Many Americans go to Great Britain to see Big Ben, or tramp through Downton Abbey-type manor houses or to hopefully catch a glimpse of William and Kate. I went for the babies! As the Manager of Early Learning Programs at the Dallas Museum of Art, I am always searching for ways to strengthen our programs for early learners.
More than a year ago, I stumbled across the CultureBabies blog, and I was so inspired by what was happening in museums in the UK for children 0-2, I knew I had to see it in person. While many museums in the US offer a variety of programs and classes for toddlers and preschoolers, classes actually focused on babies seem to be harder to come by. So I wrote a grant, sent a few emails, packed my bags, and a year later, made my way to Manchester for some babies in museums research.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to observe both a Baby Explorers session at the Manchester Museum and a Baby Art Club session at the Manchester Art Gallery. Museum staff and the class participants were all so welcoming and willing to share their experiences with me, I felt right at home. And I quickly fell in love with how both institutions use sensory play as a vehicle for encouraging babies to explore their world while also modeling meaningful ways for caregivers to interact with their children.
I was especially struck in both sessions by how ordinary objects became things of beauty. In the metal sensory play area at the Manchester Museum, metal bowls, spoons, whisks, and kitchen containers were transformed from utilitarian utensils into light, reflection, and shine. I observed one mother shining a flashlight through a metal object, and watched as her baby focused on the light and reached for the object as the light reflected around her. The next minute, the baby was waving a whisk through the air, experimenting with its weight and feel.
At the Manchester Art Gallery, babies were knocking over cardboard boxes, burrowing into mounds of fabric, playing in a bowl of flour, and clanging metal spoons together. There were shrieks of delight, lots of happy babbling, and adults and children giving themselves completely over to enjoying play.
I saw tremendous value in both programs for adults and babies. For the adults, these classes seem to give them permission to leave behind all the usual tasks that build up in a day, and allow them to simply enjoy being with their babies. The adult-child interactions I observed as an on-looker were definitely sweet, but even more importantly, were contributing to positive social-emotional growth and language development for the children. Caregivers also leave these sessions with ideas for how to use everyday materials at home as playthings, learning that items as simple as a wooden spoon and a bowl of flour can provide endless entertainment and valuable open-ended learning opportunities for babies.
But perhaps the greatest outcome of these baby classes from a museum educator point of view, is that the families create strong relationships with the museums and see them as valuable partners in the journey of raising a child. At the Manchester Museum, one little girl has been attending the Baby Explorers class for the past few months with her foster mother. When I observed the class, she attended for the first time with her new adoptive parents. It was truly beautiful to see this little girl so confident in her surroundings, sure of herself as she crawled from one space to another, even as she adjusts to a new family and home life. The adoptive parents too were warmly welcomed into the museum family and appreciated the observations museum educators were able to share about their new daughter.
I came back to the DMA inspired and ready to try new ways of playing and learning with babies in our own galleries. Earlier this year we officially took our first “baby steps” into the world of museum programming for infants and launched a new class just for children 0-24 months old called Art Babies.
Art Babies differs from other baby tour programs in the US in that we focus on caregiver education and adult-child interactions. This isn’t a tour just for grown-ups who can bring along their babies if they like. Neither is it a class just for babies, with caregivers sitting in the background. We share tips on what types of art appeal to babies, offer suggestions for how adults can interact with very young babies when in an art museum, and then get out of the way and allow for family time in the galleries.
Over the past year, we’ve looked at abstract expressionist paintings and pretended to paint squiggly, Jackson Pollock-like lines in the air with the babies as the “paintbrushes.” We’ve searched for animals in the paintings and filled the galleries with growls, meows, and barks. And we’ve twisted and wiggled our bodies in a baby yoga session inspired by several of our Hindu sculptures. Over the coming months, I hope to incorporate some of the ideas and strategies I gathered from my new friends in Manchester and add a sensory play element to the class. So stay tuned for the DMA’s version of the British (baby) invasion!
Leah Hanson Manager of Early Learning Programs Dallas Museum of Art