|Educator Jane Kloecker directs the Science and Nature Program for Young Children, which is in its third year at the American Museum of Natural
History. "It's the first ongoing program to deal with teaching science to preschoolers at the Museum," she explains. The program
introduces a diverse group of young children, their families, and teachers to science in the Museum setting, and to the process
of scientific observation and recording. Parents or family members accompany the children to class, and community outreach
is a priority.
A young geologist observes and notes the fine detail of his crayon "rock specimen."
Building a New Group of Museum-goers
"One of the things we're attempting to do here is to bring the Museum to an underserved community. We want to develop a new group of
Museum-goers people who've rarely visited in the past. We start with the youngest children and involve their families," explains Jane.
"Young children are dependent on adults to get them to the Museum and to the library, so there's hope that if the two share an interest
in science and nature, it will become part of their family life." Jean Rosenfeld, a teacher with the program, adds that "if parents are
active in the program, the kids continue to discuss this new information at home, and that knowledge becomes part of their everyday lives."
Parents and Teachers are Partners
The outreach program also involves local teachers and staff. "We form relationships with the community centers and their Head Start and
day care programs, and with the public schools," says Jane. Educators have the opportunity to observe and participate in teacher-training
workshops at the Museum. Science and Nature Program staff members also visit their partners and collaborators to observe and help them on site.
"Because we work with the Goddard-Riverside Head Start teachers and help them develop their curriculum, what they get from the program, they
take back to integrate into their classrooms," observes Jean. For example, after studying the features of Earth at the Museum, a teacher
might have the kids build a volcano back in the classroom, or make mountains and Earth features at the sand table.
A Safari into the Jungle . . . or Outer Space
Every Science and Nature Program class involves some kind of science-and-nature-themed excursion, usually into the Museum, along with a related
classroom activity. "Since the Museum's vast resources have enchanted generations of children, and children love adventure, we use the idea
of a safari," says Jane. The excursions are developed around finds from different Museum expeditions, in keeping with the institution's history.
"It's an exciting excursion into the field their field, which is the Museum," Jean elaborates.
One morning, fifteen preschoolers in yellow hard hats troop through the quiet halls. Parents in tow and magnets in hand, these young explorers
are headed for the giant Cape York meteorite, and then on to the Rose Center to look at the Willamette meteorite. The children come in before
the Museum opens, and "they think it's their Museum," Jane observes with a smile. "It makes the experience more intimate and I don't want them
to get trampled." Jane calls the typical Museum visit a "whoosh" experience. Many people visit the Museum, whiz through trying to see everything, have lunch, and leave.
"You might remember something big and hard to miss, like the dinosaurs, but there's lots of fascinating detail in each diorama, if you are
able to take the time to study them."
Although the activities are fun, the objective is to teach real scientific facts and concepts in an age-appropriate way, and to involve both
adults and children. All the children come once a week for a whole school year. Because it's parents and children learning together, "we say,
jokingly, that a lot of our best students are parents," says Bridget Anderson, another teacher with the program.
Tools Help Young Children Focus
The safaris start off with what Jane calls "a campfire atmosphere we actually have a plug-in fire" because the teachers want the children
to feel like real explorers or scientists on an expedition in the field. All of the kids are outfitted with a safari vest plus some kind of equipment. One day it's hard hats and
magnets. Other days it might be magnifying glasses or flashlights, supplemented by scientific tools back in the classroom like microscopes,
rock hammers, picks, pipettes, and dissecting equipment.
