Creative Inspiration for Preschoolers from Museums
This research explores the learning outcomes of preschool children produced through visits to an historic house museum environment. The new Finnish preschool curriculum identifies the importance of arts-based approaches for children and that these approaches should be closely aligned to experiential and holistic education. The aim of the research was to explore the significance of the museum environment to preschoolers and their creative activities as a result of experiences at the museum. The research data were collected across 4 days with 16 preschool children. The empirical data stemmed from tasks which included follow-up stories, drawings based on the stories, craft designs, craft products, and video recordings of the activities in the historic house museum environment and at school. The research data were supported by semi-structured interviews that illuminated children’s perspectives on the project. The qualitative data were analyzed using a framework that took account of the compulsory, optional, and free properties of the follow-up stories and craft products. The historic house museum environment was connected to children’s creative actions to give them ideas for their stories and craft products. The holistic learning process described in this study appeared to benefit the construction of learning in a child-centered way that grounded children’s understanding. The research contributes to greater understanding about how arts-based and creative learning activities can be implemented with preschool children in different environments.
KeywordsMuseum Arts-based education Creativity Preschool Follow-up story Crafts
Dans ce travail nous examinons les apprentissages résultant de visites faites par des enfants d’âge préscolaire dans l’environnement muséal d’une maison historique. Le nouveau programme préscolaire finnois indique l’importance des approches basées sur les arts pour les enfants et signale que ces approches devraient être étroitement liées à l’éducation expérientielle et holistique. Le but de notre étude est d’examiner la signification d’un environnement muséal pour les enfants d’âge préscolaire et leurs activités créatrices résultant de leurs expériences au musée. Les données de recherche ont été cueillies au cours de quatre jours avec 16 enfants du préscolaire. Les données empiriques proviennent de tâches comprenant des histoires de suivi, des dessins basés sur les histoires, des créations artisanales, des produits d’artisanat et les enregistrements vidéo des activités dans l’environnement muséal de la maison historique et à l’école. Les données sont appuyées par des interviews semi structurées pour avoir l’éclairage du point de vue des enfants sur le projet. Les données qualitatives ont été analysées en utilisant un cadre tenant compte des caractéristiques obligatoire, optionnelle ou libre des histoires et des produits d’artisanat. L’environnement muséal de la maison historique était lié aux actions créatives des enfants pour leur donner des idées pour leurs histoires et leurs travaux d’artisanat. L’approche holistique décrite dans cette étude s’avère bénéfique à la construction de l’apprentissage d’une manière centrée sur l’enfant qui assoit la compréhension des enfants. La recherche contribue à mieux comprendre comment des activités basées sur les arts et l’apprentissage créatif peuvent être mises en place auprès des enfants d’âge préscolaire dans différents environnements.
En este estudio se observa el desarrollo del aprendizaje de niños preescolares, producido en el entorno de una casa museo de corte histórico. Las bases del nuevo plan de enseñanza pre-escolar en Finlandia ponen énfasis en la importancia de los métodos basados en el arte y la creatividad alineados con la enseñanza experiencial integradora y holística. El objetivo de la investigación era explorar la significatividad que un entorno inspirador para los pre escolares, tendría en su creatividad. La recogida de información se condujo por cuatro días con un grupo de 16 niños/as preescoalres. Estos datos empíricos surgieron desde tareas y actividades referidas a continuación de historias inconclusas, ilustración sobre las historias creadas, planes de productos de artesanía y videos filmados durante el periodo de aprendizaje del museo y del colegio. Para apoyar el material de investigación se entrevistó a los niños con una entrevista semi-estructurada con el fin de averiguar las perspectivas de los niños en cuanto al progreso del proyecto. El material se analizó con un análisis de contenido cualitativo y el marco de referencias se compuso de límites obligatorios, optativos y libres. El entorno de museo tenía relación con las actividades creativas de los niños y les proporcionó ideas para narrar historias personales así como planificar manualidades y fabricarlas. El proceso holístico que conlleva esta investigación parece potenciar el aprendizaje de los niños y niñas, en una forma orientada y centrada en ellos y ellas y puede facilitar la concreción de su comprensión de los conceptos involucrados en los temas abordados. La investigación también permite una mejor comprensión de la relevancia de los métodos basados en el arte y en actividades de aprendizaje creativas, las que pueden ser implementadas en la enseñanza pre-escolar en diferentes entornos de aprendizaje.
