Book Review: Engaging Young Children in Museums by Sharon E. Shaffer

Originally posted on Medium. November 10, 2016

This week I decided to write a review of a book written to help develop skills in the museum education field. As a museum educator, I believe it is important to read published works about the field to continue to provide new ways of educating school groups and the public. I chose to review Sharon Shaffer’s Engaging Young Children in Museums because not only it reiterates the importance of developing various ways to educate people but the methods shared can be used in any type of museum and audiences of various ages. The following is the review of Shaffer’s book:

Shaffer’s book was laid out in three different sections to introduce the idea of engaging young children in museums. The first section discusses the audience and brings up these questions: who are they? How has the audience changed over the years? The second section then discusses using learning theory and transition the theory into practice. Then the third section revealed future possibilities in museum education especially for young children. Each of the sections have two or three chapters that go into detail about the audience, learning theory and practice, and the future possibilities; the chapters are also divided by providing sections: an introduction, descriptions and arguments, and a conclusion.

In the first section, the three chapters introduce the book as well as discuss understanding young children as an audience. The first chapter introduces the framework for thinking about early learning in museums, and it explores object-based methods that were used effectively in all disciplines as well as in early childhood classrooms. Shaffer also discusses twenty-first century trends and reiterates that it is important to create experiences that are interesting, engaging, inspiring, and provocative.

In the second chapter, she revealed the history of museums in America and the emergence of children’s museums as well as the development of the relationship between children and museums. She also revealed both children’s and traditional museums are partnering with schools in new and different ways to be able to bring content and learning strategies to students and teachers to enrich understanding. In the book, Shaffer brought up these questions that still need attention and time to answer: What role should museums play in education that has traditionally been the responsibility of schools? What strengths do museums offer that are unique to these institutions, yet relevant for children and teachers in more formal settings? In what ways can museums support and contribute to formal early learning? While we cannot immediately answer these questions yet, it is important to figure out the answers by understanding our communities’ needs and our museums’ role in the community.

The third chapter is mainly focused on learning theories and how they can be applied into practice. To have a better understanding of how to educate young children, Shaffer explains how the learning theories can be reviewed and interpreted as educators plan lessons for young children. I appreciate that this chapter give a description of the learning theory and a layout of the theory to visually explain how it can help educate our audiences. For instance, Shaffer describes George Hein’s model in the book Learning in the Museum (1998) which revealed the complexity of learning; the model is divided into four domains that represent different categories of educational theories where the values and beliefs are defined about knowledge ascribed to each domain, and ideally within the theory support each other. Also, other theory models include Early Learning Model (made of key elements essential to construction of knowledge: explore, experience, conceptualize, imagine, create, and knowledge constructed through the process), and thematic approaches to learning (nature of experience, learning through play, ways of knowing, and motivation and learning). Each of these theories were described in detail to purposely aid educators in the classroom and museum setting.

The second section went into detail about early childhood classrooms and museum learning, the key concepts of best practices and best practices for a foundation for early childhood programming in museums. In the fourth chapter, Shaffer discussed various early childhood models and programs, and especially went into further discussion on models including the Montessori Method, the Reggio Emilia model, and the High Scope approach. The Montessori Method focuses on using the child’s surroundings especially nature as inspiration for learning. The Reggio Emilia model encourages collaboration between the child and the teacher to maintain the child-focus in the lesson and embraces self-expression as well as creativity. Meanwhile the High Scope approach focuses on the concept of active participatory learning, or a process designed to make the child a co-creator in his or her learning experience through observation.

Then the fifth chapter discusses key concepts of best practice by explaining the transition to including young children as museums audiences, and how educating young children in museum spaces has grown in the museum community. The chapter also gives the reader an example of a program developed by the Denver Art Museum that uses games and art making activities to allow children to explore their American Indian galleries. It is important that the book included real scenario examples because it gives museum educators detailed ideas to help our organizations get inspired to create similar programs for our young audiences. The fifth and sixth chapters also stress the importance of creating a welcoming environment for museum goers of all ages, and how educators and interpreters can utilize professional development to learn to adapt their lessons that appeal to young children. The last section focuses on making a difference and future promises in the field.

Shaffer describes future trends that will affect the way museums use early learning in their programs. The trends include continuing to see value in creating early learning programs, collaborations and partnerships, and use of technology. To continue to run our museums, we need to make sure we adapt with the changing society and understand its role in the community. Our museums would always have the past as our museums contemplate current practices and the future of the museum field to influence our thinking as well as rekindle our outlook reflecting today’s perspective. I agree with this statement because our institutions are founded in our past and we create innovative programs based on our museums’ missions.

In my experience, educating young children is an essential part of our society and the museums, especially the ones I have worked for and currently work at, can aid their educational experiences. At the Long Island Museum, for instance, I taught young children in kindergarten about primary colors using the museum’s art gallery to help them recognize the colors in paintings and later I gave children color wheels to color in the colors using watercolor pencils; they also listened to a story about the use of colors. I also participated in Family Fun Day at the Long Island Museum by creating crafting activities for families with young children to participate in. By using interactive activities for the children, they can understand the world around them and create a foundation for their continued education as they grow up. As I continue my career in museum education, I hope to continue to learn innovations in engaging with young children in the museum.

What are some examples your institutions are using to educate young children? Are there programs that you collaborate with other institutions or families?

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