Monday, April 13, 2015

Touch, Imagine, Explore, Enjoy - A Visit to Please Touch Museum

When I was a child, the world around me offered play primarily in the form of nature or inside my house. It was primarily playing in the backyard or make-believe in the kitchen. Museums, those repositories of interactive play, were not available to the children of my era. But as I see my own children grow up in the present times, I notice the plethora of options available to them. They can play outdoors when the sun is happily spreading its warmth around them, helping flowers bloom and decking nature with greenery and other hues of spring. Or they can head to museums, science centers and other indoor options when the frigid winters make it uncomfortable to stay outside.

One such visit to a museum the other day filled our memory bank with happy memories, music and laughter. We had a chance to visit the Please Touch Museum located in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. The name itself was catchy. To learn something, one needs to experience it. And the museum was all about learning in a playful way.

A little background info on the museum is a must here. The museum is located in a building that was once the largest building in the whole world. The Memorial Hall, where the museum resides, was part of the Centennial Exposition of 1876, which marked the celebration of America's hundred years of independence.

The Exposition was historically significant as it was the first World Fair and included exhibits from different countries. The Memorial Hall was built without using wood and was one of the 200 other buildings designed for the exposition. Another unique thing about the Exposition was that a Woman's Pavilion was built to honor and showcase the works of women, the first structure ever built to give honor to the fairer sex. The arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty were put for public display for the first time. So were Alexander Graham Bell's 'telephone' and Edison's 'telegraph'. Another fun fact was that bananas were introduced to the US people in this very fair. Learning all these facts made me feel that this was not just a museum for children but for the adults as well!

The Memorial Hall building welcomes you with the figure of Columbia standing tall above us and the sturdy sculptures of the winged stallion from Greek mythology, Pegasus - the symbol of knowledge and imagination. The real action begins as we enter the hall and the wild little enegies are let loose. (Yes, I mean the children!) The vast space of the Hall embraces freedom as kids get a chance to run around and look up and down. They are awed by the 40 feet replica of the Statue of Liberty made out of toys and other trinkets. My kids get more fun touching at an elephant made out of toys, though! Good mingling of art and recycling!

After spending a few minutes at the riverside, we head downstairs to the Wonderland. Oh what fun it was for my little one as she ran back and forth in the tiny room from Alice in Wonderland. And it wasn't just her but the big kids within us too who wanted to become part of that little room. It was with great difficulty (some tears and lot of big screamy NOs!) that we took her out so that we could explore further! Another attraction was the painting of white roses. They would magically turn red when stroked by the brushes that lay there. I don't remember how long we spent our time painting!

Little hands trying to hang pegs!

The little hands tried to hang mittens and played with pegs as they relived the story of the Three Little Kittens who lost their mittens. Then, the kids did lot of shopping in at ShopRite  and it seemed we had stocked up for the entire month! The carts were full but not so the hearts. I learnt an interesting fact about the Potato Head from here. It was the first toy to be advertised on TV. The display of the many designs of Potato Heads was drool-worthy and my Spiderman-crazy son wanted to buy the spidey Potato Head from there!

The carousel was fun for the little ones. We had purchased tickets from Groupon and along with the tickets, we had got the carousel rides free. Imagination Playground was another major center of attraction. Which child can resist large pieces of blocks, of different shapes and sizes? While the bigger kids built an elaborate electric circuit system, the little ones hung on to the tubes which became garlands or the witch's broom to ride on!s

Trying to build a circuit system or a stream!
After playing for a little more time in the garden, having grown some carrots, and having had a ride in the little wagons, it was time to move on. And so we landed on the Centennial Exploration section. This was the place that provided rich historical background information about where we were. As the kids busied themselves with train tracks, I read the facts about the Exposition and marveled at the huge mega miniature of the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. The walls displayed information on Froebel blocks, which were the inspiration behind the great American architect Frank Llyod Wright. Wright's mother purchased these mathematical blocks for her son from this Centennial Exposition. Wright was mesmerized by the shapes and the possibilities of creation from these blocks. He would go on to use this experience throughout his professional life. He writes in his autobiography, "These primary forms and figures were the secret of all effects... which were ever got into the architecture of the world"

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Froebel Blocks were Wright's source of inspiration.