Early childhood education stresses arts-based ways of learning (Moore 2003). In early childhood, arts-based education nurtures and promotes students’ synesthetic sense-making and communication skills (Wallerstedt and Pramling 2012). It supports children’s well-being, self-esteem, and identity development and increases their opportunities to participate more actively (Moore 2003). The aim of arts-based education was to develop children’s creative, thinking, and visual skills (Bamford 2009). According to Jalongo and Narey (2014a), not only should the arts be a core subject, but different arts-based activities should also be integrated into all learning contents. The incorporation of the practices of art education into academic curricula is referred to as arts integration or arts-based education (Jalongo and Narey 2014a).
Arts-based education is closely related to increasing creativity, defined as the thought and response processes that connect with previous experiences, respond to various stimuli, and generate unique combinations. Creativity often needs to be supported by interactions and the environment (Jalongo and Narey 2014a). All children can be creative if given the opportunity. Creativity is considered essential to learning because it enables learners to make connections, think, and create meaning (Prince and Logan 2005). Children’s creative thinking differs from adults because children have less experience, expertise, working habits and styles, and unique ways of thinking and approaching tasks (Jalongo and Narey 2014a). Adults can support children’s creativity by exposing them to inspiring experiences and different models and ways of working. Therefore, educators’ role in early childhood arts-based education is extremely important (Wallerstedt and Pramling 2012). In Meiners’s (2005) study, a visiting artist stimulated children’s creative thinking, boosting their imagination and leading to unexpected activities. According to Meiners (2005), it is important to awaken children’s curiosity and give them enough time to become accustomed to new circumstances to support their experiences. Meiners (2005) also emphasizes the benefits of developing partnerships with local actors to enrich children’s learning.
Robson and Rowe (2012) studied children’s thinking by observing their behavior and found that playing in different outdoor environments is one of the most effective factors in promoting children’s creative thinking. As learning environments, museums serve children’s natural desire to explore and be active. In the learning process presented in this paper, arts-based education in a preschool group was intensified by implementation in a historic house museum environment. In this research, preschoolers performed two arts-based tasks inspired by this museum environment: imagining literature-based follow-up stories (inventing personal story endings) and handmade soft toys. These arts-based tasks had a similar structure: a starting point based on the museum environment and some limitations to which the children had to adhere. Otherwise, they were allowed to carry out their own ideas as they wished.
Our previous research shows that follow-up stories and handmade craft products are well suited for describing children’s experiences and involving children in learning. In earlier research, we combined a literature-based semiotic working process with a design and craft process with preschoolers. The semiotic working process is a literature-based experiential teaching method developed specifically for reading fiction which serves as a tool for ethical and moral growth (Rönkkö and Aerila 2013). In previous research, we also presented an instructional approach aimed at expanding children’s participation in the literature discussions, thus facilitating the development of literacy (Aerila and Rönkkö 2015a) and helping children transfer ideas from literacy into design (Rönkkö and Aerila 2015).
How do preschoolers capitalize on museum experiences in literature-based tasks?
How do preschoolers capitalize on museum experiences in design and craft tasks?
How do preschoolers experience a historic house museum as a place to visit?
Museums as Learning Environments
Museums are inspiring learning environments because they offer a glimpse into the living conditions of the past. The most important factor in museum visits is the ability to bring to life history, art, and the environment for children and to encourage them to explore topics more intensively (Bell et al. 2009.) Museum-based experiences motivate and construct multi-sensual methods of engagement to develop collaborative, metacognitive, and critical enquiry learning skills (Foreman-Peck and Travers 2013). Traditionally, visits to local historic houses and city museums have been used to teach children about the history and past culture of communities (Tisdale 2013). A benefit of museum visits is the opportunity to discover new phenomena in a manner that might be difficult in traditional classroom environments (Lemelin and Bencze 2004).
