They make it look so easy. The NBA player going up for a lay-up. The jazz pianist improvising on stage. The cook who whips up a delicious soup in minutes. Experts make difficult tasks seem effortless. Maybe even so effortless that you are lulled into thinking – I could do that. And maybe you could, but only with years of practice. Good teachers in classrooms and informal educational settings like museums do it too. They make it look easy. But it’s not. A quick look around Boston Children’s Museum offers some examples.
Start with the Visitor Experience Associate who greets you. While he smiles and answers your question about how to use the lockers, his eyes are searching 360 degrees as groups of people pass by in multiple directions. He notes the toddler wandering into the bubbles exhibit by himself, ready to step in if no adult appears soon. He remains calm and sympathetic listening to a parent complain about traffic in downtown Boston, and gives a high five to a frequent visitor leaving for the day. And that’s just the first few minutes of his shift.
Upstairs in the Countdown to Kindergarten Classroom a staff person sits on the floor amidst a pile of puppets. She holds a closed book in her hand. There are a dozen preschoolers and their grown-ups scattered around the room. Several people are sitting around a table building with plastic construction pieces. A girl drops a handful of alphabet magnets on the floor. One child is running back and forth from one end of the space to the other. It’s a little noisy and everyone is doing their own thing. The Museum staff member starts talking to the family nearby. In just a few minutes she’s going to read a story. Would they like to listen? She shows them the book cover. Another child is curious and comes closer. At the same time another staff member casually circles the room picking up loose toys. A few minutes later everyone is gathered around on the rug. Kids are holding puppets, listening to the story, repeating rhyming words, and practicing literacy skills. It looks so spontaneous. But it’s not. Getting young children to sit still and focus, especially with all the distractions around the museum, takes practice and planning. One of the factors that contributes to a successful storytime is months of ongoing work by museum staff, building a regular audience of children and adults who recognize the storytime pattern, and model appropriate social skills for new visitors.
In the Art Studio small groups of children and adults are engaged in creating color collages and drawings for a collaborative color mobile which, once completed, will be exhibited on the porch of the Studio. At first you may not even notice any staff. The activity seems to be self-directed. Self-directed play is critical to human development and providing opportunities for self-directed experiences is a Museum goal (read more about self-directed play at the Power of Play). But while the activity may be self-directed, it takes a skilled art educator to develop it. What materials are offered to families? Are they familiar enough to be welcoming and accessible, yet unusual enough to be challenging and push children and adults of different ages to explore in new ways? Are there enough materials for each person but not so many that it is overwhelming? What are the prompts that get kids started? The images hanging on the wall and the books set out on the counter are all carefully chosen to stimulate imagination. Hours of thought and preparation go into creating the context that inspires creative exploration.
The next time you visit your child’s day care or classroom or afterschool program or a museum and you see staff playing pretend with a toddler, joining an older child in a messy hands-on science experiment, sharing resources with an adult, or perhaps just standing off to the side, take a second look. Gifted educators are constantly engaged, smoothly shifting gears from gracious host, to planner, to facilitator, to teacher, to play partner, to observer. They only make it look easy.