Retrospective: The lesson of the museum store (6.23.2006)

Editorial: Here’s the second in a series of reruns retrospectives I’m running all week here at CO9s. This one goes well with the one I posted yesterday. Students learn best in an environment where their curiosity is nurtured and sculpted, and this museum store vignette is a great microcosm of what I wish academia were really like most of the time. I think the message that we have to de-institutionalize learning in order for it to become compelling to young people is an important one, and I hope that I embody that message every day in my work.

The Lesson of the Museum Store

Originally posted: June 23, 2006


Since writing that post, the 2.5-year old is now almost 4, and she has a 2-year old sister who likes the museum store almost as much. Sadly, this particular museum store in the mall closed over the summer. But there’s still the real thing just a half hour away, and it’s a LOT more dangerous on the family budget.

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.

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