross motor heaven” with a carpeted swaying bridge “so you can practice your walking skills” and stairs that are particularly interesting “for kids who don’t have a house with steps.” Dramatic play areas include a child-size kitchen and gas station. A messy sensory area, with child and adult-size aprons, might have water one day and Play Doh the next.
Our next stop is the science-themed Peep’s World of water, sand and light for young children who have outgrown PlaySpace. One end of the water area holds a giant sink. Pull the rubber plug and cups and spatulas swirl down the drain – and are stopped by a plastic barrier. “See how the water swirls,” Robinson tells two young girls. There are all sorts of funnels and cups, a water wheel made of spoons, and a large tipping bucket. “There are all kinds of little surprises,” Robinson says.
One sign asks: What can we do with water? Drip * Pour * Splash * Squirt * Float * Sink * Measure. Another sign – Where’d the water go? – is one of many prompts for adults embedded in the walls.
“We’re building descriptive science vocabulary,” Robinson says. “Can you make the water do all these things? A parent might ask what can you measure with water?”
The sand area has dry sand, complete with more funnels and measuring cups, and wet sand. “Just the sensory texture of dry sand. It’s a calming, soothing activity,” Robinson says. “The properties of the wet sand are different. You can draw in it. You can mold it.”
In the final area of Peep’s Word, children experience the different properties of light and shadows. “A lot of kids at this age are afraid of shadows,” Robinson says. “It’s about how the light hits an object. The children can control the light. It’s a way to understand the shadows you see in your room at night.”
On our way out of the museum, we pass the Countdown to Kindergarten model kindergarten classroom that I visited shortly after it opened in 2010.
“People come to us volitionally. We have as many adult visitors as children,” Robinson says. “What are the messages we can share with families. What are the bigger issues? How do you turn this into things that are meaningful? This is not just a place for children, but a place for family learning as well.”
Given how important her own kindergarten experience was, it is perhaps not surprising that Robinson’s favorite children’s book is one she first heard read aloud in kindergarten. The book is “It Looked Like Spilt Milk” by Charles G. Shaw, and it’s about clouds.
“I remember the teacher reading it in kindergarten,” Robinson recalls. “It was the first book I learned to read. I used it in my kindergarten class.”
Here is the first page:
Sometimes it looked like Spilt Milk. But it wasn’t Spilt Milk.