When you think of a museum, the image that comes to mind is keeping your hands at your sides and looking at artifacts. That isn’t what the Knock Knock Children’s Museum is about. With a target audience of birth through third grade, we encourage kids to learn through play about a variety of topics using modern technology in combination with beloved stories—both old and new.
Fourteen years of research went into developing exhibits that involve learning through play before the museum opened in August of 2017. STEAM education (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) has blossomed even more since we opened almost two years ago, but we didn’t want to sacrifice creativity and literacy.
STEAM education is integrated in every single learning zone throughout the museum, just as it is everywhere in life. For example, in the Art Garden children may be creating squishy circuits with Play-Doh to make things light up or buzz. In the Knock Knock Maker Shop they may be building Scribbling Machines using motors and batteries and are challenged to create a contraption that moves across the page and leave a mark in its path. And in Go Go Garage, they may be designing cars with LEGOs, testing them on inclined race tracks, and then making adjustments so they can go faster.
At the museum, we mesh storytelling with technology by teaching children as young as three how to program robots and use other tech tools that help them create a narrative. We offer a variety of robots to meet the developmental needs of our visitors. If there’s a story behind a concept, kids get it. They listen to stories every day. Logic comes easily when there are characters, a conflict, and a resolution. Here are a few ways we’ve integrated storytelling into teaching STEAM education topics.
Robots meet Rapunzel
Young learners are more likely to successfully engage in a new concept if it’s tied into something they are already familiar with. For our “Fairy Tale Tech” experience at the Baton Rouge Mini Maker Faire, children’s favorite fairytale came to life when we invited them to create their own characters using open-ended craft materials and cardboard tubes. They attached their fairytale characters to one of our KIBO robots and taught them how to program the robot to move, shake, dance, and sing. They could also take their character to a stop-motion animation station, to create a short movie of their story.
At the museum, children and adults were fascinated using the Watercolor Bot. They drew a character or scene with their fingers on the iPad. When done, they sent their image to the Watercolor Bot—an art robot that moves a paint brush to paint their digital artwork onto paper using a set of watercolor paints.
Making, tinkering, and engineering challenges inspired by stories
Early literacy and STEAM go hand-in-hand. Children’s books, especially fairy tales, provide a wonderful springboard to launch design experiences. Using the problems characters face in the stories is the best place to start. Whether you are building a sturdy chair for the baby bear in Goldilocks and the Three Bears or a house that can withstand strong wind in The Three Little Pigs, the possibilities are endless.
During our Cardboard Challenge month at the museum, one storyline we used revolved around the story of Rapunzel. In the story, she was tired of people crawling up her braid, and she needed help. The children engineered a cardboard castle and tower complete with a pulley system made from string to get food and supplies up in the tower.
For another story, children built a troll-proof bridge for Three Billy Goats Gruff. After designing and creating their props, children can retell a story in their own words, or make up new parts of a story. When children retell stories, they extend their learning and strengthen their comprehension skills.
Interactive digital storyboards
At Knock Knock, we often collaborate with Louisiana State University to introduce children to new technologies. For example, children love exploring the interactive digital storyboards created by Hye Yeon Nam from LSU’s Digital Arts Department. They’d create special puppets made from gloves that had copper tape on the finger tips. When they’d touch different parts of the scenery on the storyboard, they could record their voice telling a story. When they walked their hands across the board, children could hear the story being played out across the board. They could use their imaginations to re-record new scenarios or endings to the stories. Integrating technology and the exploration of conductive materials with storytelling added a new dimension to a simple storytelling experience.
The museum also holds puppetry camps where children make a variety of puppets, including marionettes. It takes a lot of engineering and problem-solving to craft, but children become deeply engaged in exploring motion by moving the strings of the marionette. We also invite local puppetry artists to teach children how to make Muppet-like characters and put on puppet shows, but it’s no ordinary puppet show. We use green screens to display our story setting. Using technology in congruence with interactive storytelling enriches not only the puppeteer’s experience, but the viewer’s experience.
From the museum to the classroom
When school groups come to the museum and take part in these STEAM and storytelling activities, teachers are inspired to extend the experiences back to the classroom. They’ve seen the activities in action, and we encourage them to integrate STEAM topics into activities they’re already doing.
Professional development is critical for teachers, especially since many teachers lack confidence in STEAM content areas. The museum offers a full-day session for teachers on making and tinkering. Our goal is to help teachers embrace a mindset for making and tinkering through engaging, playful hands-on experiences. We investigate how tinkering and making experiences support fundamental STEAM thinking and learning for young children using wide variety of activities and new tools. And, we show teachers how to integrate making and tinkering experiences into literacy and their existing curriculum.
To me, integrating the arts, technology and hands-on opportunities into education just makes sense. As children think with their hands and represent their thinking through the arts, they can make sense of science, technology and engineering. When we add characters into their work, it becomes personal and meaningful for each child.