Monday, March 23, 2020

A Magical Day at the Children's Museum: Anne Frank, Mo Willems, and the Stories that We Tell

One week before our community's pandemic closures began, back when we were still happily anticipating a spring full of field trips, fashion shows, and fun adventures with friends, the kids and I had one more magical day at one of our favorite places in the world, the Children's Museum of Indianapolis.

As usual, it was service learning that led us there:

This was an especially fun activity, and both kids, who worked at a table separate from me, declared that it was one of the favorite activities they've ever led here! At both of our tables, we had lots of die-cuts of living things--people in real colors and people in fun colors, dragons, frogs, bears, etc., along with markers, foam stickers, and sticky-backed googly eyes that were incredibly difficult to separate from their backings.

Small children would wander up, with their adults or with a school group, and I would invite them to "make a character," and tell them that when they were done, I wanted them to tell me all about the character they'd made. The kids would choose a die-cut, settle in with markers and stickers, and one-by-one I'd ask each kid if they wanted googly eyes for their character. If they said yes, I'd ask how many they wanted, and then painstakingly unpeel the backings of that many eyes for them. Normally, it's really important for kids to do their own work, but those backings were practically IMPOSSIBLE to peel. It was bonkers how difficult they were!

When each kid had finished, they were excited to tell me about the character they'd created. I'd ask them to tell me what their character looked like on the outside, and as they did so we'd talk about how that was a physical trait. Then I'd ask them to tell me what their character felt like on the inside, and as they did so we'd talk about how that was a personality trait. Then, if we had time, they could tell me a whole story about their character, and if we didn't have time, I'd remind them that they could tell a story about their character when they were home.

OMG the kids were SO INTO THIS ACTIVITY! I don't know if it was the open-ended nature of the activity, the unusual materials they could access, or the agency they felt in story-telling, but they universally loved the snot out of this activity! And mentoring an activity is always much more fun when the kids are into it, so it turned out to be a terrific way to spend our morning.

We generally volunteer in the mornings, so afterward our tradition is to eat our packed lunch in the museum's big cafeteria. We do get an employee discount, but even with that the food is too expensive to justify three entire lunches every time we go, so we bring our lunch, but we always bring something that requires a bounty of condiments, because one notable fact about the Children's Museum is that its condiments bar hosts EVERY CONDIMENT. I'm talking ranch dressing. I'm talking honey mustard. I'm talking barbecue sauce. I'm talking hot sauce!

Seriously, it's, like, our favorite thing. You haven't lived until you've gotten up early to bake frozen chicken strips, put them in a Children's Museum-branded lunch bag, and eaten them cold with fourteen different dipping sauces.

Ugh, I'm craving it right now!

After lunch, we've generally got a few items on our museum to-do list before we make the drive back home. On this day, there was a brand-new exhibit on Mo Willems to explore!

Here is my favorite Mo Willems book:

Here is my second-favorite Mo Willems book:

I'm not as into the Elephant and Piggy series, but the kids definitely blew through them all when they were each learning to read. And yep, we sat in the museum gallery's reading area and blew through them all again.

And then learned to draw them for ourselves!

Will is smiling like a brat in this photo because in the video Mo Willems has just said, "Write your name on your drawing," and she has done so:

Most of this gallery is geared to the very young, but one of the many terrific things about the Children's Museum is that the galleries always include awesome stuff to educate and engage big people, too. Check out this exhibit of Mo Willems' original sketches for his books!

Syd was VERY interested to learn that he uses charcoal pencil for these sketches. He must be a very tidy artist, and we want to know how he avoids smudging charcoal all over his paper!

Fun side fact: Mo Willems is currently a Kennedy Center artist-in-residence, and during the pandemic he's putting out a daily series of videos. There's some cool how-to-draw stuff, but also really interesting inside info about his creative process and how he makes his art:

After Mo Willems, we of COURSE had to visit the dinosaurs--

--and then we made another visit to Anne Frank. The kids are currently working on a short study of her for this monthly patch program through Girl Scouts of Central Illinois, and of course I've used the patch as an excuse to also review the Holocaust through the lens of personal accounts of child victims, and to incorporate a diary-writing practice. Old or young, in circumstances ordinary or extraordinary, we own our own stories and we have the power to tell them. 

The kids and I have had a lot of conversations about what makes people like Anne Frank or Eva Kor ordinary, and what makes them extraordinary (and as I write this, it's just now occurred to me to make the connection between this and the character trait activity that we led on this day!), and I'm always interested to see how visiting the same exhibit we've been visiting for the kids' whole lives, but with a new focus in our minds, leads us to notice different things. This, for instance, is possibly the first time I've noticed this particular photo, in which a young Anne Frank is attending a Montessori school much like, if you count the beads and bead cabinet you can clearly see--

--the Montessori school my own kids attended for a time. 

It's important not to do any tale-telling about what I see and hear when the kids and I are on duty, but here we were just guests, and so I feel free to tell you that while we were all sitting on benches in Anne's exhibit, watching a short documentary on her life, a child sitting in front of us turned to her adult during a scary part of the film and asked, "Does Anne die?"

Friends, that adult said, literally, and I quote, "No, Anne doesn't die."

I gasped in horror! That's... I mean... that's so not right! I would have said something right then and there except that I've seen this little documentary a dozen or more times, and so I was watching the kid more than the film when it came to the part where the narrator explains how Anne and Margot die. The kid made a noise when the narrator said that, and shot her head around to give a betrayed look to her adult, but her adult was across the room on her phone and so didn't see it.

The second-to-last thing that we always do at the Children's Museum is ride the carousel:

And the last thing that we do is wander the gift shop. I don't normally have a lot of patience for gift shops, but this one is legitimately cool--they deliberately vary their stock so they're always adding new things, like this authentic made-in-Greece Greek dress that Syd talked me into buying for her by telling me that she'd wear it all the time AND use it as part of her Halloween costume this year:

In this photo I'm making her hold my ouzo because it's also Greek...
I never buy myself anything (but if you want to buy me a museum-branded hoodie and a messenger bag, feel free!), but I do take pictures of books that I'm going to request from the public library as soon as it opens again:

I love these magical days at the museum. I love connecting in ever-new ways with a place that we've been visiting since my girls were very small. I love working with children, and the challenge of mentoring a brand-new-to-all-of-us activity for a revolving cast of kiddos. I love our traditions of dipping sauces and carousel horses, and keeping track of how many people we tell the location of the nearest bathroom to.

I'm really, really, really looking forward to getting back there.

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