Blue Star Museums Blog (Archive)

Learning Through Play

Children and parents explore the water table in the River Adventures exhibit at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of the Please Touch Museum

Most people think of children’s museums as pure fun and games. And while they certainly are fun, the educational foundation and intent to enrich are equally important aspects. In Philadelphia, the Please Touch Museum has been both instructing and entertaining children since it opened in 1976. Now located in the historic Memorial Hall, built for the 1876 Centennial, the museum is home to interactive exhibits, a children’s theater, art programs, and even a curated collection of 12,500 toys. Kids can blast off into outer space in Flight Fantasy, take a trip to the 1876 World’s Fair in an old-time train, have a tea party in Wonderland, or make music in Rainforest Rhythms. We spoke with Stacey Swigart, director of collections and content/curator, about this unique museum, the importance of play, and what we can do to hang on to the magic of imagination.

NEA: Can you talk a little bit about the museum’s philosophy behind play as a form of learning?

STACEY SWIGART: We have a wonderful mission: “enriching the lives of children by creating learning opportunities through play.” We were founded by a group of Montessori educators and people interested in being able to do things with a hands-on philosophy. We started in 1976, and that hands-on philosophy is something that we’ve really taken to heart. Everything we do is built upon that. We also consider a variety of other education theorists as well, and looking at modalities of multiple intelligences based on Howard Gardner, and just a full, rich learning experience utilizing all the senses.

"Grocery shopping" at the ShopRite Supermarket in the City Capers exhibit. Photo courtesy of the Please Touch Museum

NEA: What goes into designing an exhibit?

SWIGART: Our education department works together with our exhibits department, and we look at some sort of theme that would be interesting to young children. We like things to be very realistic so that you’re participating in something that’s very real world. For example, we have our ShopRite Supermarket, scaled-down for young children. Boxes and labels all represent what you see in a real supermarket. So we take that into consideration, and then we look at the educational value of play. There are a variety of stages of play, from associative to cooperative, and we want to make sure we’re hitting all those elements, as well as hitting the first nine modalities of Howard Gardner’s theories of multiple intelligences. We also look at the parents’ role, so that we know they’re participating. Everything that we do is child-directed, process-oriented, and multi-level learning.

NEA: You talked about the level of realism in your exhibits. Why is play rooted in reality important, as opposed to play that relies more on imagination or fantasy?

SWIGART: What’s interesting is that we have a little bit of both. If you’re in our building---which is a unique, historic space built for the 1876 centennial exhibition---it’s quite large. I think we have over 48,000 square feet of exhibit space. One half of the building is very realistic, so it’s very city and urban-themed, and then the other half is nature and fantasy. And both of those components are really important parts of play.

NEA: Can you elaborate on that?

SWIGART: Kids are going to get the best learning experience when they have the multiple levels of opportunities. That might be real world experience and playing within something that they experience on an everyday basis. So if you’re in our Please Touch Garage, you’ll see a real Toyota Scion, and kids can climb in there and pretend to drive. You don’t normally get to do that kind of thing when you’re with your parents, driving to the supermarket. It’s kids getting that real world experience at an early stage in their life, so they can start to experience what it will be like to get older.

That play experience also opens up their imaginations, and they start to build that spatial relationship, and to get the seeds of things like science, technology, engineering, arts, literacy, math. We’re a museum of first experiences. You can come to Please Touch Museum, and potentially get your first visit to a museum, but also your first theater experience, a first connection to a puppet, or a first introduction to story time. There’s also sometimes a first art experience, and a first foray into things like science and humanities and history and so forth.

The Please Touch Garage in the museum's Roadside Attractions area. Photo courtesy of the Please Touch Museum

NEA: You mentioned how Please Touch offers art, theater, and storytelling. How does the art experience figure into the museum’s mission and the importance of play and learning?

SWIGART: It’s important on a couple of different levels. Please Touch Museum, while being a children’s museum, is also a collecting institution. So instead of Matisse and Renoir and historic objects belonging to George Washington, we have contemporary toys, and some historic toys as well. We have Barbie and GI Joe and Star Wars toys and action figures, and we collect things related to toy fads, like Tickle Me, Elmo and Cabbage Patch Kids. A lot of them are objects that we treat like art objects. They’re behind glass, and kids don’t touch them. But at the same time, we also collect art and we work with a variety of artists. So we have layers within the experience. So when you’re in an exhibit, you can see a mural that was done by a professional artist. We also have sculptures peppered throughout the exhibit experience. While you’re playing, you might encounter a bronze statue of Alice in Wonderland in our Wonderland exhibit.

