The Grand Rapids Children’s Museum (GRCM) celebrates childhood and the joy of learning by providing an interactive, hands-on environment that inspires learning and encourages self-directed exploration. In the heart of downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., a Playful City USA community, the GRCM has celebrated 16 years of play with over 2 million guests. Enjoy this guest blog post from the GRCM.
Play is an essential part of life—specifically unguided, open-ended, free play. The kind of play that has no right or wrong answer: creativity and imagination without a specific end product. In other words, play for play’s sake.
The Grand Rapids Children’s Museum (GRCM), located in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., is committed to play and part of that commitment is giving our guests, adults as well as children, permission to play.
Perhaps nothing demonstrates this idea more than the museum’s most unique exhibit: our staff.
Our floor staff, or Facilitators do not direct play; they do not give specific instructions, but invite our guests, adult and child alike, to play with them. They facilitate play by asking open-ended questions (“What are you making?”), engaging in parallel play (playing along-side or near a child in a similar activity, but not directly with the child until they invite the staff member to join), or by simply asking if they can help with what the child is creating. This not only leads to very unique creations but also demonstrates some simple ways to continue playing at home.
When the GRCM celebrated our 15th anniversary last year, we were fortunate to be able to share a new exhibit, Imagination Playground™, with the community. No other exhibit illustrates the concept of open-ended play as well as Imagination Playground™. It’s a wonderful catalyst for collaboration. Parents and teachers immerse themselves in the creative experience with the children (and our staff).
We often joke that our Facilitators have enjoyed Imagination Playground™ even more than our guests. Nearly every day, the office receives a call inviting the administrative team to come and see a new creation—a fort, a throne, a robot, a boat or two-story ball run—that the Facilitators and guests have made together. More recently, we were able to borrow a Rigamajig (formerly Workyard Kit), which is very similar to a large Erector Set, and were happy to see some even more elaborate creations.
While we continue to provide a number of experiences and exhibits that would be difficult to replicate at home, one thing we do try to impart on our guests is how easy it is to play. In February 2013, GRCM launched a “What Can You Do With a Spoon?” campaign (see video below) to get people thinking about ways to play, even with items that normally wouldn’t be thought of as toys, and demonstrate how easy it can be to include some play every day.
The enthusiasm and imagination of our staff inspires play. It invites museum guests of all ages to join in the fun, letting them share in the joy of making a giant bubble, the excitement of showing off a Lego airplane, the thrill of putting on a fire-fighter helmet and piloting a helicopter. But we strive for more than having fun while visiting the museum. We hope that their experience here carries over into their play at home and that they allow the kids in their lives to guide the activity. That they remember to ask open-ended questions like “What are you building?” “What are drawing?” We hope that our guests take with them the idea that play really is for everyone and that everyone, regardless of age, should take time every day to enjoy some play. You have our permission.