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Kids Learn Through Discovery

Free play grows a child’s knowledge of himself and his world.

There’s an odd device occupying a spot inside the Children’s Museum of Memphis (CMOM), an angular, twisty thing called a Laser Harp. There isn’t much in the way of signage to explain its presence — or even what it does — but that’s the point.

“Kids see it and are curious about it, but they don’t necessarily know what it is at first,” said Carrie Roberts, the museum’s director of public relations and marketing. “It’s about discovery. We want kids to learn through experience.”

As they play, their subtle movement or wild gestures pull music out of the instrument as fingers and arms trigger invisible beams of light.

“Our goal is to teach through play,” says Roberts. “We want the kids that come here to touch everything they see and learn all they can from that experience.”

A child’s brain grows at an astonishing rate, building from two sets of blueprints. In one set, genetics play a role, making sure all the proper parts are where they should be and are functioning together as they should. In the other, your child’s brain is being built by experiences. New connections spark to life with each new experience, especially between birth to age 3. This means it’s up to us as parents and caregivers to provide a steady stream of safe experiences for little ones and fuel their growing brains.

Public places like parks, libraries, and museums provide perfect settings for this kind of safe experiential learning, as they give children plenty of room for free play. The Urban Child Institute identifies play as one of four powerful tools parents can use to guide early developmental learning, along with loving touch, verbal communication, and reading with your children.

“Play can teach children how to work through social situations,” says Roberts. “In the museum’s grocery store exhibit, for example, if we limit each child to only checking out three items, they learn small lessons about where they fit in a society. In a city like ours, with such diversity in race, economics, politics, it’s important that kids play together in large social settings. Safe, free play in setting like this teach children a lot about social dynamics.”

Think of child’s play as a laboratory for life. It’s in this setting that children can experiment with how things work, develop new skills, and potentially discover interests that can last a lifetime. A child trying on a fire fighter’s hat is a child experimenting with a role. Sitting among a pile of blocks, he’s an engineer.

“We got a letter once from a woman, a dental hygienist,” said Roberts. “In the letter, she said that it was through play at CMOM that she first tried on the role of health care provider, interacting with our exhibits. That was pretty cool.”


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