Is Children’s Play Declining? What are Museums Doing to Encourage Playtime

Added on Medium, July 20, 2017

When I was on Twitter this week, I came across a tweet from Sage Museum Ed, the American Alliance of Museums’ Ford W. Bell Fellow for Museums & P-12 Ed. She tweeted an article that came to my attention from Huffington Post called “Children’s Play is Declining, But We Can Help Reclaim It”, written by Huffington Post contributor Merete L. Kropp who is a child development and family specialist. Kropp shared data that showed how play has been decreasing over the years. According to the data she shared, between 1981and 1992 there was a 25 percent decrease in children’s time spent playing even though experts in child development have stressed the importance of playing. Playtime has continually decreased over the past 25 years as the article claimed.

Kropp discussed the number of possibilities that contribute to the decline in play and how to encourage children to dedicate their time to play. A few of the examples she briefly discussed about the contributions to decline in play include overly structured schedules, too many extracurricular activities, decreased recess time in school, and increased time in front of a screen. While children find ways to play, they play in small amounts of time in between activities and waiting for their parents or guardians to spend time with them when the adults are occupied with other tasks such as meal prep time and talking on the phone. Then Kropp shared how children should be encouraged to have their playtime with a couple of points including scheduling unstructured time for children to be bored and entertain themselves, providing simple toys with multiple purposes that give opportunities for creativity and problem solving, and following children’s lead during playtime and allow them to negotiate and communicate on their own terms.

This article made me think about how museums have been providing many options for children to engage and play not only during school programs but also during the summer. Museums, especially in the museums I have worked for, can engage children in providing outlets for them to be creative and the desired time to express their creativity. Also, museums have the ability to provide time children can dedicate to, as Kropp pointed out, “participate in complex scientific discovery as they hypothesize, experiment and make generalizations about the world and how it works”.

Museums I work for currently and those that I have worked for have various activities and programs that allow children to express their curiosity as well as their creativity.

The Maritime Explorium in Port Jefferson, for instance, has various projects and activities that encourage children’s creativity and playtime. Inside the Explorium, there is a bailing boat, or a boat that removes water from the boat, filled with rice where kids can play inside the boat. Kids are encouraged to play with the rice by figuring out how many cups of rice could fill a bucket, how many spoonful of rice can fill a bucket, and which size funnel would the rice come out the fastest. They not only entertain themselves using the rice but they also learn about measuring in the playing process.

Children in the rice boat also have the time to use their imaginations, and create their own play world. With the rice boat, there are toys including sea creatures in addition to white pipes, funnels, buckets, shovels, plastic cups, bowls, and spoons. They use these toys and tools to create endless possibilities for the world and games they create. For instance, one girl pretended she owned her own restaurant and served various dishes using the rice as her creations. Another example of unique possibilities was when a girl today pretended she was able to create a roof using the white pipes.

Also today, a brother and a sister walked in and created two different ways of play. The brother took the pipes and created a maze that would send the rice through on the other end of the pipes. Meanwhile, his sister used the bowels of rice to feed four toy sea turtles and an octopus, and then used two buckets to create their homes (she buried each of the toys in the rice, and pretended to create rooms for these houses). The rice boat is not the only place in the Maritime Explorium where children can have the opportunity to be creative and play.

In addition to working on activities such as puzzles, Legos, drawings, and learning how to turn on a light bulb only using a battery, there is another activity children can create projects however they wanted with limited instructions. Located in the front center of the Maritime Explorium, especially during the summer, there is a project children can work on that changes each week to give them a chance to create something new to take home.

Some of the projects the kids worked on were bug houses, building with paper towel and toilet paper tubes, and seascapes. Bug houses are places where bugs are attracted to and use for shelter outside made out of twigs. Seascapes are dioramas of views of the sea, and were made with either cardboard, Styrofoam cup holders, or paper with the option of adding sand onto their projects; they also have the option of creating their favorite sea creatures to add to their seascapes. Each of these projects had additional tools and materials such as scissors, tape, glue sticks, paper, ribbons, markers, pipe cleaners, and popsicle sticks children can use to make their projects unique and creative.

