Early Childhood Education at the Museum

by Treloar Bower, Curator of Education, Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center

How can we improve the museum experience for some of our very youngest visitors? For five years, I lived in Chicago and worked at the Notebaert Nature Museum, part of the Chicago Academy of Science. While at that museum, I had interns from the Erikson Institute, a specialized graduate school offering masters and doctoral degrees in early childhood development. Lucky for me, while I taught my interns about museum programming, they taught me about the unique needs of children younger than 7 years of age. I’m now applying that knowledge to our educational services at the Fort Collins Museum and Discovery Science Center.

The first thing I learned is that young children THINK differently than adults. They lack the physical development in the brain to understand some phenomena. For example, if you pour all of the water from a tall, skinny glass into a short fat glass and ask a 3-year-old if the amount of water in the second glass is the same as the amount that was in the first glass, they will say no, there is less water. They cannot comprehend that the volume of water is the same because the water level in the second glass is lower. It doesn’t matter how many times or ways you try to explain this concept, they lack the physical connections in the brain to understand. Ask the same child the same question in a few years, and your answer will change to the correct one because the child’s brain has further developed.

The next thing I learned is that young children FEEL the same as adults. We tend to think of children has having a different set of emotions from us because they express those emotions in much different ways. In reality, the feeling and intensity of emotion are alike in children and adults, but adults have mastered socially accepted ways of expressing (or repressing) those emotions. My Erikson Institute interns often stress to me that adults tend to think the reverse of this because adults don’t (or at least, shouldn’t) have tantrums over the types of things children do, making us think that the children feel differently than we do.

Because of this great wealth of information and experience I gained from my Erikson interns, I’m planning an early childhood program at the Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center that will debut this summer. Children 3 to 5 years of age, along with a caregiver, will meet at the Museum on Tuesday mornings from 10 to 10:45am, beginning in July, for activities and experiments created just for them, in consideration of how they THINK and FEEL. Keep an eye on our blog for more information!

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