Museum Schools: Laboratories for Playful Learning

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The following post appears in the January 2019 issue of Hand to Hand, ACM’s quarterly journal. 

By Ruth G. Shelly

Museums that run preschools or elementary schools often have more than just physical walls separating these operations. Museums and schools have vastly different schedules, revenue streams, licensing requirements, and staffing issues. Often the school is seen as a “program of” the umbrella museum operation. But what if the organization’s learning approach were the umbrella—and the museum, school, and professional development initiatives were all considered laboratories for developing and disseminating that learning approach? Portland Children’s Museum is moving in that direction.

For children’s museums considering a preschool and/or elementary school, here are some of our lessons learned.

Be clear on your intent

Portland Children’s Museum was founded in 1946 as a program of Portland Parks and Recreation. Its first home was an 1861 mansion, followed by a 1918 nurses’ dormitory, which the museum quickly outgrew. In 2001, Rotary Club of Portland raised $10 million to move the museum to the former home of Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, a mid-century brick building left empty when OMSI relocated to a much larger facility.

Although the old science center was far from glamorous, the children’s museum felt it had landed in paradise—with far more room, generous parking, and the verdant surroundings of Washington Park. The museum separated from Portland Parks and became its own private nonprofit. Parks remained the museum’s landlord as owner of the building—offering a generous thirty-year lease for $10, baseline utilities, and modest capital repairs.

In the same period as the museum’s 2001 move, two other events converged: Oregon passed legislation allowing the formation of charter schools, and educator Judy Graves returned from a trip to the preschools of Reggio Emilia in Italy, determined to start her own school inspired by the Reggio approach. All she needed was space, of which the children’s museum suddenly had an abundance. Judy and museum director Verne Stanford collaborated to co-locate the children’s museum and new charter school, both based on playful learning. Opal School opened its doors to its first class of students in September 2001 as a museum program.

Thus Portland Children’s Museum and Opal School “fell into place” under the unexpected constellation of real estate, Oregon law, and an inspiring trip to Italy. This fortunate coincidence sparked the children’s museum/school relationship that has evolved, somewhat through trial and error, over the past seventeen years. We now run a tuition-based, private beginning school for thirty-seven preschoolers, and a public charter elementary school for eighty-eight students grades K-5. We have recently seen our inaugural students graduate from college.

A children’s museum considering a school today has the benefit of learning from the experience of organizations like Portland Children’s Museum and Opal School. Is the intent of a new school mission-driven, or is it the prospect of an additional revenue stream? If the latter, think carefully, because there may be bumps in the road ahead.

Be aware of cultural and operational differences

While on the surface, a children’s museum and preschool or elementary school seem like a natural fit, there are significant cultural and operational differences that can be mitigated with careful planning. Advance agreements can help alleviate tension later on. Consider:

  • Security: While museums certainly need to be security conscious, it’s not easy to run a public school in a public place. Stakes are high when adults (often not the same ones every day) drop off and pick up students, sometimes using the same entrance and hallways as the general public.
  • Schedules: Museums tend to be year-round attractions open six to seven days/week. Schools generally run on an academic year, and school days are shorter than museum days. In-house custodial and maintenance staff need to be able to flow with the varying workload, or outsource services to accommodate demand.
  • Space: Museum galleries are noisy. On school days, the classrooms require concentration and a buffer—including from sounds of children playing on the floor above! Over the course of the year, empty classrooms are tempting real estate for summer camps, but classrooms require maintenance, and teachers need to return to their workspace before camp sessions are over.
  • Staffing. Museum staff work year-round and are busiest on holidays, while teachers get summers and holidays off. Museum and teacher salaries may be set to different market benchmarks. Retirement plans are different for a private nonprofit vs. public school. In addition, working in different parts of the facility means that maintaining overall staff unity can be a challenge.
  • Sources. Budgeting can be complex, as sources of revenue for the school (tuition, tax support per student) are different from traditional museum revenue streams. If there are shared services for administration, fundraising, and custodial/maintenance, everyone needs to agree on how much each entity contributes toward those expenses. Fundraising can be complicated if donors want to give to just the museum or just the school.

Engage the students as collaborators.

The above list gives pause, and it should. However, the partnership of students learning in a museum environment, and contributing back to improve that environment, is a great return on investment.

At Portland Children’s Museum, students in Opal School have become active collaborators. We find no better place to engage children’s creativity and spread their ideas than in our museum exhibits. After all, the most effective children’s exhibits are informed by children themselves. Our exhibit designers work with classroom teachers so that concept exploration becomes a class project incorporated into the curriculum.

For example, in creating The Market, our students dreamed of illustrating the relationship between land and food. The result includes a grape arbor, apple tree, beehive, and chicken coop, which students drew out as a full-size floor plan in our exhibits staging area.

To develop our forthcoming water exhibit, Drip City, we collaborated with Opal School students as well as museum visitors, students at the nearby Native Montessori Preschool at the Faubion School Early Learning Center, and other diverse community members. Opal School students explored the concept of watershed, took a field trip to the source of Portland’s water, and diagrammed their understanding in drawings that will become part of the final exhibit.

While Opal students do not regularly visit the museum every school day, many of them stay after school to play. Each student’s family can sign up for a play pass, free with enrollment, that allows them to play after school with their caregiver as long as they want, and to come on weekends and holidays free.

Unify under your philosophy as well as your roof.

Portland Children’s Museum and Opal School’s relationship began as convenient co-location, supported by a common commitment to learning through play. Over time, it has matured into a unified learning philosophy called Playful Inquiry, based on five principles:

  • Explore playfully
  • Inspire curiosity
  • Share stories
  • Seek connections
  • Nurture empathy

We now consider the museum, Opal School, and our professional development offerings as laboratories for developing and disseminating this learning approach. We employ Playful Inquiry for informal learning with families in the museum, formal learning with students in the school, and professional learning with adult audiences through consultation, workshops, retreats, and symposiums. Topics offered to adult audiences include Equity and Access through Story, Supporting Social and Emotional Intelligence, and Constructing Collaborative and Courageous Learning Communities (For a complete list of offerings, see here.) In the process, literal and figurative walls are becoming more porous. In contrast to seeing ourselves as united under one physical roof, we see ourselves united in practicing and experimenting with the same learning approach, just in different settings with different audiences.

To be sure, it’s a work in progress. Even after seventeen years, or perhaps because of that long history, there are ongoing challenges to resolve. For example, as the organization grows and space becomes more precious, which program (museum, school, or professional development) takes priority? However, whether staff members work in the museum, the school, professional development, or core mission support, we remember we all use the same learning approach to work with each other. By nurturing empathy for different perspectives, seeking connections in our work, sharing stories of success and failure, remaining curious about potential solutions, and exploring playfully together, we employ our learning approach to blur the boundaries between museum and school, which are united in a singular mission:

To develop innovative problem-solvers through playful learning experiences that strengthen relationships between children and their world.

Ruth Shelly has served as the executive director of Portland Children’s Museum and its associated Opal School and Museum Center for Learning in Portland, Oregon, since 2013. Prior to this Shelly was the executive director of the Madison Children’s Museum in Wisconsin.

To read other articles in the “Museum Schools + Preschools” issue of Hand to Handsubscribe todayACM members also receive both digital and printed complimentary copies of Hand to Hand. ACM members can access their copies through the Online Member Resource Library–contact Membership@ChildrensMuseums.org to gain access.