The digital publication of the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC)

It Feels Like Home: The Value of Community

By Paul Tatter and Kristin Leigh
From ASTC Dimensions
March/April 2008

“This is a wonderful atmosphere. Can I live here?” (Visitor comment card)

At Explora we think of membership as a sense of belonging. “Belonging” comes from an old English word meaning a close and secure relationship. Relationships of belonging are personal. They are about you, me, and the stuff of the world that is the medium of our activity.

Being a member has deep roots in belonging, trust, comfort, genuineness, safety, acceptance, and sharing resources. Developing personally meaningful relationships takes time, as reflected in these notes from visitors: “My husband and I have come here before and couldn’t wait for our daughter to be born so that we could share with her what fun we had! She’s now two years old, and we all had a blast. We’ll be back!” “Siempre estamos encantados” (“We’re always charmed”).

Perceiving membership as relationships that develop over time is different from viewing it as a commodity. We see membership as a layering of mutual commitments with other community organizations. Our local adoption exchange uses Explora as a place where children can comfortably meet prospective parents. In this example, membership also involves commitments with informal social groups, families and individuals. Collectively, all of these relationships define the membership.

Members of Explora feel they belong to something larger, like the neighborhood, and to something smaller, like their family or friends. A staff member observed, “One family set up dim sum in our picnic area, with a tablecloth, and a centerpiece they made in our workshop exhibit.”

Explora is a member of the community and, reciprocally, the community belongs in Explora. It’s not irrelevant that every staff person becomes a member when he or she is hired, and everyone in the community can be a member (because they don’t pay if they can’t*). For all of us to be members, we really do need regular visitors to develop relationships with each other, with the staff, and with exhibit and program materials. One visit isn’t enough to develop these relationships. Membership requires durable, mutual commitments. In this broad context of community life, four widely shared commitments are participation, trust, acceptance, and respect.

Perhaps the most important commitment is to participate in the life of Explora as part of the life of each person, family and the community, and, over time, to develop new relationships with the physical world, self, and others. These relationships develop in unpredictable ways, uniquely to each person, with no expectation of ending. For our visitors, this means contributing to Explora through their presence, being willing to engage in inquiry with us, honestly revealing their thinking, and making themselves at home. To ask for this participation, we must be committed to access for all the diverse members of the community; a comfortable, safe, bilingual environment; and a friendly, diverse staff genuinely interested in learning. We design programs and exhibits for repeat visitors and their recurring participation.

A staff member describes how relationships change with regular participation: “‘Rickie’ is 11 now. He and his family have been coming to Explora regularly since I started working here. As I have gotten to know the family better, our relationship has become more informal, and I enjoy seeing them—like one might enjoy having friends come over. Rickie brought a plant he’d started from a seed to contribute to the Experiment Bar. Every time he comes, he wants to check on his plant.”

Similarly, a grandmother describes her grandson: “Diego is 8 years old. He started coming to Explora four years ago. He first spent all of his time at the ball run. Later it was one or two hours in the water area, then Shapes of Sound, then Systems in Motion. Today, Diego talks about Explora as his second home. He knows the staff and every change. Everywhere he goes is his favorite. Now he brings his friends to show them around.”

Another commitment members must make is trust. We ask visitors to trust us enough to take intellectual risks, to believe that we won’t embarrass them, and to embark on explorations for which the outcomes are unknown. At the same time, we trust visitors to use our many loose materials in creating their own learning experiences.

A staff member describes such an experience: “In November families from two Title I schools spent una noche especial at Explora. They brought all the kids, from 20s to babies. There were about 350 people. Most of Explora’s bilingual staff came. Parents spontaneously helped serve food and assisted the staff. I sat down with a teenager at the Magna-cam. We magnified money. He was so interested that I gave him a dollar to examine. In half an hour, he found me to return the dollar. Later, he saw me across the room and brought me to meet his older brother.”

A child attending the same event wrote, “Querido Explora, a mi me gusta ir a Explora mucho, mucho, y mucho. Después yo voy a ir otra vez.” (“Dear Explora, I like coming to Explora a lot, a lot, and a lot. I will come again later.”)

Members also make a commitment to accept each other. Explora often serves as a meeting place. “I began coming to Explora as a mother with two children. I have many friends with children that have come to Explora for as many years as me. Now I work here. Increasingly, conversations have led to child development, what parents have observed their children doing and learning at Explora, and conversations about their families. Parents are increasingly trusting, and I have observed parents who had been ‘hands off’ begin to interact with their children and the activities.”

Many members meet the same people here each week, and this notion of Explora as a meeting place rubs off, even on people who didn’t intend to attend the meeting. Explora’s staff and environment support an inclination to see others around you, even strangers, as belonging to your community. Homeschool parents find each other and share ideas. Adoptive parents meet regularly to create peer groups for their children and support networks for themselves.

With acceptance of other community members comes respect. “I think that being here makes me feel like I can make anything” (visitor comment card). Whether it’s the grandmother who, over the years, taught all of her grandchildren to walk in Explora’s Knee-Hi-Sci area, teens from different parts of town working together in our Youth Program, or hundreds of families from underserved neighborhoods at a family night, all of these community members respect each other’s presence and the commitment manifested through that presence.

A school principal sent this note: “WOW—that was truly a wonderful, powerful, exciting, and so engaging evening. There were so many moments I observed last night—two students talking about vibrations, delighted laughter about air pressure, a little ADHD girl focusing on water flow for 20 minutes, parents and students building marble tracks together. My heart was full with the vision of what learning and exploring the world together can be.”

Membership comes back to one of Explora’s six core values, the value of community: “…We value the diverse community in which we live, to which we strive to make a positive contribution and to create an environment where all members of this community feel a sense of comfort and belonging.” Or, as one visitor wrote on a comment card, “I love this place…it makes me feel right at home.”

Paul Tatter is associate director and Kristin Leigh is educational services director at Explora, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

* Explora’s Family Membership is available at no cost to families whose children qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. Applications are distributed through schools and selected social service organizations.

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