In organizing children’s events this summer, I’ve talked to several science museum directors and staff, mostly about how to ensure that people actually attend the events. It’s not a matter of young people wanting to be there. It’s a matter of their parents getting them there.
Whether they are in preschool or middle school, nine times out of ten, the kids who chance upon my programs become sincerely -almost involuntarily- engaged, often for an hour or more. I’m proud that I can consistently occupy the nonstop minds and bodies of kids of varied ages and backgrounds. But my real sense of accomplishment comes from knowing that I am interesting them in science-based concepts that benefit their formal educations and, more importantly, their personal and social development. But they have to be present for me to do so, and convincing their parents that it is worth the time and effort to get them there is my biggest challenge. Turns out it’s one of the biggest challenges for education directors across the country.
If we are sincere in our desire to prepare our kids to be of value to society and themselves, economic and otherwise, we must ensure they have accessibility to experiences that foster questions, objectivity, rational thought, and discovery, whether they live in Washington, D.C., or Louisville, Kentucky. All in all, I think America does a pretty good job in this regard, but that doesn’t mean that parents are seizing the opportunities.
I consider it a success if just one child shows up. Though I admit it’s disheartening, these are usually the most enlightening experiences. Most often we end up reading my books, playing with my stuff, and talking about life and science for an hour or more. “What else have you got?” the child will inevitably ask. By the time my box of tricks is well and truly empty, we have learned from each other in ways that neither of us will likely forget.
My husband once said I was the only adult he knows who, upon getting a break from their own kids, chooses to play with other people’s. I used to feel guilty about it: I should be generating positive learning experiences with my own children, not the children of people I do not know and may very well never see again. But it’s really not a fair comparison.
First of all, my kids have seen all my good stuff. Repeatedly.
Secondly, engaging other people’s children is just plain easier. I’m a novelty, for one thing – that’s a hook right there. Plus, all my stuff is new to them, or else they’re excited to play with it again, in a different place with a different person. In addition, I’m not family or even a close family friend, so courteousness generally presides. As I told my husband, “Other people’s kids don’t talk back”.
Since becoming a parent, I’ve thought a lot about the adage, “It takes a village to raise a child.” In addition to other far-reaching interpretations, one thing is clear: kids need breaks from their parents, and parents need breaks from their kids. It’s also clear that those breaks aren’t easy to come by, particularly if you want to keep computers and television out of it. Still, their importance is easy to take for granted.
That’s why taking kids to public programs like mine is a no-brainer and why, when such programs are free and within 30 miles, I find it hard to forgive an empty room.
Public performances, workshops, book readings, etc., enable parents and their children to be together without having to relate to one another. That’s no small potatoes. What’s more, these events provide opportunities for children and their parents to simultaneously, and with undivided attention, share positive social experiences that do not revolve around television, computer or cell-phone screens, also not a small thing these days.
Ten years ago, after enjoying a public library performance of a local duo called “The Two Bells,” one of the storytellers touched my shoulder and, looking at my two kids, said, “You’re doing a great job with them.” She told me she had once been a librarian and emphasized the importance of exposing children to situations in which they are required to sit quietly. She has no idea how much this exchange still means to me.
Yes, kids fidget in these situations. Sometimes they are even disruptive. But the more they attend (and, perhaps, suffer the consequences) the more they learn to enjoy the opportunities available to them. These experiences not only benefit their formal and practical educations, they collaterally teach our children acceptable social behavior and the benefits thereof.
Next time you learn of a children’s program that doesn’t conflict with your family’s busy schedule, risk the insanity of getting everyone motivated and out the door. It will expand their minds as well as your village.
Bio: Melissa Rooney is a Ph.D. Chemist, scientific editor, and children’s author and educator. Her second book in the *Eddie the Electron* children’s series, is being released by Amberjack Publishing on June 20, 2017 (eddie-the-electron.html). Melissa conducts educational workshops for children independently and through the CAPS (Creative Arts in Public and Private Schools) program in Durham, NC. For more information about Melissa and her work, see www.melissarooneywriting.com.