Remembering the Kit Department and its pioneering loan service

Hayley Mercer is the fall Elvira Growdon Intern for Collections and Archives Management. She is currently a student at Simmons University in her third year pursuing a Masters in History and Information and a Masters in Library Science with a concentration in Archives Management.

As the fall Elvira Growdon Intern for Boston Children’s Museum, I had the opportunity to process, rehouse, and create a finding aid (or guide to the collection) for the records and materials of the now-closed Kit Department. From the 1930s to 2010, the Kit Department at Boston Children’s Museum created and circulated kits covering hundreds of different subjects to surrounding schools.

Initially, the Museum operated a loan service where collections items and labels were rented out to schools, libraries, and youth groups so that children could experience the Museum wherever they were. These items encompassed a wide range of topics across various fields of study, from Norwegian culture to volcanoes to textiles. This loan service meant that, for example, children at Boston Children’s Hospital who were too ill or injured to come to Boston Children’s Museum could still experience its exhibits from their hospital or convalescent home.

Loan box in schoolroom, ca. 1930-1939 [permalink: https://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/8p58ph64c]
Loan box at Home for Convalescent Children, ca. 1930-1939 [permalink: https://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/8p58pj400]

For over 25 years these loan kits acted as portable exhibits, offering information on the topic of the loan box as if the children were at the Museum itself. However, these kits did not offer any additional instruction on ways to incorporate the kit into classroom activities or encourage discussion among students. Additionally, as these loan kits contained collections items held by the Museum, extra care had to be taken with handling and students were not able to fully interact with them. Because of this, the Museum began considering ways it could harness the infrastructure already established by the loan kit program to circulate kits focused on fostering classroom activities and promote experiential learning.

Kit Loan department, 1956

In January 1964, the loan service department submitted their official proposal for “a program of portable, loanable kits of materials designed specifically for the teaching and learning of selected topics in the elementary curriculum and available to teachers on an ‘as-needed’ basis from a central source” called the MATCH Box program. The program’s name was taken from what its creators considered to be its primary purpose—to serve as Material Aids for Teaching Children—and was designed with the aim of providing teaching aids to educators and engaging ways of learning to students. Fueled by the belief that “direct, personal experiences are better than any abstraction of those experiences,” the MATCH Box kits would include a broad range of materials to encourage hands-on learning through games and activities alongside more traditional teaching strategies. 

Each kit came with audiovisual materials (including videos, slideshows, and music), books, artifacts, games, and curriculum guides, along with specific material unique to each kit—the MATCH Box aimed at teaching about medieval people came with a dress-up activity, the waterplay[FR2]  kit included funnels, tools, and buckets to maximize water playability, and the press kit had instructions teaching students how to start and print their own newspaper. 

Two students engaging in the Waterplay MATCH Box activities, ca. 1970-1979

Between 1965 and 1967, the Museum created prototype boxes and guides for thirteen kits, and by 1970 the MATCH Box kits were being used in schools in the Greater Boston Area and beyond. Over the years, other kit programs would be developed with different educational goals. Discovery Kits were activity-focused units where students could learn-through-doing about topics like papermaking, burn prevention, and quilt-making. Study Kits provided in each unit a wealth of resources like books, photographs, and objects for students to engage in quiet study time. More kits were added to the MATCH Box program as well, which was later renamed the Curriculum program to reflect its goal of providing a fully-developed educational program all in one kit. Similarly, the Exhibit Kits program emerged from the original loan exhibit program, with collections items that had been specially chosen to be used as a “teaching collection.” These teaching collection materials could be freely used and explored by students in a way they couldn’t be before, creating an even more engaging “mini-museum” experience.

Although the Kit Department closed in 2010, it provided countless students throughout New England the opportunity to experience new ways of learning and discovery from their classrooms, pioneering efforts to promote experiential learning. If you would like to learn more about the history of the Kits Department and the various lending programs it ran, or to find out anything else about the amazing stories and history of the Boston Children’s Museum, please feel free to visit the Museum Archives!

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