As delivered in museums, learning typically involves engaging pupils in interactive activities, discussions, and learning by doing and through interpretation (Foreman-Peck and Travers 2013). Learning in museums can offers lessons “directly applicable to …observing and exploring, raising questions, proposing ways to answer questions, examining, comparing, analyzing, finding patterns in observations, evaluating, classifying, applying ideas in new situations, gathering information,” and using evidence to think critically and logically (Griffin 1998, p. 658–659). According to Griffin (1998), the learning process in museums is affected by learners’ prior experiences, cultural backgrounds, and current conceptual understandings, expectations, and attitudes. The intensity of learning in museums is generally determined by visitors’ curiosity and is maintained when they face a challenge and gain satisfaction from the experience (Griffin 1998; Wolins et al. 1992).
Pace and Tesi (2004) asked young adults about their memories related to trips to museums during their time in kindergarten. It appeared that they remembered the visits and the educational information, as well as the visit being more enjoyable when it involved hands-on activities. Museums can increase children’s understanding and support traditional classroom education (Anderson et al. 2006). One of the most important benefits of using museums as a learning environment is the potential to develop teachers’ ability to integrate different subjects in a certain phenomenon (Chin 2004). It is important that museum visits are experience-driven, not information-driven, and that follow-up activities are planned carefully so that these learning experiences result in new knowledge (Rapp 2005).
This research involved a case study “which aims to clarify a present event or operation in a certain environment, and to use diverse acquired data in different ways” (Yin 1994, p. 13). The use of a case study strategy is justified when studying contextual conditions (Simons 2015). A qualitative case study enables dealing with and conceptualizing significances (Snape and Spencer 2003). This data collection method is aimed at understanding a phenomenon deeply (Mitchell 2000).
Kirsti’s story was based on Kirsti of old Rauma (2012), a fictional picture book about the historic house museum written by Annastiina Mäkitalo. The picture book tells the story of Kirsti, who lived with her family in the house in the early 1900s. Kirsti of old Rauma is fictional but includes real information about the house, the artifacts in it, and the events of the time. In the story, Kirsti’s father is a sailor, and her mother is a washerwoman. Her father has gone to sea, and Kirsti and her siblings miss him. He has promised to return when the apple tree blossom. Kirsti tries to hasten his return by making lace flowers that she attaches to the apple tree. However, he does not come back, and money becomes scarce. Kirsti’s mother tells her that she must sell the lace flowers at the market to get money for food. Kirsti did not want to do so, but she does not know what else to do. At this point, the reading ended, and the children were asked to make up a personal ending to the original story as a follow-up story.
In a follow-up story, a participant invents a personal continuation of a fragment of a fictional story. The aim was to write, tell, draw, or act out a text that stylistically and substantively complies with the original story and tries to correspond to the author’s understanding of how the original story proceeds (Aebli 1991). Unlike diaries and reading logs, follow-up stories are fictitious and usually narrative texts. They include elements both deliberately and unconsciously selected by the author, whereas other thinking-aloud tasks are more consciously produced (Aerila 2010). Most preschoolers cannot write, so the researchers facilitated the follow-up story exercise with a variation in the story crafting method. In this method, a child or a group of children acts as the narrator, while the story crafter writes down the narrator’s story word for word (Karlsson 2009). Story crafting is most commonly used to allow children to tell stories without any stimuli, but in this research, it was connected with children’s literature (Aerila and Rönkkö 2015a). After telling follow-up stories, children were asked to illustrate their stories. The children were allowed to choose to do the activity in a place in the museum or its yard according to their preference.
When all the children had illustrated their follow-up stories, they made craft products based on porcelain dogs in the house, whose symbolic meaning was discussed: Sailors had a tradition of using porcelain dogs as indicators of their absence. The children and researchers also discussed longing for a family member, which is a central theme of Mäkitalo’s picture book. Afterward, children sketched a character named Longing Larry, which reflected someone for whom they longed. Children designed and made patterns for soft toys based on to their sketches and designs. They implemented their designs into craft products at their preschool over the next 3 days. Making the craft product demanded using several craft techniques. First, the children felted the body of the soft toys. Following a pattern, they cut the characters out of felt and either embroidered the details or made them with needle felting. When children were satisfied with their characters, they were asked to describe the characters using the iPad application, Book Creator.
