MEDARVA: The Serious Business of Play

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It’s more than a ‘pleasant pastime’ at Children’s Museum of Richmond.

By Karen Coltrane
Henrico Monthly
August 2014

Last year more than 429,000 visitors came to the Children’s Museum’s Richmond-area locations. While most adult visitors view the museum initially as a safe place for children to play, they are pleased to learn that our exhibits are actually designed to immerse both children and their adults in pretend play – which studies show is critical to developing young brains and preparing children for school.

We meet parents every day looking for educational enhancement opportunities for even their youngest children. This is natural, as engaged parents intuitively understand that their children’s brains are working hard well before their school years. In fact, the brain actually develops more rapidly between birth and age 5 than during any other time in life. Parents are often surprised, however, to discover that it is their child’s ability to regulate his or her own behavior (known as self-regulation) that is actually one of the strongest predictors of future academic success. 

Early childhood is the crucial time for the development of self-regulation – defined as the ability to control impulse and emotion, to shift and focus attention, and to engage in socially responsible behavior. We see parents working hard to foster their children’s self-regulation every day in the museum lobby as they deal with their youngsters’ disappointment at leaving the Children’s Museum in the afternoon. Parents may remind their children that they cannot have the joy of coming back another day if they don’t leave now, or explain that screaming in public is not appropriate behavior and will result in a consequence. Regardless of their specific technique, these parents’ efforts are important because studies show that the well-regulated child’s ability to wait for a turn, to voluntarily clean up after a play period, and to persist at a challenging activity contribute more to their future success in school than anything else, including specific content knowledge. 

So how do we help children learn to self-regulate? How do we insure that rapidly growing young brains are getting what they need to develop to their potential? An expanding body of academic research in early childhood development suggests that pretend play is essential in children’s mastery over their own thinking, emotions and behavior. It is this same research that informs the Children’s Museum’s exhibit design and development of our hands-on education programs. 

When parents understand that pretend play is much more than a pleasant pastime, they give themselves and their children a powerful tool for helping construct active, social, creative and empathetic brains. Play is how children learn about the world, practice lessons and problem solve, plus it is fun. We often see children immersed in pretend play in our Monument Market grocery store and café exhibit, serving our food props to their eager parents and grandparents. Everyone engaged in this scene delights in the inevitable admonition from the child to “Only have one cookie or you’ll spoil your appetite!” In this play, the child is practicing what she has learned from her caregivers, stepping into the role of disciplinarian and thereby becoming more disciplined and self-regulated herself. Predictably, studies confirm that children who spend lots of time engaged in such play score high on tests of imagination and creativity – the very skills that business leaders say will be in high demand going forward.

All of the Children’s Museum of Richmond’s exhibits are designed to help children and caregivers get lost in the moment while interacting together. By offering space, time and realistic props in a variety of settings, the exhibits create whimsical atmospheres designed to engage everyone. For example, we see parents have fun with their daughters and sons as they select tools and replace auto parts in our Boulevard Garage exhibit. However, if you look a bit deeper, you will see children practicing the important mathematical foundation skills of sorting, matching and problem-solving as they put the tools in the right-sized spaces and replace the rusty muffler with the clean one. And as they “work” with other little mechanics, they improve their social skills. 

Likewise, steps away in the Emergency Room exhibit, parents are as fascinated as their children with the digital height meter. We love to watch children figure it out, and then bring their adults over to determine their height in feet and inches, too. While it is great fun for everyone, the children are actually getting a real life lesson in measurement – and usually a subsequent math tutorial as they work with their adult to determine the difference in their heights. 

Parents share their children’s stories of discovery and advancement both at the Children’s Museum and in the greater world with us frequently. However, it was my own son’s initial experience in the museum 10 years ago at the age of 8 that brought home to me the power of a child-centered environment and the value a children’s museum holds to educate both children and parents. As a rough and tumble boy, I was certain the climbing tree, the water play or the cave would be among his favorite exhibits. However, he surprised me completely when he spent most of his visit in the art studio, especially since he dreaded art class at school. He said he loved the museum’s art studio because he was allowed to make whatever he wanted and he was clearly proud of his work. In one visit he not only discovered the joy of creating art, he saw himself for the first time as a creative person. 

Admittedly, Richmond’s art studio is one of the biggest and possibly finest in any children’s museum in the country. Parents consistently rate it as the best exhibit and we believe it exemplifies the museum’s educational philosophy of encouraging children to lead in their own discovery, with their caregiver as the supportive “guide on the side.” But you never know which exhibit or program will ignite an interest – or even a passion – in those rapidly developing brains.

As our community’s premier early childhood education institution, the Children’s Museum of Richmond combines specific learning objectives with play in our informal learning environments. The result is a stimulating setting where children naturally learn while having fun. And hopefully the joy a child experiences when discovering new things at the museum will be just the beginning of a lifetime made happy and meaningful by a love of learning.

Karen Coltrane is president and CEO of the Children’s Museum of Richmond, which has locations in Short Pump, Chesterfield and Fredericksburg in addition to its central location in Richmond.