Children's Museums A Rant
What do you get when you cross "generous funding" from bloated
financial institutions with a culture that picks on parents?
say I'm just being cranky, but consider this: A recent trip to Boston's world
famous Children's Museum felt like plunging into an "educational,"
semi-politically correct arcade, featuring a décor of corporate logos mixed
with perky bits of advice to parents. Kids everywhere are on overdrive, running
from exhibit to exhibit maniacally pushing the buttons on the
"interactive" displays; skimming the surfaces of colorful exhibits;
running in and out of the replica of the Wompanoag teepee; and loading up
shopping carts in the make-believe Hispanic grocery (where piped-in Spanish
voices list the produce prices per pound) and standing in the check-out line to
have their purchases "rung up." After tossing the plastic produce back
in the bin, the kids can dash through something that is supposed to look like
their grandparents' house -- a kitchen and living room with 50s' style
appliances, lamp shades, and magazines. Or they can stand in a Tokyo subway car.
"Why?" you might ask. "What is interesting about a Tokyo subway
I have no idea.
been engaged now for a total of about 5 minutes, the kids can proceed to the
next room where they can be on TV with "Arthur" and "D.W."--
well-loved cartoon characters with their own PBS show and dozens of books
featuring their everyday adventures in school, at home, and in the neighborhood.
Standing just so in front of a camera will put your child on screen with these
well-loved brother and sister aardvarks for a few seconds while the same few
bars of the "Arthur" theme music play in the background. It's a
catchy, reggae-sounding beat. "Everybody that you meet/has a different
point of view," I hum to myself as I read about the corporate sponsors of
the Arthur exhibit -- BankBoston and John Hancock -- and marvel at the endless
details and disclaimers of the copyright acknowledgements. Not only is
"Arthur" a registered trademark, so is Grandma Thora, Binky, Buster,
baby Kate, Mr. Ratburn, and everyone else in this anthropomorphized universe.
Is there something thrilling about being on pretend TV for a fleeting moment
with a registered trademark aardvark?
Apparently not. Most kids can't figure out how to position themselves in front
of the camera, and the ones that do get bored within 15 seconds.
the "Arthur" exhibit is supposed to invite creativity. It's not all
about TV. Several rooms are set up to look like scenes from Arthur stories. Kids
can step in and pretend like they are the registered trademarks themselves!! If
they know the stories, they can act out the copyrighted material!!
there no reprieve from this "child-friendly," scripted, micro-managed,
superficial, corporate-sponsored experience? The "Big Dig" room has a
slightly different feel to it. Yes, it's brought to us by one of the city's
major contracting companies, and the walls are lined with blown-up photographs
of a-bit-too-happy-looking construction workers, BUT there are piles of blocks
and lincoln logs everywhere so a kid might actually be able to sit down and
pursue a few minutes of SELF-DIRECTED play. Isn't that something we all want for
our children? But wait! No, I am being told otherwise! A bulletin board laden
with advice and directives beckons me, plays on my insecurities, reminds me that
a big bucket of duplo blocks does not represent a reprieve from the complex
minutia and expert-driven world of child-rearing. I drift over to it and start
reading. . .
But what's complicated about blocks? Can't you just let your kids play with
them? Isn't this the moment when you get to sit down and peruse a magazine?
No. Most definitely not. That would be shoddy parenting. You would be simply
trusting your child to do what interests her. And that would leave no role for
the experts have lots to say about blocks: they enhance kids' problem-solving
abilities and encourage their understanding of spatial relationships. Lengthy
newspaper articles are pinned to the wall. They include quotes from people who
have studied this sort of thing, explaining the benefits and impacts of
block-play. Helpful illustrations show how to sit on the floor next to your
is futile. No matter how hard you try to smirk at this nonsense, you will read
what the experts say about blocks and nagging doubts will almost certainly begin
to surface. Do you have enough blocks in the house? Do you encourage their use?
Do you really sit down properly with your child and turn block-playing into a
quality time experience? Do you say the right things to your child, maximizing
the blocks' educational aspects? Don't worry. If you are concerned about how to
properly narrate block play-time with your child, the experts suggest key
phrases that will spark beneficial brain activity.
I wonder what will happen if I put this block here?" -- presumably models
wondering for a child.
for clean-up: "Let's make an assembly line: You hand it to Tim, he gives it
to me" -- models . . . well . . . need I say more?
reality, maybe there are parents that like to sit down and play with blocks, but
I'll wager most of us have other things we want and need to do. When we invade
children's play with scripted lines and our likely underlying boredom, aren't we
communicating that we don't trust the kids to do even this thing that they do
best, which is PLAY? Might not the children even puzzle over our presence?
"Gee, Mom. Don't you have a life? I'm trying to make my way through the
seven developmental stages of block-play on my own, thanks."
the experts imply that it is sensible for parents to minutely dissect their
behavior. Instead of prescribing in such detail, how about a few key
proscriptions related to children? Such as: no child should be sent to an unsafe
boring school. No child should experience poverty or hunger. No child should be
hit or abused. I could even go with: no child should be without blocks to play
with. Let's enforce those mandates, and dispense with the parental
might have known our Children's Museum outing would turn out this way. After
all, I avoided paying the $25 it would have cost me to get in by reserving the
"pass" from our local library branch -- a public service available to
Boston residents and paid for by Gillette. The very first exhibit we entered was
about our "dreams." Children have the opportunity to sit in a
"dream machine" and tell a video camera their dreams. It's a pricey,
gadget-oriented, over-designed mandate to list your career goals. Or so it
appears. It's bought and paid for by CitiFinancial.
Whatever happened to dreams as wish fulfillment? As portals to the impossible?
As vision unfettered by funding constraints?
They still exist. No thanks to our corporate benefactors and their "dream
machines." Let's do what we can to keep it that way.