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EducationWorking with Students
The Worlds Children Create
By Sally Middlebrooks

Sally Middlebrooks was director of educational projects at ASTC from 1999 to 2003. Her book Getting to Know City Kids: Understanding Their Thinking, Imagining, and Socializing, reports on a study of "what urban children do and think as they build and play." Here she shares what she learned from the children she talked to and possible implications for museum researchers and educators.

My Background
I worked in Central Park from 1982 to 1991, first as the manager of Belvedere Castle and then as the director of education for the Central Park Conservancy.

I think what was compelling for me as a child persists for me as an adult and as a teacher and researcher: a curiosity about the natural world and a delight in being among children.

Getting to Know City Kids
I would like to tell you about some things I learned when I asked children, ages 8-12 years old, what they do and play when on their own. What I learned from these children—specifically, how they actively construct the world for and by themselves—is likely not news to you, but it's good news and it deserves repeating as we consider, for example, how to build on the richness and vitality of children's lives in our programs, exhibits, and spaces.

The Children
Because 15 of my 22 years working with kids have been in New York City, the kids I talked with live in Manhattan, in the economically disadvantaged neighborhoods of Harlem and East Harlem. The majority of the children are African-American and some come from families with a Puerto Rican background. To learn what city kids do on their own, I asked the children to draw, take photographs using disposable cameras, and to talk—first in pairs, then one-on-one. So far, I've talked with 94 children—some briefly, others for 2 to 5 hours. I audiotaped all our conversations and videotaped about 14-hours' worth.

Focus on "Worldmaking"
I am intrigued with all forms of play the children described to me, but what I listened for were building activities—what I call, "worldmaking," to borrow a term from Nelson Goodman. I learned that inside city apartments, kids turn closets into spaces for playing house and use bedcovers to make tents for camping out; and outside, on city playgrounds, they transform fixed climbing apparatus into mansions; and in vacant lots and buildings (and, if they're lucky, in trees), they shape wood, cardboard, and bricks to build clubhouses. As nine-year-old Max told me, "We [kids] were like a little construction crew."

Here's Max's drawing of himself and one of the clubhouses he built: Max and his clubhouse

Stacy's clubhouse And here's the playhouse Stacey drew where she plays after school with three boys and a girl, all nine years old and "real close." The house she drew has a door, four windows, a peaked roof, and a chimney. What interests me is the smoke curling from the chimney. For me, it's a sign that this place is occupied, inhabited. I wanted to be let into the worlds children build. But I am an outsider. I wondered if I was too big, too old, and maybe too white. I knocked and waited.

My Compass Points and Map
In this work, I asked the children for their help. I told them that little was known about what city kids do and play so they were the experts. What I did not tell them was that what research there is consistently portrays kids who look like them as either passive victims or as monsters. Instead, I tried to follow the advice of an eleven-year old boy named Sean, who told me:

You have to understand, we're not like angels or nothing. So we be doing some bad stuff, but not always... Like me; if you saw me, you would think I'm one of those kids, but if you talk to us, talk to talk, then you'd really understand how smart we are.

What the Children Told Me
City kids transform their environment despite living in densely populated neighborhoods plagued by poverty, crime, drugs, and school failure; despite the fact that they must play in-between, in the margins and at the edges of a world built and controlled by adults. They use what's available to them -- time, space, objects, people -- for their own devices. They are opportunistic; they are also resourceful and imaginative.

For example, a group of girls, ages 9 to 14 years old, turn a playground's climbing tower into a mansion -- the fake mother on the top, sisters on lower levels. In their new world, benches become a school; the concrete seal sculpture, their car; a piece of wood, the counter of a store; and Monopoly money, currency.

Girls on a playground
We act like we own the whole world and we got a lot of money and we live in a BIG house. For us it's fun -- to pretend like we are mothers -- to see how it feels. 'Cause when we pretend, we see how it feels.
-- Michelle, 9 years old.

Inside apartments, kids' play is confined by limited space that is shared with other family members. Play may be confined to a bedroom unless, with adults' permission--or, if adults are away--they are free to play throughout the apartment; free to stage elaborate dramas like this version of cops and robbers that begins with the cops--Ali, nine years old, and his younger brother--having dinner at the Seafood Palace.

Koys playing cops and robbers

It's a day like any day for "New York's finest" for just as Ali and his partner finish eating, they spot two robbers (their two boy cousins who are visiting) and jump into their squad car (a particular chair in the living room). The chase is on. The robbers are eventually caught and put in jail (a hall closet). Fortunate for the game, the jailed robbers are soon "bailed out" and so the game will continue. Ali told me:

It's REALLY fun . . . And sometimes we might take a break off and do like regular police workers do: go off for doughnuts. And then we come back to the house, we start playing again, until they leave again.

Inside, girls report playing school and playing with dolls, and girls dress themselves up, pretending to go out -- shopping or to a party, as pictured in Figure 5. Girls pretending

The next drawing is of the teepee eight-year-old Brenda makes with her younger girl cousin using two chairs and Brenda's pink satin bedcover. Brenda is on the left. The girls pretend they are camping out.

Brenda turns off the light and the girls read themselves creepy stories they have checked out of their local library. Brenda tells me:

I just pretend that I'm NOT in the bedroom, that I'm outside. Like it's sundown so we'd have this fire here, and we'd put marshmallows on the fire like we're cooking it. Instead of a stick, we usually use a spoon. And we sing camp songs sometimes. And we have a lot of fun.

Brenda and cousin at the teepee

Some Hunches
Here's a list of what I think I learned about the children:

  • They like to do things, build things, and make up things
  • They value friends and friendships
  • They delight in authoring, staging, directing, and, of course, starring in stories that have a touch of drama, mystery, and adventure in them
  • They like to have fun -- a complex notion that includes feelings of mastery and control
  • They bring with them know-how, knowledge, resourcefulness, and courage, and
  • They have theories, feelings, and visions about the world -- what it is now, what it could be, and who they could be in it.

Possible Implications
I wonder what implications, if any, museum professionals find in this small project for your work as a museum educator. For me, the work suggests that all children, and poor kids of color in particular, are disadvantaged by our failure to acknowledge and value how smart they really are. By paying attention to children's ideas, interests, hopes, and dreams, we in museums can build on important aspects of children's lives, knowledge, and abilities.

I also wonder what implications, if any, museum researchers find in this small project for their work. It seems to me that mapping, tracking, counting, keeping time, and measuring are helpful, but tell us little about children's thinking and meaning-making. Approaches that go beyond surveys, questionnaires, quizzes, and observations may better capture the social, intellectual, and imaginative significance of children's experiences in museums, providing compass points to guide the individual and collective work we do as worldmakers.

Sally's book Getting to Know City Kids was published by Teachers College Press.

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