Qualitative data were collected from the learning process, including the follow-up stories, story-based drawings, craft designs, and craft products. Semi-structured interviews were also conducted to capture children’s views of the project. During the interviews, children had their designs and soft toys with them to help them recall the design and making phases. The interviews lasted for 5–10 min and explored children’s assessment of the process. All the activity hours and group discussions were videotaped.
Data were subjected to qualitative content analysis (Krippendorff 2004). In qualitative content analysis, research materials are analyzed step by step following rules of procedure and are divided into analytical units and then categorized and revised during the process of analysis (feedback loops), including setting criteria for data reliability and validity (Mayring 2000). In this study, children’s interviews and videotaping of group discussions were analyzed both holistically and thematically. The theme which emerged from the analysis of the interviews and group discussions was children’s views of museums.
The properties of children’s outcomes (follow-up stories and craft products) were analyzed and categorized based on a framework of compulsory, optional, and free elements. The compulsory elements of both outcomes were the key learning objectives. Optional elements in both outcomes were the features which were ready options, from which the child was allowed to choose his/her favorite. Free elements were the child’s self-produced features (Rönkkö and Aerila 2014; Aerila and Rönkkö 2015b). In the follow-up stories, the compulsory and optional elements mostly related to the structure of the story. The compulsory elements consisted of keeping the same main character as the original story and inventing an ending to it, the optional elements were choosing the perspective from which the follow-up story is told, and the free elements were the details drawn from the museum environment and original story. The elements of the craft products were related to the materials, forms, and techniques. The compulsory elements were the making of the design and completing and felting the soft toy, while the optional element was the shape, color, and details of characters and how they were implemented. The free elements were, for example, ideas inspired by the environment (e.g., Aerila and Rönkkö 2015b). The theme which emerged from analyzing the children’s outputs was museums inspiring children in literature and crafts activities.
Personal Story Endings Inspired by the Museum Visit
The aim of the follow-up stories was to have children tell personal endings to the beginning of Mäkitalo’s picture book. Children were allowed to continue the original story as they wished. The only requirements were that they had to invent an ending to Mäkitalo’s story and illustrate their follow-up story after telling it. All the children could tell a follow-up story, invent an ending to the story, and illustrate it. The length of the stories varied greatly, with the shortest only one sentence and the longest 40 sentences. As well, children were satisfied with their stories, and their satisfaction was ensured by allowing them opportunities to hear their own stories several times and change them if desired.
The story by Belle (girl, 6 years) serves as an example of the follow-up stories told. The main character of Belle’s story is Kirsti, who misses her father, and the story has a logical ending which describes a happy reunion. The optional element is the perspective of the story. Belle’s story continues both perspectives of the original story; she starts by telling what happened to the lace flowers Kirsti made and continues by telling how the father finally returns.
The free elements of Belle’s story are details from the historic house museum and the picture book. Empathizing with Kirsti’s feelings can be regarded as a free element from Belle’s own experiences. Belle’s story resembles the original story because they both have happy endings, and the father comes home. This similarity might indicate good literacy skills (Aerila 2010). Table 1 shows how Belle implemented the compulsory, optional, and free elements in her follow-up story.
She didn’t want to sell them, and she went out. Kirsti was nervous and cried. Then she went back inside. She made more lace flowers and noticed that all the flowers had disappeared, and then she found them in the well. She made lace flowers more and more and more. Then the dogs began to bark, and Dad came home. Dad no longer went to sea ever without taking the whole family along. Then the whole family went to sea, and then they came back. Then they lived happily ever after. The end. (Belle 6th May 2014)
Compulsory, optional, and free elements in Belle’s story
Telling a personal follow-up story
Inventing an ending to the story
Keeping the main character
Illustrating the follow-up story with drawings
Choosing the perspective of the story (the story of the missing father, the story of the lace flowers, the story of both)
Perspectives of both the father and the lace flowers.
