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Children’s Museums A Rant


Cynthia Peters

Question:

What do you get when you cross "generous funding" from bloated

financial institutions with a culture that picks on parents?

Answer:

Children’s Museums.

You’ll

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 d├ęcor 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.

Question:

"Why?" you might ask. "What is interesting about a Tokyo subway

car?"

Answer:

I have no idea.

Having

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.

Question:

Is there something thrilling about being on pretend TV for a fleeting moment

with a registered trademark aardvark?

Answer:

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.

Still,

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!!

Is

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. . .

Question:

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?

Answer:

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.

See,

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

child.

Resistance

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.

"Hmm.

I wonder what will happen if I put this block here?" — presumably models

wondering for a child.

And

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?

In

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."

Meanwhile,

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

micro-management.

I

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.

Question:

Whatever happened to dreams as wish fulfillment? As portals to the impossible?

As vision unfettered by funding constraints?

Answer:

They still exist. No thanks to our corporate benefactors and their "dream

machines." Let’s do what we can to keep it that way.

 

 

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