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Because Museums are for Babies Too :: An Interview

Life in DFW

My life as a wife and mom in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex and all things fun about it!

Because Museums are for Babies Too :: An Interview

Debora Manusama-Sinaga

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One of the first places that we visited when we first got to Dallas last year was the Dallas Museum of Art. In fact we visited the DMA on our 3rd day here, carrying J around without a stroller, riding a bus and a train from Irving to downtown Dallas, sweating under the blazing Texan sun. What drew us to the museum? Its free admission of course :) Not gonna lie, for a young family who had just moved to another country on a tight budget, we needed something fun and free to do ( and I think we still do, haha, no matter how much money we make). We signed up for the 'DMA Friend' program rightaway and since then, we've been coming back for more, why? See, it's really not that easy to find 'something to do' for kids that are in J's age group. Programs offered at museums, libraries, and parks are usually for kids who are 3 years old and up. So when I found out that DMA offers a program called 'Art Baby', I was thrilled!

I didn't know that early learners like J could be inspired, stimulated, and taught in a museum through art works created by legendary artists whose names I can't even pronounce! That idea itself seems so fancy, but it actually works!

I have posted a little story on the experience a few months ago, but I felt like I needed to know more. And last week, I finally got the chance to meet the brilliant and kind-hearted lady behind the museum's early learning programs, Leah Hanson.

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"When I started working here back in 2008, we've only had programs that were designed for pre-schoolers. But I had noticed that these kids would always come with their younger brothers or sisters that were also curious and eager to learn. We then created a toddler class in 2009. But then again, they would also come with their younger siblings who were eager to learn but had no programs designed for them. So in summer 2013, we decided to do a trial class for babies. We announced it on facebook and got positive response, with about 100 people signing up. The program was then officially launched in January 2014."

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As I recalled, the classes were focused more on exploring the artworks in one particular exhibition of the museum. I remember observing the sculptures in the Asian exhibition and doing yoga with J, 1 hour in total. But the class' format changed in fall 2014. We started to spend only 30 minutes in the gallery and the remaining 30 minutes playing it the art studio. Sounds more fun right? J loves it!

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He gets to play with lightbox (in the pic above), exotic musical instruments, and even edible paints made of yoghurt!

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Yeah, he got the yoghurt all over his pants (and my sweater). Anything for the sake of learning right? Laundry can wait.

Anyway, what changed the format of the class? What inspired Leah to do things differently in the baby class?

"A trip to the UK," Leah said, where she gathered inspiration from local museums. One of the most inspiring ones was a museum in Manchester where they carry out the Reggio Emilia approach.

Say what??? What is that? Okay in a nutshell, Reggio Emilia approach is an approach (well duh, well it's important to call it an approach because is not a curriculum) that was founded by Loris Malaguzzi in the Italian city of Reggio Emilia after the World War II. It  focuses more on getting children to learn through experiences of touching, moving, listening, and observing. Those who practice this approach also believe in the "100 languages of children" -- which refer to the many ways of children expressing themselves.

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"In this approach, children are taught with natural light, colorful objects and art is a big part of it," she continued. "Keep in mind that kids understand way more than they can express. And even when they can't verbalize their thoughts, they can still express it through other things like art (their doodles, for example)." DMA10

One of the ways to practice Reggio Emilia approach is also by letting the kids play with the real stuff that we actually use on our daily life, and not the plastic version of it. "That's why we place real bakeware sets on the studio floor so the kids can play with them at the Art Baby class," she explained.

DMA6 Through exploring art, kids can develop fine motor control. And you can see their progress not just on what they make but how they make it. Leah, who graduated from George Washington University's Museum Education program, also encourages us parents to "pay attention to what your kids are drawn to". Look for the color and object (in paintings or other artworks) that catch their attention the next time you take them to the museum or any other cultural places.

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Children are so curious, everything they do is learning. It is us who think museums are not for them. The truth is, they are! We just have to know what to look for and what to do, and most of all, to have fun whenever we visit these cultural places."

Wow, I am so glad that I talked to her. How amazing was that quote above? It is us adults that often limit our kids and the places they can visit. They are not too young to observe and learn. Remember that :)

Besides, Leah also mentioned that taking babies to cultural places will teach them to build the connection between the real thing and the idea in a picture. So describe the objects you find in artworks especially the ones that are familiar to your kids (like trees, flowers, animals, or people). Even if they don't say anything back, keep talking, using grown up words like "turquoise" and "fuschia" when you describe the colors, instead of just saying "green" or "pink".

How about the busy toddlers? How do we handle them? The former highschool teacher told me that the key is to slow them down. "Make a game out of your museum visit! Tell them to look for their favorite color or their favorite piece in the exhibition." she suggested.

As for the Art Baby Class itself, there are more exciting stuff coming up so if you are a Dallasite or planning to visit the city, please check the DMA web or their blog and join the class! We are going to explore different materials, artworks and installations this year (she even told me that there will be an installation with balloons, coins, and other interesting materials exhibited soon)!

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Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetThis painting right here is one Leah's favorite pieces in the DMA. She likes it especially when she has to reveal the identity of the lady in the painting to the kids.

Growing up mostly with Disney's interpretation of the story, kids would normally be surprised when I told them that this is a painting of Cinderella. I heard one kid actually said 'but her hair is not yellow!' But it's actually pretty obvious, because you can see her step sisters getting dressed right there on the left side while she is just sitting there in front of the fireplace (from which she got her name, Cinderella). I usually ask the kids, 'When did this take place? before or after the ball?' It's interesting to hear their answers.

How about you? What do you think?