Similarity to the original story’s ending
Details from the historic house museum
Well, porcelain dogs
Details from events in the book
Lace flowers, father at sea
Details from child’s personal experiences and world
Empathy for Kirsti’s situation, emphasis on the importance of family
The museum environment and the beginning of the picture book gave children ideas for their own stories, and during reflective conversations, they liked listening to and comparing their stories and the original story (Videotaped, May 9, 2014). Having children inventing personal story endings can serve as a tool for educators to support their literacy because it indicates how children have listened to a story, to which details they have paid attention, and how they understood the story structure. Comparing stories to each other also helped children understand that interpreting literature is an individual process influenced by many factors, such as previous experiences, literacy skills, and worldview (Aerila 2010).
The follow-up stories included references to children’s own lives and the present time, particularly toys and characters in television programs and children’s experiences. When inventing follow-up stories, it is important to carefully choose the literature that is to be used as the starting point. The original story should have elements, preferably a main character, with whom children can empathize (Aerila 2010). In this research, children appear to have empathized with the main character from another historic period, as evidenced their story endings: they all had happy endings in which Kirsti’s father returns to the family home. In most cases, the father decides to never leave again or to take the family with him on his next journey. William’s (boy, 7 years) story is a typical example of empathy for Kirsti’s feelings and situation:
The connection of the inspiring environment to the process of telling a personal story ending influenced children’s stories. Creating stories in a historic environment can show the extent to which children grasped the historic content. In the present study, the children used many details from the environment (e.g., the well, porcelain dogs, tenants, old currency, domestic animals, and marketplace) in their stories, which can help facilitate conversations about the historic curriculum with preschoolers.
Then it was summer, and the father came from seas. They had a party, and Kirsti didn’t have to sell her lace flowers. The porcelain dogs were sitting on a windowsill and looked outside. (William, May 6, 2014)
Design and Craft Tasks Inspired by the Museum Visit
The porcelain dogs found in the museum were the starting point for the design and making of craft products. Preschoolers were allowed to choose multiple details of their characters. The only limitations on the craft products were the use of craft materials (wool both as fiber and thread) and craft techniques (felting and needle felting). Children’s making of a craft product matched the holistic craft ideal, in which the maker designs a product, implements the design, and evaluates the whole process based on given limitations (Rönkkö and Aerila 2015). The younger pupils require more teacher direction and support during the craft process (Aerila and Rönkkö 2015b; Rönkkö and Aerila 2015). In this context, we successfully choose a motivating artifact that supported the learning objectives, matched children’s skill levels, and was implemented on schedule, which was helped by limiting the number of elements to be achieved in completing the task. According to the children, implementing Longing Larry was an inspiring task. They were most enthusiastic about felting and needle felting. The felting task was physically demanding for children, but they worked at it determinedly. All participants entered into the spirit of the needle felting, pretending to be machines making the product.
The craft products show that the children understood the significance of the porcelain dogs in the past as souvenirs and as symbols of the longing of sailors’ families for their loved ones at sea. All the children added their own ideas to the sketches, designs, and products. In this context, the museum experience provided the starting point for designing tangible products. One aspect of the process that preschoolers described carefully was designing Longing Larry as a character and deciding what he felt, while at the same time, they processed their own feelings. For example, Tony (boy, 6 years) made Longing Larry as a cat because he longs for his cat when he is at his mother’s house. Tony’s parents have divorced, and his beloved cat lives with his father. Tony regarded the soft toy cat as real and suggested that it can be the cat at his mother’s home.
[The nicest part was] that when you did heavy work, then you got an excellent product. (Belle, May 9, 2014)
It was nice because you could play, so you are like a sewing machine. (John, May 9, 2014)
Children’s own living worlds were seen in soft toys made as current characters. For example, boys made soft toys to resemble monster cars, dinosaurs, dogs, and goats, while girls made animal figures and dolls. Children drew these kinds of characters from their world influenced by television shows, cartoons, and toys. They transformed the idea of the porcelain dogs into matters significant to them. All the children wanted to play with the characters as soon as they were finished. For example, Jane (girl, 7 years) designed Doll, who waits for her in her bed (Fig. 3). In Jane’s mind, Doll is real, and she describes Doll as a good-hearted person. She tells the stories they have made up together and how Doll wants to play with her and Kirsti (Jane, May 9, 2014).
