The lesson of the museum store

[tags]Teaching, learning, museum, kids, education[/tags]


Last night we packed up and went to the mall for some playtime (the kids’ play area has been a Doodlebug favorite for a long time) and some small-scale shopping. After the Mrs. went off to shop, though, Doodlebug wanted to run around the mall rather than play. We ended up at a newly-arrived store: The Children’s Museum Store, which is evidently a branch of the store found on the bottom floor of the awesome Indianapolis Children’s Museum (consistently ranked as the top children’s museum in the country).

Discovering this store has serious implications for our family budget. There is a small but great selection of cool kites (which I like to play with moreso than Doodles, although she’s getting big enough to handle one on her own), cool toddler toys, and — most dangerous of all — a huge wall of Thomas the Tank Engine stuff, including one of those big train tables that Doodlebug simply adores. (We couldn’t bring ourselves to investigate how much one of those would be after finding out that one little bridge by itself was $30.) Also lots of dinosaur stuff to go along with the new exhibit at the Museum, which she was surprisingly into; and several levels of the BrainQuest “books” she has really come to enjoy since she got the age 2-3 version for Christmas; and dozens of paychecks’ worth of neat stuff besides.

I was, in fact, shocked that we managed to avoid buying anything from there — both because we knew Doodles wanted to play with stuff there, and also because her Dad did. I suspect that frugality won’t last forever.

What is so appealing about all this stuff? There’s something mysterious, almost addictive, about things that are simultaneously fun and educational — and which provide signficant amounts of both fun and learning. I think it’s because toys like this show us that the divide between pleasure and learning is not so great as we think — perhaps isn’t even there at all unless we choose to put it there — and they show us what learning really could be like, and probably really is in its purest form.

Somewhere between being a 2.5-year old, like my daughter, and being a college student, that disconnect between play and learning becomes profound and almost irreversible. Our play becomes mindless and our learning becomes boring and overly serious. The sense of exploration, questioning and questing, and having fun while discovering what is out there is inexplicably sucked out of schools, teachers, and students alike. We have taken the tremendous joy and fun of learning and discovery and institutionalized it.

And so I think it takes an intentional de-institutionalizing — in other words, a personalizing — to bring all the fun back. This is just one place where parenting plays a huge role; as my daughter’s dad, I can build up in her a sense of the pleasure of learning by surrounding her with an environment that admits no denial of that pleasure — not just neat toys, but more importantly attitudes and actions that allow her to gain a foothold herself which lay a foundation for how she approaches learning her whole life. As I’ve said before: Most of what we call “educational” problems in our schools are really parenting problems, and similarly for the successes.

Likewise, although my students are at a far less formative stage of their development (or are they?), I can surround them with something personal, not institutional, that dares them to tell me that learning is universally boring and uninteresting. Enthusiasm like this is very hard to resist; many of us who teach are teachers as a direct result of somebody‘s enthusiasm. I can’t expect to change the mind of a student about mathematics if the only experiences they’d had up to that point were the typical negative authoritarian ones in high school, but I can make myself stick out as perhaps the one person in their whole experience who thought math was beautiful and interesting and fun, and therefore force them to think about it everything they want to think otherwise.

It is hard work, but necessarily and important — and fun. Now if you all will excuse me, I am going to go sneak off to the mall and buy that kite that was shaped like a sailboat.


Filed under Education, High school, Higher ed, Life in academia, Student culture, Teaching

7 responses to “The lesson of the museum store

  1. I was thinking about this very thing the other day. Somewhere along the line — my thinking is some time in elementary school — a lot of kids start to dislike school. Think about how eager they are to start in Kindergarten.

  2. liz

    Downtown College Prep is the school profiled in Joanne Jacobs‘ book, Our School. One of the math teachers there, Dan Greene, is starting a blog, The Exponential Curve.

    “Our students are primarily Latino, are far below grade level in their math and reading skills, and will be the first in their families to go to college. We refer to our students as being on an exponential learning curve: the average level in math of our incoming freshmen is 5th grade, and we need to get them to a 12th grade level in 4 short years.

    [snip]My hope in starting this blog is to try to start a forum in which math teachers can collaborate and share their ideas for creatively and effectively teaching specific concepts and structuring their courses.”

    He’d like to hear from other math teachers. I sent him some links to your site.

  3. Great article – I agree completely that math is and should be fun. One thing that I find really “reels” in my students is to share my own life experiences of mathematics “outside” the math classroom. Then I ask them to bring in examples from their lives where they experienced mathematical concepts such as composite functions, inverse functions, and parametric functions.

    It reinforces that “Math is Everywhere”!

  4. I strongle belive that math is very importent for kids.we have to encourage child deep in math and science…


    online science game

  5. Jami

    “…but I can make myself stick out as perhaps the one person in their whole experience who thought math was beautiful and interesting and fun, and therefore force them to think about it everything they want to think otherwise.”

    Hit the nail on the head 🙂
    It is amazing what that tiny attitude can do for the people you are trying to help. I only had a handful of those teachers… but I highly doubt that I will ever forget what they taught me. I wish there could have been more.

  6. sarah

    I heard that one of Brain Quest’s originators is creating an online daily newspaper for kids in the US. The name is Daily 10. The website is under construction. They are supposed to be live in late November.