Dear Parents At The Thinkery: Step Back and Let Your Kids... Think
When I was a kid a trip to the museum usually meant hours of near silence, standing in long lines, looking at a bunch of old stuff that was roped off and reading the dissertation stapled to the wall next to it in order to find out what I was looking at. Museums have become much more interactive and engaging since my last elementary-school field trip and with the craze is children’s museums, their exhibits full of opportunities for pretend play and hands-on experiments, it’s no surprise that the parents walking around these places are just as excited and awe-stuck as the kids.
Thinkery, one of our favorite spots to visit in Austin’s new-to-me Mueller District (the area was home to Austin’s only airport back when I was a kid), is no exception to this new way of museum exploration and in one quick glance around the place you’ll see kids AND adults elbow deep in all the awesomeness the exhibits have to offer-which is think is great. As a parent, I am so appreciative of business that go out of their way to make an experience interesting for parents and children, but while we were there, I noticed a surprisingly high number of well-meaning parents that didn’t let their children explore independently. They followed them around constantly, interjecting their “expert” opinions instead of allowing their little ones time to… well…think.
Adults, I get it. You’re excited. These new museums are AMAZING, but if you’re not careful, your words and actions may discourage your child from experiencing one of the main things this wonderful child’s haven was created to support: imagination. One of Thinkery’s key values* is to “unleash creativity by exploring the path between what is and what can be imagined.” If the child walking up to an exhibit is instructed to do exactly what the adult holding his hand tells him to do because “this is how it works,” then you haven’t given that child the time to think-to imagine-all the possibilities that display has to offer.
Our intentions as parents are well-meaning. In these types of situations we usually just want to show our kids how totally cool something can be. But (check your ego at the door real quick) our version of cool isn’t necessarily our kid’s version of cool. Our view of “right” doesn’t mean our kid’s view is “wrong.” So, using the observations I made while watching my kid use a hand drum as an umbrella, I decided to write out three ways parents can encourage their littles to use their own imaginations.
Make Them Work For It: In the same water-play area pictured above there are two buckets. A button on each side controls each one of the buckets. My kids had discovered one of these buttons but not the other. Instead of saying, “There’s another button on the other side for the other bucket,” I asked them a series of questions: Is that a button? Yes. What happens when you push it? It fills the bucket with water. How do you fill the other bucket? Eyes get big, they look around and off they go in search of another button. I knew exactly how to fill the other bucket but instead of presenting the information to them on a silver-platter, I made them work for it-they had to think up the possibilities. Is the button higher or lower? Is it the same size and shape? Is it in the same place on the opposite side? Go ahead, Mama! Let them sweat a little!
Change Your Language: Stack the blocks like this. Pull the lever over here. Hold the bucket like this. Put the drum down, it’s not an umbrella! (I will admit it was hard to hold my tongue on this one being a music teacher and all.) These phrases are all instructions-directives on how to do something the “right” way. When these types of statements come from their parents, many children hear them and assume the adult-in-charge knows what they’re doing and are less likely to explore freely.** Change things up a little and give your child permission to do something different! Turn those directives into what-if statements or again-questions. What do you think will happen if you stack your blocks like that? Is there another lever to pull? Have you tried a different way to hold the bucket? Would you please put the drum down, it’s not an umbrella?! 😉
Here, this little lady discovered that she could rocket the tubes out of the pipes using the water pressure in this water feature. The tubes are “supposed to” be used for building but if she hadn’t been given the freedom to tinker, she wouldn’t have been a rocket scientist for that moment in time!
Parallel play: Steal a page from the toddler playbook and and spend some time doing your own thing without interacting with your child at all. Stand right next to your little and stack the blocks, plug in the wires or fill a plate with gourmet plastic food and don’t say a word. Allow her to simply observe your actions and draw her own conclusions, choose what she wants to mimic or ask questions about. I’ve noticed that when children observe adults engaging in their own creative research, they become more confident in their willingness to do the same.
Step away from the exhibits: Yes, you read correctly. You have my permission to NOT play with your child and not feel guilty about it! Bring a book and read, catch up on some emails or simply sit back and observe. Watch your little one tinker and create and explore in this wonderful environment that has been designed just for them. See how their brows furrow when working through a problem. Notice the subtle grin that appears once they solve it on their own, satisfied and proud. Hear the squeal of laughter as they experience the wonders of science and art, engage in pretend-play or admire the work of another child. I promise you will not be disappointed.
The best teachers are those who show you where to look but don’t tell you what to see.
-Alexandra K. Trenfor-
*Read more about Thinkery’s key values and their awesome
origin story on their website: ThinkeryAustin.org.
**Check out this interesting video that demonstrates how children’s behavior is directly affected by the opinions and actions of adults.