Friday, February 12, 2010

Nostalgia for Play

By Justine Roberts
Last weekend I participated in the NAREA conference.  It was a two-day event – the first part was a reception held at the DeCordova Museum, and the second was a full day workshop anchored by Lella Gandini, US liason for Reggio.  I was asked to be part of a panel titled “Nostalgia For the Future”.

Five amazing women from Wheelock College, Project Zero, Reggio and Lesley University were going to speak about how Reggio had helped shape their practice and then I, along with 4 other people, were going to respond.

Initially I was confused by the title of the session. How can you be nostalgic for something that hasn’t happened yet?  How do you hold the past and the potential both in your mind at the same time?  It is a kind of idea mash-up. Where it led me, ultimately, was to the transformative power of memory.  Memory can inform our actions in the present, and therefore shape what is to come.  Specifically, when talking about children and childhood those memories are about play: Play Memories. What kind of world would we imagine, and be working toward, if we remembered how serious our own childhood activity was and began to see the children around us through that lens? To step back, childhood is rapidly changing.  Among the people I talk to there is a sense that childhood used to be more:
  • more connected to nature
  • freer and less cautious
  • more physical
  • more dangerous (in a good way)
  • messier
  • more open to possibility
The implication is that today’s children are growing up in a culture that is less able to prepare them for their futures.  In the museum field we believe our organizations add critical value to their communities. One way they do this is to preserve key childhood experiences and make them available to all.  Museums are the antidote to this sense of loss. I like the idea that children’s museums can somehow offer experiences that are relevant across generations and cultures - somehow essential to childhood.  And I think we summarize this idea of a critical ingredient that must be nurtured in children’s lives as PLAY.  That’s a tricky word since many people think of play as disorganized and purposeless. It is easier to talk about play through examples than in the abstract.  But it might be even more powerful to talk about play through an act of memory.  Imagine if adults though about the nostalgia they have for their own childhoods as a gift they could give to the next generation?

I have done an exhibit on play memories, although it was small. That exhibit, part of Go Kids at the Chicago Children’s Museum, uses smell as a trigger to induce adults to share stories from their childhoods with their children.  Children don’t always understand that adults used to be small!  So this component builds connections in both directions: adults relate their childhoods to the children in their lives today, while children develop a new connection with the adults who share their lives. 

Children’s and science museums are increasingly embracing adults as an audience in and of itself – not just as chaperones, or as a captured audience we might as well provide content for - as a central element of the museum visit, and of the child’s learning experience both at the museum and at home.  We need to ask what adults in this setting need and want.  And possibly we will find that reminding adults what the magical, not quite rational world of childhood feels like is a powerful bridge to understanding, appreciation, and partnership with the children in their lives.

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