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Highly Productive Fun

Games in my institution? You must be joking! Our collection has been researched by scholars, our subject matter is serious and important, our approach is sophisticated, and our demeanor is dignified. Why would we play games in our galleries?”

If you’ve perceived similar attitudes at your institution ╤ staff or volunteers who look upon educational games and activities with disdain ╤ know that these “armchair critics” are mistaken. When properly structured to promote learning, games and activities offer very sound strategies for teaching with institutional collections.

The idea that learning must be serious to be credible couldn’t be farther from the truth. Just as good cooks know that eating well doesn’t mean food must taste bland, good educators know that teaching well doesn’t mean that learning must be staid. Learning can, and should, be dynamic and enjoyable.

Why use Games or Activities?

It is neither unsophisticated nor undignified to engage visitors with games or activities that stimulate, involve, and teach how to retrieve information. While scholars might prefer to be approached in a scholarly manner, the vast majority of visitors on tour at your institution are there to learn AND enjoy themselves. These two motivating reasons ╤ learning and having a good time ╤ need not be mutually exclusive. They can, and should, be a reinforcing partnership.

For younger children, game playing often is learning. Through play, youngsters develop their ability to concentrate, explore, persevere, and cooperate, essential skills that facilitate further learning. For older children and adults, activities that create opportunities for participation encourage the retention of what is learned and provide formats for further learning that can be easily replicated in other educational environments.

Countless educational studies have proven that we retain little of what we hear, but much of what we do and say. Games and activities capitahze on this, by creating active learning experiences in settings primarily structured for passive learning opportunities.

What Games and Activities can Teach      

The purpose of labels is to identify and describe. The purpose of most text panels is to elaborate upon that identification. Therefore, labels and text panels accomplish the most basic level of an institution’s educational responsibility╤ that of identification and description. Educators teaching within museums, historic sites, zoos, parks, and gardens are free, therefore, to extend their reach beyond simply telling visitors what they are looking at to imparting skills that promote independent learning and reflective thinking.

Among the skills that everyone, from novice through expert, must use to acquire, organize, and make sense of information are: observing, comparing, classifying, summarizing, interpreting, hypothesizing, imagining, and deciding. Knowing this, an educator can develop games or activities that review and strengthen these skills, while providing visitors with the enjoyment of making their own discoveries.

Let the Games Begin               

Observing. Observing is a way of uncovering information. We learn to see and to note what we had not perceived before. We develop our powers of discrimination, which leads to intellectual maturity. Observing well is an absolute necessity for anyone working in the fields of art, history, or science.

Observing well requires that visitors look carefully, inspect diligently, and be attentive. Most visitors will not do these things, however, unless they have reason to do so. Games and activities supply the reason. For instance, challenging visitors to make note of, or draw, the subtle differences in leaf patterns among trees in a garden or park encourages them to look closely and to see characteristics they might have glossed over otherwise. The same is true of asking visitors to become detectives, and to identify as many attributes as they can about a scientific specimen, animal, historic setting, document, or work of art.

Comparing. Comparing means finding the ways in which two or more items are alike or different. The ability to make comparisons builds upon the skill of observation and involves a very basic form of description — telling what something is or is not like. In this way, everyone, regardless of previous knowledge or exposure, can participate in comparison activities.

Have visitors describe the differences between two landscape paintings. Allow them to discover for themselves how the styles of realism and impressionism differ from one another. Or, ask visitors to find similarities between different life forms and the developing stages of a human embryo, or between two skeletal mounts. Other comparing activities might involve comparing examples of mimicry among insects, fish, animals, or plants.

Classifying. Classifying allows us to bring order to the information that we accumulate. Classifying is an extension of comparing and involves the noting of similarities or differences and then assigning things to groups based upon these variables. All academic subjects, especially the sciences and art history, are reliant upon the skill of classification; and devote great energy to this endeavor.

Classifications are correct if they are appropriate, even when they do not conform to traditional academic assignments. Remember that, for teaching purposes, emphasis should be placed on the development of groups and categories, rather than on confirming one particular system or basis.