A budding scientist observes millipedes in the Dzanga Sangha Rainforest diorama.
|One example of a safari to the Dzanga Sangha Rainforest diorama in the Museum's Hall
of Biodiversity is an introduction to animal classification. The first visit might involve looking for mammals, "something familiar
and furry," says Jane. Each child gets a picture card or photograph of the animal for which he or she is going to be searching. On the safari they
wear these pictures on chains around their necks; hands are free, but the card is there for easy reference. "Kids need these visual
representations. The dioramas are so rich in detail that it helps them to focus. So do the flashlights, which serve as both exploration and
observation tools when they visit the dark forest." During the next week, the class might learn about birds, so the chain would have a mammal
and a picture of a bird on it. "They need to find a particular animal, and they immediately realize it if it's not the one they're looking
for, so they begin to distinguish between different types of classes and species," says Jane. "Then they get into arthropods and crawl around
on the floor of the rainforest exhibition with their flashlights."|
Looking Closer to Home
The program always tries to do a comparison with a local (New York) species, which is a good way to connect the familiar and tangible with the
unfamiliar or exotic. "How many kids get to handle live tropical millipedes?" asks Jane, fishing one out of the terrarium. "They can go into
the Hall of Biodiversity Rainforest diorama and find them, then come back to the classroom and observe them crawling up and down their arms."
The classroom's rotting log habitat depicts an environment that could be found in a local park or neighborhood community garden. This terrarium
shows what the organisms require in the way of habitat, and also gives children a chance to compare species. Chris Benjamin, a teacher in the
Science and Nature Program says, "North American millipedes are smaller and exhibit different coloration than some of the tropical ones." Chris notes
that these kinds of observations grow more sophisticated over the course of the year. Danielle, a young girl from a Peruvian family, who has been
with the program since it's inception, started off her letter to Santa with a request for a giant tropical millipede. "I hope she'll grow up to
be an entomologist she's really picked up the passion," Jane comments happily.
First grade naturalists from P.S. 2 in lower Manhattan on safari in Central Park.
"There aren't a lot of opportunities for city children to have a one-on-one encounter with nature," Jean notes. This program gives children an
opportunity to see, learn, and touch in the classroom, and then take what they've learned out into the world. Towards the end of the year, the
children go on a safari out into the city, to Riverside Park or Central Park, "because sometimes people
don't make the connection between their knowledge and their world," Jane points out. "In the Butterfly Exhibition they see the butterflies
sipping from the nectar dish, but in the community garden, they can see how they flit from flower to flower more naturally." After studying the
morphology of insects, "when the kids go to the park, they say, 'Look, Mom, a ladybug! It's an insect, it's got six legs, two antennas, a head,
a thorax, and an abdomen,'" Jean recounts. For last year's Goddard-Riverside Young Explorer's Club graduation ceremony, the children made fabulous
costumes representing topics they've studied, wearing everything from an erupting volcano to the solar system: a yellow ballet dress with the
planets dangling from the edge of the tutu. Parents contribute too. On display in the classroom is La Mariposa, a beautiful felt book that tells
the story of a butterfly's metamorphosis. Erica, the author, made this book for her children while participating in The Museum's
Parents Club science classes (one componenet of the program) taught by Marta Arroyo, Monica Hidalgo, and Paola Higuera at Goddard-Riverside.
Staff of the Science and Nature Program for Young Children (left to right: Bridget Anderson, Jean Rosenfeld, Monica Hidalgo, Paola Higuera,
Jane Kloecker, Marta Arroyo, and Christopher Benjamin)
The Family that Sees Together . . .
The parent participants can't praise the program enough and lots of dads attend, which is very rare in early childhood programs. One mother
reported, "We usually go to the beach in the summer. Today, when we walked past a display of mollusks in the museum that we've passed many times, my four year-old daughter stopped
and looked, and said, 'Mom, this summer I want to find all of these on the beach and bring them back and compare them to these specimens.'"
Other participating families find that Museum visits are no longer "whoosh" experiences. Members of one family pick an interesting subject, do
their homework, and target the related exhibit when they return to the Museum. Another family does it in reverse: they come home to study up on
whatever topic grabbed their attention during the visit. One mother, who has two kids in the program and two more waiting in the wings, finds
that her children apply the skills they've learned in the Science and Nature Program in other contexts. "We'll go to an art museum and they'll
comment on the way colors come together in an abstract painting and I'm no longer checking it off the list because it's a Picasso."