Tracking success through play....First Monorail was featured in the Centennial Expo, 1876

Embossed kindergarten blocks made their appearance at this time as did the first kindergarten 'class'. Till then kindergarten had been popular in European countries but it was Susan Blow who actually ran a 'class' at the exposition and popularized the concept of early teaching.

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Learning can be by play, not just books - The idea was rapidly growing in popularity.

There was a room with a window that had caught my attention early on when I had entered the Centennial Exploration Hall. From a distance, I could see a girl standing inside the room looking at something and for no reason, I was reminded of Hawthorne's Pearl from The Scarlet Letter. To add to the curiosity factor, the girl didn't seem to move. So, I rushed towards the window. It was not a real girl standing inside. I had been duped by my imagination. Nevertheless, I just wanted her to turn and look at me. There was an aura to that specific display. As I read the information given on that, I came to know it was Daisy Williams, a little girl who had visited the Exposition in 1876 and collected artifacts from different booths. She was a child like any other child, the only difference being that she died at the young age of 16 and her parents commemorated her death by building the Sweet Briar College in Virginia. The things she purchased at the Exposition were primarily Japanese. Japan had made an international appearance for the first time in history and thus, everything Japanese was a rage at the time.

We tried to find some items that Daisy had purchased at the fair but we had no luck. We donned detective lenses and curious hearts. Me and my friend were so puzzled and sure thought there was something mysterious in not being able to spot a single item. Then we read the placard which mentioned that some of the objects, if not found, have been removed by the museum staff! We had a good laugh over this.

We had no luck locating objects listed here!

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History through a window
 The last trip we took was to the Flight Fantasy. My friend's son tried his speed and balance on the hamster's wheel while my kids focused on rotating the wheels of flying machines to send feathers flying high. I could see other kids walking by with their 'pets'. Their was a loud noise of laughter coming from one direction where we all headed and that was the section of the rocket launch. This was the place where all kids seemed to have the most fun as they launched their foam rockets way high and screamed Awesome after every attempt. Just before entering the rocket launch section was the place that is probably going to be engraved in my mind forever. It was the Cloud Hopscotch

I was completely mesmerized by the art work that adorned the top of the interior. It was colorful and peppy and reminded me of the strokes kids make when they first take the paint and brush in their hands. It seemed like tie and dye had been at work here. My feet danced on the clouds that patterned the floor. The moment I hopped, a sweet, frisky melody started playing. I don't know which music it was. It seemed that it was some reed instrument making me dance to its tunes. I kept on hopping, dancing, and smiling, and in between chasing my toddler daughter who was going all over the places. I don't know why but I kept coming back again to this place. Was it the music, was it the soothing darkness, was it the vibrant hues of the artwork above, or was it the child in me that made me do this? I don't know. But it was just beautiful and soulful for me. I loved it, absolutely loved it! 
(I wrote a brief note on the use of colors and music in Cloud Hopscotch which you can read in this post  )

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Thanks to the staff of the museum as they shared the image with me. I forgot to click as I was busy hopping!
Look at the spectacular colors above and the cozy blues on the wall.

When Einstein said, " Play is the highest form of research", he hit the bull's eye. For children, learning comes easily when they get a chance to play and imagine, without any pressure to excel. Children's Museums serve that very purpose. If you are a parent or a child's caretaker, the best thing you can do for the child around you is to let him/her play and explore. It would be right to end my post with a poem I love, a poem that speaks volumes on how to raise a child:

I tried to teach my child from books, he gave me only puzzled looks.
I tried to teach my child with words, he didn't want to listen unheard.
Despairingly I turned aside, "How shall I teach this child" I cried.
Into my hand he put the key...
"Come" he said, "and play with me"

-Helen Decter

[Special thanks to my friend Sneha for clicking the pictures!]
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  1. Nice post... the place seem awesome ! And you have ended with apt words .. nothing can be better than feeling, touching the knowledge :)

    1. thanks are right......the more hands-on experience a child ha, the more s/he retains and learns......