I don’t teach kindergarten, but my sixth graders are “buddies” with our school’s kindergarten children. We are their “‘computer tutors,” we give them a Halloween party and an Easter egg hunt, and, once a year, we accompany them on a trip to the zoo or science museum. This year, when I complimented my class on their ability to provide their “buddies” with an exciting, yet safe, outing, one of my students commented. “Oh, it’s easy, Mrs. Littleton. You just have to hold on tight and not lose them.”
“Holding on tight and not losing them” can be quite a challenge to museum docents working with pre-school and primary age children. Good beginnings, and age-appropriate transitions, however, go a long way toward providing great tours for these youngest visitors.
It’s a paradox, but young children tire easily unless they’re moving! Consequently, those times when they must be still to listen should always be times when they are seated. The introduction to the museum, zoo, or nature center should be made while the children are seated, as should all discussions about particular exhibits or displays.
Transitions with this age group should be times of movement and, sometimes, noise. Allowing active movement during transitions from exhibit to exhibit not only makes it possible for little ones to pay attention longer, but it helps focus their attention on the objectives of the tour. The following are samples of transitions that could be used with young children in a variety of museum settings.
Zoos or Nature Centers
- When leaving a bird exhibit, children tuck their hands under their arms as wings and walk to the next exhibit as they’ve observed birds walking. Walking like a particular bird or animal is always a popular way to move from place to place within a zoo. Besides being fun, though, it also helps the focus on the ways animals move. These walks can be made with or without accompanying animal/ bird sounds (depending on the nerves of the docent and the tolerance of the animals and other visitors.)
- When leaving a reptile exhibit, children are given a rope the same length as the longest snake. They must walk carefully as if they were carrying the snake to the next exhibit. In addition to helping get from here to there, this transition lets young children internalize a concept of size.
- Carrying things works as a transition even when the children aren’t really carrying anything. Pretending to carry a bird’s egg or a very tiny animal is just as much fun for this most imaginative age as holding the real thing. Again, size concepts are emphasized when children recognize that some things can be carried in your hand, while carrying other things requires lots of help.
- “Look fors” are also fun. Looking for different kinds of food that animals eat; animals that live in the zoo, but aren’t zoo animals; leaves or plants of a particular size or shape; or something specific to the path they will take to the next stop help keep primaries interested and focused. “Look for” ideas are limited only by the tour’s theme.
- Many of the same transitions that work for zoos and nature centers work in science museums, particularly in the life science areas. In the physical sciences, children need other motivations. Museum exhibits that use a mascot character such as a robot offer a perfect way for children to move from place to place; they simply become the character.
- Simple laws of physics can often be clearly demonstrated in a transition from exhibit to exhibit. For example, even the youngest child can experience friction if he tries to move by scooting his feet rather than lifting them. Docents should be warned, however, that only part of Newton’s first law (“… a body in motion tends to remain in motion, and a body at rest will remain in a state of rest unless acted upon by some outside force”) applies to small children!
Art Museums and Galleries
- As in other institutions, tour themes and objectives determine the kinds of transitions to be used with children. A tour theme about line, of course, provides wonderful ways of moving from place to place. The children can walk in different kinds of lines or even follow actual lines painted on the museum floor or discovered on the floor covering.
- A theme of color should at some point let children explore how different colors make us feel, and this offers other transition possibilities with children moving as if they are yellow, blue, red, or their favorite color.
- While moving from gallery to gallery or from painting to painting, primary children can be asked to look for a particular subject, shape, color, or texture. They might even be able to locate a shape, color, or texture from their own clothing that is found in one of the paintings.
History Museums or Historic Houses
- In museums or historic houses where clothing is exhibited, a good transition involves pretending to wear high button shoes, a top hat, a feather-bedecked hat, or (by pushing in tightly with your hands around your waist) a corset while moving to the next exhibit. If they’ve actually been able to try on replicas of such clothing, the pretending works even better as children see how clothing determines or restricts movement.
- Different modes of transportation, too, offer ways to travel from one exhibit to another. Guiding a team of mules, riding an old-fashioned bicycle, or, better yet. becoming the horse pulling the wagon makes moving from place to place wonderful fun.
Closing a tour with pre-school and primary children, as with all visitors, must be more than simply, “And that concludes our tour. I hope you had a good time.” Sitting once more, these young learners should now have an opportunity to “learn what they’ve learned.” “Do you remember” questions help bring to mind the different points of the tour, as do opportunities to tell what they like best. “How many of us did it take to carry the python?” The final transition, however, should send them home with something to do.
“On the bus ride back to school, look for all the things that work using electricity.”
“When you get back to school, I want you to walk from the bus to your classroom wearing your favorite hat.”
“When you see your principal, be sure to show her what parallel lines look like.”
“I’d like you to measure your classroom to see if the giraffe could get inside.”
“Remember to show your family how you could hold the hummingbird egg in just one hand.”
Holding on tight and not losing them is more than a matter of physically keeping younger children under control. The fascination with museums that makes some adults able to entertain, amuse, and educate themselves wherever they go throughout their lives is encouraged or snuffed out with a child’s first visits to such places. Using every moment of a child’s time in your institution, including the walk from one exhibit to another, to fully experience the tour’s goals is the best way I know to really hold on tight and not lose them now and for the future.
Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor
Littleton, Jackie. “A Hop, Skip, and Jump Away from a Great Tour: Transition Techniques for Little Ones,” The Docent Educator 5.1(Autumn 1995): 16-17.