Ask visitors to classify the paintings in a gallery into groups of their own making. Their categories might focus upon subject matter, media, size, color palette, style, or any other recognizable attribute. Then, have them discuss their categories and any differences in their classifications. Or, have visitors categorize the major responsibilities involved in supervising a large estate, plantation, or forest preserve. Should you assign visitors the task of categorizing animals, their answers might include warm-blooded, terrestrial, meat-eating, and egg-laying, just to mention a few.

Summarizing. The skill of summarizing involves selecting the most cogent information among the vast array presented. It is an ability to select “what counts”– to find the essence or central idea and to express this essentiality succinctly. The difference between summarizing, and merely repeating what was learned is that, when summarizing omission is a creative act whereas when repeating omission is an error.

Titling, subtitling, retitling, or captioning are important forms of summarizing and they can be fun to do. Have visitors retitle art based on the works’ emotional or intellectual characteristics. Then, ask the visitors to discuss how their titles serve to summarize their own responses to the works. Read visitors a brief folktale from the culture you are examining in the galleries. Have the visitors summarize the message or moral of that folktale. Challenge visitors to think of themselves as newspaper reporters who must write the headline for an event, scientific discovery, or period of history. What would they write?

Interpreting. The act of interpreting imparts meaning to, or extracts meaning from, material, situations, or events. Interpreting involves saying something not already said by the given material or situation. Interpretations are not guesses. They should be defensible on the basis of logic or reason.

Have visitors interpret the results of a scientific experiment they observe, such as the interaction between an acid and a base. Ask visitors to interpret the resulting benefits and detriments of introducing non-native plants or animals into new ecosystems. Or, have visitors interpret what can be known or understood about a people after examining their artifacts.

Hypothesizing. Hypothesizing goes beyond the certainties of interpreting. To hypothesize is to suggest unknown possibilities based on what is known. It is to make a carefully constructed, educated guess.

Challenge visitors to develop several hypothesizes about life in the 18th century by examining a kitchen of that time period. Or, have visitors hypothesize as to why twentieth century artists shifted from representational art to abstraction, then ask visitors to consider why some contemporary artists are moving back to representational depictions again. Prior to conducting science experiments, have visitors hypothesize several possible outcomes.

Imagining. Imagining extends thought farther away from the known and into the realm of the possible, or even the impossible. Imagining can incorporate fantasizing or inventing. Though many people think of imagining as child’s play, it is a higher-order thinking skill that lies at the heart of the creative process, whether that creativity is devoted to scientific exploration, artistic expression, or technological innovation.

An activity that requires the use of imagining could invite visitors to consider how a non-representational art work might sound if it were an auditory rather than a visual experience. Or, visitors might be asked to dream up an imaginary animal that possesses the combined attributes of many other animals. Or, visitors might imagine what few possessions they would take with them if they were to have immigrated from another country or traveled west in a covered wagon.

Deciding. Deciding requires making choices based on criteria. Deciding, in an educational context, should be made for defensible reasons that can be supported with evidence, and which could be understood by those who might have come to different conclusions.

Visitors could be challenged to select a single object, plant, animal, or artifact that best describes a particular culture, place, ecosystem, or time in history. Or, visitors could be asked to defend their choice of a work of art that they believe would be most (or least) appropriate for display in a public plaza or town hall.

Some Final Thoughts        

While your institution’s collection may seem inherently interesting to you, it may not be equally so to your visitors. And, even when visitors are intrinsically motivated, they often do not know how to pursue in-depth relationships with your collection. Games and other activities supply visitors with reasons for prolonged engagement with a collection, and can teach visitors how to acquire new information and gain new insights.

To be educationally sound, the games or activities used in conjunction with touring collections must have teaching as their primary objective and learning clearly a part of their construction. Just because visitors are having fun doesn’t mean that they are necessarily learning. Enjoyment should emerge from learning in an active, participatory manner. When this occurs, the games and activities that created opportunities for participation have accomplished their goal, and proven themselves to be among the more useful, and enthusiastically received, of teaching strategies.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Highly Productive Fun,” The Docent Educator 7.1(Autumn 1997): 2-4.

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