A Visit to the Science Museum

This article first appeared in the Homeschool Journey newsletter, February 2005


Just a little note
to warn people that the following has been issued from Donna’s extensive
Waldorf Curmudgeon files… I promise that March’s newsletter will not contain
any grumbling references to the state of public education or questionable parenting
practices in our society! Honest.

I took my sons, aged 11 and 13, to the Minnesota Science
Museum in St Paul a couple of weeks ago. We love going there, exploring the
exhibits, watching a film at the IMAX theater and then having a bite to eat
before going home. We usually try to come in the late afternoon, after the
school groups have left. But this time we came earlier because I don’t like to
drive at night. So, unfortunately, much of our time in the museum was spent
playing “Oh no, here comes a school group – let’s go on to the next exhibit”.
Nothing personal against the children
themselves – it’s just that the sheer numbers and noise is more than a little
off-putting when one is pausing by a cabinet of butterflies, say, talking
together about their patterns and colors, or perhaps about the ethics of
collecting animal specimens.

Something I really value about trips with my sons to a
museum is discussing in depth what we’re
looking at, drifting along as their interest takes us, maybe going back to
something to have another look, maybe skipping something. We use the museum as
a resource while we’re there, a spark to our conversations.

For the most part, I have observed that the massive packs
of school children do not get such opportunities for conversation. To be
honest, I am dubious anyway of field trips with more than two or three children
(whether school children or homeschoolers) as the social element tends to
dominate and What We’re Supposed To Be Looking At gets lost. Unless the field
trip is carefully framed, both before and after, the destination is usually
incidental to the pushing and shoving, horseplay, gossip and jostling to look
at the contraband Nintendo that someone’s bound to have brought along. Even with the best intentions
it is difficult to a) keep a continuum between classroom and field trip
experience when one is working with such large numbers of students and b)
compete with children’s socializing.

A fairly new phenomena I have observed amongst school
groups is the arming of them with clipboards and quiz sheets. I’ve peered over
a number of shoulders and even fished a discarded paper out of a trashcan to
see what children are meant to be doing as they troop through the museum. What
I’ve discovered are checklists that they are meant to complete, so that their
museum experience becomes more akin to trolling around a supermarket with a
shopping list than an in-depth exploration of an exhibit.

Do they get a chance to discuss what they are seeing,
relate it to things they have studied in a classroom, perhaps have the teacher
hint at things to come? I’ve never seen that happen. Rather, I’ve seen bands of
children, some noisier, some quieter, some oblivious to the exhibit, others
having a good look. But I’ve never seen groups of children and adults taking
time to really talk together, considering what’s before them and traveling at a
pace dictated by the children’s interest and not a school schedule.

The frantic pace of the typical field trip to a science museum is at its worst, I think, in the
so-called ‘hands-on’ part of the museum. In St Paul, there’s a fairly large
physics and weather phenomena section which, in many ways, is really very well
done. But… how many children using the gadgets – simulating tornadoes,
tracking storms on a computer, making designs with sound, and so on – actually
know what it is they are doing? How many are simply having a fun time,
twiddling with knobs and fiddling with switches and buttons?

Now, I’m not an old sourpuss who thinks education should
be devoid of enjoyment. But I am highly critical of ‘edutainment’, the belief
that children need to be entertained, coaxed, tricked or cajoled into learning.
And I think this approach is especially prevalent when it comes to making
science ‘palatable’ to children. Look at the multitude of so-called science
kits available for homeschoolers that are based on making gloopy, shiny, slimy,
smelly substances – so that children will be entertained and, therefore,
presumably think science is ‘fun’, i.e. worthwhile.

Back to the Science Museum… a few months ago our museum
had a special exhibit on Grossology.
Grossology – I ask you! It seems that the study of snot and other ‘gross’
things is now graced with its own -ology. Our family passed on that one…!

Another side of science as entertainment can be seen in
the various very popular TV series centered on forensics. Science can be fun
and entertaining – and very sexy too. Look at those beautiful lab
assistants-come-detectives, look at their flashy clothes, big cars, big guns.
And let’s not forget all the half-clothed ‘vics’ and ‘perps’ which jazz things
up considerably.

So science is gross, it’s fun and it’s sexy – and it’s
also very disturbing. One can get the sick feeling of voyeurism when one
watches films on ‘extreme weather’, for instance. The hurricane or flood takes
the center stage – and, oh yes, that’s a dead body that the camera just panned
over. Even animal films these days can be suspect: why does the camera spend so
long focused on the kill made by the lion? Why are the crunching and ripping sounds brought to the fore? One
wonders exactly who these films are made

In many ways the IMAX films are the worst. One really is
meant to get that stomach-churning lurch when watching people rock-climb or
hang-glide on those huge screens – that’s the point. And it can be a fun
experience – something like going on a roller coaster. I have to admit I’m too
much of a wimp to go on a real roller coaster; as it is I flinch and jump when
the camera suddenly goes off a cliff or rushes down the trunk of a redwood, as
do my sons. I think for adults and older children these kind of films are okay
(I just wouldn’t overdo it). But little children? At our last visit to the IMAX
there were several little children, none older than 5, in the theater.

What could those parents have been thinking? I’m sorry, I
just can’t get my head around taking a 4 year-old to see, not just a film about
extreme nature (i.e. scenes of destruction) as this film was, but as an IMAX
film as well! Do people simply not realize that the gut-wrenching feelings
those films call up in us adults are magnified many times over in little

Little ones are like sponges, soaking up everything around
them. They are completely open to the sense impressions that surround them.
They do not have the ability or the tools to either disengage from what comes
toward them or to mediate its effect. And so what happens is that children
either shut down a part of themselves and therefore lose the ability to fully
feel, or they reach a kind of nervous overload and the way is open for a
variety of behaviors and reactions to arise, many ultimately resulting in the
labels ‘ADHD’, ‘dyslexia’, ‘sensorially challenged’.

My sons were each over 10 before we saw an IMAX movie and
even then we left a couple of them early – and they have no other sensorially
challenging experiences in their everyday lives. But those little ones I saw
that day? It would hardly be surprising if they then went home in an SUV with a
video screen, had some TV before supper and then went to bed with recorded

What is the difference between an approach to science
which values entertainment and treats it as something to be seen but not deeply experienced, on the one hand, and an approach which regards
scientific phenomena as the handwork of God, on the other? What attitudes might
we engender in our children toward life around them if it’s all regarded as a joke or a gimmick?
What, instead, might be the result if we help them perceive the wonders of
creation? Science is about understanding the mysteries of life. It is the name
we give to every child’s curiosity and desire to learn. It should be honored
and uplifted, something every human being has a relationship to as they grow.
Like art, it should be as much an everyday part of life as breathing.

* * * * *

Those of you who would like help in fostering a
reverential and respectful attitude toward life and science in your homeschool
might be interested in our science book, From
Nature Stories to Natural Science: A Holistic Approach to Science for Families
. It starts in the very earliest
years with the tiny scientist exploring her surroundings and progresses all the
way into the high school years, when science becomes a rigorous discipline,
requiring skilled thinking and observation. I explain the holistic background
to the Waldorf approach to science and also go into some depth as to how
science appears in the Waldorf curriculum. I help parents understand how they
might work with this gentle, empirical form of science at home. 



Posted on July 13, 2005 in Science

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