There are endless possibilities, especially for their building with paper towel and toilet paper tubes projects, for children to make their projects their own unique projects. For instance, one of the girls participating in the building with tubes project, using the tools and materials available, created her own robot.

Since the Maritime Explorium believes in the constructivist theory, museum educators like myself give few instructions on how they are made in order for children to not only do their projects by themselves but they develop their own problem solving skills and express their creative energies. As long as the building is open during public hours, the activities introduced at the Maritime Explorium provide opportunities for children to increase their playtime which coincidently are also encouraged in Kropp’s article.

Another example of a museum that I worked for and that also provide ways for kids to spend time playing is the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society in Connecticut. Noah Webster House offers a number of summer camp sessions to allow kids to not only learn more about 18th century America but they also have opportunities to express their creativity.

The summer camp at Noah Webster House in partnership with Westmoor Park, called Colonial Kids’ Adventures, I taught before coming to Long Island allowed children to learn, be creative, and play. Kids have time to learn about 18th century life by performing the tasks individuals living in the time period would have completed such as laundry and mixing recipes to be cooked over a hearth, as well as creating crafts related to the time period including corn husk dolls. They also have time during the day to go outside and play with 18th century toys including ball in cup, stilts, and hoops. I also not only supervised play with the toys but also games that the children decided to play.

When the summer camp children visited Westmoor Park, they participated in outdoor activities that not only allowed them to learn but to play as well. Children learn about outdoor chores on the farm by participating in activities that assist in taking care of the animals including cleaning out stalls. Also, they participated in nature walks throughout the park. Then they played games during lunch breaks and after craft activities. Throughout the program, the children work on their skits which allowed them to express their creativity.

The only rules the children had in creating their skits were they had to be set in the colonial period and reflect what they saw and or learned during the camp. Also, the children were divided into groups based on the assigned family names of people who lived during that period. I assisted them by answering questions they have such as what props and costumes they would need to use for their skits. They created their own dialogue in their stories, and one of the stories I remember was a day in the life of a family traveling through town, visiting neighbors, and eating together at the table. At the end of the program, they performed their skits for their friends and families. Summer camps were not the only way children could have playtime at Noah Webster House.

During public hours and programming, there is a space in the museum that allows children to express their imaginations and creativity. In the lean-to of the 18th century house, there is a space that has a small hearth, cookware, toy food, and silverware that allowed children to pretend to cook and role play stories they come up with. Also, in the rooms off of the lean-to, there is a buttery that stores pretend food the children can use for their playtime and there is another room with a Noah Webster farm set they can play with as well as a sandbox with treasures inside to allow children to find them as if they were archeologists. There are also programs that are geared toward young children that allow playtime and creativity.

Bookworm Adventures, for children between three and six years old and the theme for each program changes each time it is held, promote reading as well as playtime. During the Dr. Seuss themed program I taught, the kids not only listened to Dr. Seuss stories read out loud but they also played with toys, drew and colored pictures, and made crafts. I assisted kids make a sweet version of green eggs and ham using green covered chocolates and marshmallows.

Based on my experience in the museum education field and what I have read in Kropp’s article, I noticed that children not only have a number of things to do in the day but they do need to find more time to play. While the museums I worked for provide opportunities to play, sometimes they are restricted to how long the museums are open and when their adults need to go on to the next thing in their schedules whether it is for kids to attend places such as lessons and/or sports or their adults need to run errands. There are other times that the families also planned other activities to spend more time together. We need to learn to make sure that children can have more time on their own to play, imagine, create, and learn so that way they will be able to understand the communities and society around them more. Museums provide these outlets for children, and should be taken advantage of when the opportunities arise.

How do you feel about children’s playtime? Do you feel that playtime has increased or decreased in recent years? What programs do your museums or organizations offer to allow playtime or time to express their creativity?

To read the article I referenced to, click here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/childrens-play-is-declining-but-we-can-help-reclaim_us_5935c726e4b0c670a3ce6778?platform=hootsuite

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