Ten years ago, back when I was Curator of Education, I launched Nip and Tuck’s Barnyard Buddies Storytime for Preschoolers. It was our first official foray into preschool programming, and it was (and continues to be!) so much fun. We’re a big place, and it’s important to sometimes boil down all we offer into one building or one story. Barnyard Buddies lets us do that–plus, our audience is adorable and very easily impressed.
At a conference the next year, a colleague at another museum heard what we were doing. His comment: “Why on earth are you doing preschool programming? Kids that age don’t understand the difference between last week and next week, much less History. You shouldn’t let any child below 4th grade into your museum, because they just can’t learn about History until then.” My response back then vaulted me onto one of my favorite history museum soapbox issue: early childhood learning at history museums.
Today, I will not expound on my full soapbox regarding this topic, except to say: Most history museums are doing a lousy job of reaching out to young children. Museums like Dallas Heritage Village have a unique opportunity because we’re an easy, immersive museum to visit–kids can run, they can be noisy, they can touch. And they’re learning the entire time. But don’t just take my word for it–listen to the experts at Vogel Alcove instead.
When I heard Vogel Alcove was moving into City Park Elementary in 2013 , I made sure staff knew that they should consider the Village an extension of their campus. Over the past year, we’ve hosted these little learners countless times–both on planned, curriculum guided field trips and simple walks through our historic grounds. In preparation for a conference presentation about our partnership, I had asked Katie, Assistant Director, Enrichment, for a few anecdotes about the impact of Dallas Heritage Village on these very special children. She gave me a lot more than just anecdotes–read for yourself how a history museum is having an impact on young, homeless children.
Our toddlers and infants are the busiest users of Dallas Heritage Village. Some classes come at least once a week, and some come more often than that during particularly lovely weather. Many times our preschool classes will wait for a scheduled field trip to take take advantage of having multiple volunteers join them, but some preschool teachers have found that impromptu visits have been very beneficial.
The impact of the children’s visits reveal 5 themes.
- Self-regulation and calming experiences. By far, this was the impact most often cited. 100% of the teachers I asked shared that the biggest change they see in the children is improvement in self-regulatory skills and a sense of calm. They attribute the impact to the gentle, old-fashioned setting of Dallas Heritage Village, and feel that when they walk down the cobbled streets, under the gigantic trees, and past the historic homes, it feels like a place where they can take their time and engage with the children about everyday life. Babies stop crying. One teacher has noticed a marked change in her young toddler who may exhibit agitation and anxiety in the classroom but seems at peace during their walks. Another teacher has noted the great pleasure and sense of purpose that her student receives when they visit to add vegetable scraps to the garden’s compost pile at the farmstead. Especially in children who have experienced trauma, these effects are instrumental to developing positive mental health responses.
- Memory and Anticipation: This is the impact theme that is cited next by teachers. With frequent, repeated visits to Dallas Heritage Village, the children anticipate their favorite stops, and verbalize memories of past visits. One teacher noted that when his older toddlers come to visit, they initiate conversation about the carriage ride they experienced. They talk about the donkeys who pulled the carriage and how it felt to ride up high. Another teacher shared that her pre-verbal children point her, pull her, or urge her in the direction they want to visit – usually to the donkey stable.
- Desensitization to new experiences: This is another impact theme that demonstrates that repeated visits are useful for the children. When the teachers first began to visit DHV last year, or when children new to Vogel first visited with their classes, their reactions to unfamiliar items may have been surprise, fear, or aversion. However, with repeated exposure to these stimuli, the children grow in their appreciation as well as their curiosity. Drawing again on the beloved donkeys – many of our young children typically first respond by keeping a far distance or refusing to approach the large animals; however on repeated visits, particularly with the involvement of Bonnie, the animal caretaker, the children’s interest grows and they are able to come closer to the animals and engage in interactions about their appearance, the food they eat, and how they live. One teacher shared a similar sensitization experience with the herbs that grow in the farmstead’s herb garden. Initial responses to smelling the rosemary and oregano were ones of aversion; however the teachers continued to provide this experience on each visit and have found that the children now look forward to coming into close contact with the herbs and deeply breathe in their aromas. When thinking about long term impact on children’s learning from repeated visits to history museums, I see this one as one of the most influential. Developing this desensitization to the new stimuli at a young age will allow the child to be more receptive to advanced learning in future years.
- Experiential Learning: At DHV our teachers take advantage of the opportunity to engage the children in experiencing things to which they may have had no prior introduction, or things about which they may have only read or seen in books. This rich experience base transfers to the classroom and allows the children to more fully comprehend the books they read, their everyday lives, and even the toys they play with in their development. It seems very simple and overt, but a particularly illustrative example one teacher shared was how a young toddler befriended one of the cats that lives around the stable. First visits indicated that the child had had little previous experience with cats, but upon repeated visitations, the toddler has begun to mimic that cat’s “meow,” and has transferred that new knowledge back to the classroom, by pointing to cats in books and saying, “meow,” developing an attachment to a toy cat in the room, and showing interest in learning the sounds of other animals. A similar, perhaps more historically important example of experiential learning was recounted by another teacher regarding the cotton. The preschoolers showed great interest in this unusual plant that was growing in the garden at DHV, and the teacher took the opportunity to allow them to feel its soft fibers and connect the experience to the T-shirts they were wearing. Extension of this opportunity allows us to recognize that when the children are exposed to agricultural development and economics in their future history classes, they will already have this experience base to draw on which will allow them to more fully comprehend the significance of the crop. Another teacher used the opportunity of the open school house to have a volunteer share his travel experiences with the children, so our preschoolers were experiencing the schoolhouse in a way similar to children in history would have, learning both from the volunteer and from the setting.
- Development of Inquiry: Perhaps all of the four prior impact themes influence this last one, the children’s development of inquiry. Every teacher I spoke with recounted stories that indicate that repeated visits to Dallas Heritage Village prompt the children to deepen their knowledge as they ask questions about what they see and experience. These questions indicate that the children are self-regulated and desensitized enough to integrate new knowledge, and that they are prepared to build on their experience base to develop a framework for the information. While blowing bubbles near the bandstand last spring, preschool children noticed the period photographs the educators had planted and asked questions about how the people looked and what they were doing. Early visits to the donkeys develop interest in their appearance and behavior, but on repeated visitations, children have noticed the photograph of the carriage house that is on the interpretive display, and ask questions about why the house is there and what it was used for. On walks through Millermore or the log cabin nearby, I have heard children noticing the primitive accommodations in the log cabin and the contrasting elegance of the furniture and the crystal in Millermore, as they ask, “What is that?” regarding each unfamiliar item. On recent visits to the chickens, preschoolers have asked questions such as how and where they sleep, what they eat, and why they don’t fly away. Each question provides the opportunity for the teacher to scaffold the children’s learning both about the animals and about the interrelationship of the animals and the people who care for them. A sense of inquiry and self-directed learning are leading indicators of academic success, and experiential learning such as they are receiving at DHV prompts these skills that will continue to aid the children’s development.
What I appreciate most about the opportunity for ongoing visits to Dallas Heritage Village is that there is no pressure to see it all or do it all at once. Teachers can take their time with the visits, slowing down to absorb the details of just one or a handful of relevant experiences. As the children sit down under the large trees for snack, they enjoy a few moments of restful observation and reflection, integrating this normalizing experience into their lives.
In the coming years, we’ll be talking more with our museum colleagues about early childhood learning opportunities at history museums. In the meantime, we invite you to bring your own little learners to DHV any time. We love curious learners of all ages (though the preschoolers are probably the cutest of our visitors!).