With that in mind, we have our program room, where you can come in throughout the day and create, depending on what we’ve got planned for that month. For the month of May, we’ve been doing painting, where kids have their art paper up on the easel, and they get paint colors, and they can paint to their heart’s content. They’re more than welcome to take their projects home at the end of the day. Also in the program room, there are exhibits of art, whether it’s by professional artists or by other kids, and it’s curated in such a way that they’re framed, and they get labels. It’s like a real museum exhibit experience.

They also have opportunities for play related to creative dramatics. We’ll have props out with some kind of theme that allow them to dress up and interact with other kids or siblings or parents, or whoever their adults are.

Children create art in the Program Room. Photo courtesy of the Please Touch Museum

NEA: What exhibit would you say is the most popular?

SWIGART: That’s hard to say. Out of busy-ness alone, the supermarket gets a lot of love and attention. But then a lot of kids will make a beeline for our River Adventures area, where there’s a big water play table where they can float ducks, and send boats down the river, or crank an Archimedes’ screw.

Since 1985 when the artist created it for us, we’ve also had this elephant made out of recycled objects. It was made by [Leo Sewell]; he’s a Philadelphia dumpster diver who goes out and collects stuff to make into artwork. At our old location, it looked like a full-size elephant; here he looks like a baby because the space is so large. The carousel is also very popular with the kids too. It’s a historic carousel that was originally made in Philadelphia and operated in Philadelphia. It’s the only historic carousel left in the city.

NEA: Do you have any personal favorite exhibits or aspects of the museum?

SWIGART: Of course I’m partial to the collection objects. How can you go wrong with the things from your childhood? The memories that I made with my brother playing with Star Wars action figures as a kid, or standing in line with my aunt for my first Cabbage Patch Kid doll. I had my Grumpy Care Bear, and all that stuff. But then it’s also just fun to be creative and set up exhibit cases in a way that’s not only fun for grown-ups but for kids. I have to say, one of my favorites is the Smurf case that I have in Fairytale Garden. It’s a diorama. You go to the Natural History Museum and you see little geckos inside, well ours is Smurfs. In January, we celebrated National Rubber Duckie Day, and so we have 526 rubber ducks on display. We’ll probably keep it up through the end of the summer. There are celebriducks, like Elvis Presley, and we have Barack Obabama Duck, and Mr. T, and then your generic everyday princess ducks, a ballerina duck, and hippie ducks. It’s fun stuff like that.

The historic carousel. Photo courtesy of the Please Touch Museum

NEA: As children transition to teens and adults, the emphasis on imaginative play is generally replaced by a push toward academic learning. What do you think we can do to hang on to play and imagination, or where does it go?

SWIGART: It’s hard. Kids are growing up so much faster today, and are expected to be like little grown-ups. In some ways, that mimics the Victorian era where children were seen and not heard, and their clothing was very similar to what grown-ups were wearing, and weren’t given much playtime. I think a lot of kids aren’t given that freedom or free time to just be kids and play. Everything’s so over-scheduled. Sometimes you just have to let kids experiment and have fun on their own.

The toys that people have seem to be a little bit older too, and that’s coupled with the electronic aspect. Even three- and four-year-olds will say their favorite toy is their iPhone. That kind of makes me a little sad, because why not have a doll or a bear or something that you can dress up in? Or even a box. Some of my favorite toys were the furniture boxes or refrigerator boxes that my uncle would bring home from work. They would be my sleep tent for a week during the summer, or whatever else I wanted to do with it. So I think some of that is lost. Please Touch Museum offers an oasis from some of that, where they can come in and just be kids.

NEA: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

SWIGART: One thing that’s also a little different about the Please Touch Museum is that because we’re in a national historic landmark, we have a unique opportunity for young children to get their first taste of history. We interpret the 1876 Centennial so they can get a sense of some of the aspects of that time, like the introduction to middle America of kindergarten. They can learn about some of the foods that were eaten then, or some of the firsts that appeared in Philadelphia, like popcorn and root beer. We also have a wonderful, amazing theater program, and we have a wonderful puppet family. So you might see some puppets out strolling the floor, from Pinky the Pink Monster to Pickle and Digger the Dog. Our theater productions are really amazing.


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