He [the soft toy] is just a normal cat. His name is Willy. He is for real; it is not just a toy.… I play with him. It is funny when he bites me and licks my head. (Tony, May 9, 2014)
Compulsory, optional, and free elements of Jane’s craft product
Designing a soft toy based on the follow-up story and sketches
Felting and needle felting
Making the details of the soft toy
Evaluating the design and making of the product and the final self-made product
Details of the character
Needle felted with different colors
Ideas from the historic house museum, events in the book and the follow-up story, and the child’s own living world
Doll is a good-hearted friend to Jane and Kirsti
Doll comforts her when necessary
Jane wants to play with Doll
Children’s Evaluations of the Museum Experience
In the evaluation discussion, children described the visit to the historic house museum as entertaining and useful. They enjoyed becoming familiar with the new environment by exploring, listening, playing, and making. The preschoolers remembered many details about the museum and the life represented there. Regarding the interior of the museum, children mentioned the abundant carpets, low ceilings, and such details as lace pillows, porcelain dogs, and the presence of tenants. From the courtyard, the children remembered the well, granary, and stable. The detail they found the most intriguing was that the well served as a refrigerator. Their interest in the well was further stimulated when they found the postcard from Kirsti at the well (Videotape, May 9, 2014).
Why do we have that kind of historic house?
It is good to have that kind of a house. There, you can go to look at all those old things
Why do we go to see those old things?
It is because you get the knowledge… if you are about our age, you do not know what there is. Then you can tell what there was in the old days
Can anyone tell me why the museum was called Kirsti?
Because a girl named Kirsti lived there. (Videotape, May 9, 2014)
Discussion and conclusions
The thoughts of small children are very factual and based on what they do, explore, or discuss. From a learning perspective, making children sit and listen to the teacher is not meaningful or effective. The learning situations in day care, preschool, and primary education should be planned so that children can do activities of personal interest while they learn (Henderson and Atencio 2007). The best learning outcomes from museum visits are achieved when the experiences and acquired knowledge are further developed in the classroom, and children have opportunities to process and analyze their experiences with their classmates (Pace and Tesi 2004). Therefore, it seems that activities undertaken by children during visits to museums make a lasting impression, and it is important that museum visits are connected to experiential learning (Henderson and Atencio 2007).
The case study reported serves as an example of arts integration learning and on the benefits of museums as learning environment. All the children accomplished the learning targets of crafts, literacy, and cultural heritage education. In addition, the children were happy with their learning outcomes and enjoyed the process. The informal learning environment encouraged child-centeredness, playfulness, and participation in the learning process, and encouraged the children to interact with each other and stimulated their natural curiosity. It also seems that giving children the freedom to realize their own ideas and creativity within certain limits increased the participation level in the project and the motivation to carry out school activities. Children generally like creating artwork and participating in arts-based activities because arts-based education allows them to work at their own pace, make their own choices, and take pride in and enjoy a job well done (Jalongo and Narey 2014b). The preschoolers in this study liked the creative activities and the shared starting point that directed their interest toward others’ products and helped them understand, compare, and comment on those works. Listening to others and working together encouraged the children to value each other and their environment (e.g., Aerila and Rönkkö 2015a).
In this study, the visit to the historic house museum motivated children while implementing the assigned tasks. These tasks connected to the museum aroused children’s interest in history and those who lived in the past (Tisdale 2013). The children experienced life in a different historic period, and many spoke about Kirsti’s life and mirrored the events of the past through their own experiences. In this learning process, the children acted holistically and simultaneously expressed their thoughts and feelings. Arts-based education helped the children think more deeply, make observations, and express their feelings (Jalongo and Narey 2014a). Different forms of arts encouraged them to express themselves and be creative and helped adults understand the children’s development. In addition, this arts-based education provided concrete evidence of children’s work, ideas, and thoughts (Moore 2003).
The structure of our teaching process and the activity sets appeared to be successful. The structure of arts-based activities seems to bring greater effectiveness to learning, since the activities provide the educators with materials that can be used in multiple ways and for different levels of learning. These opportunities have the potential to shift the learning process from one dominated by the regulation of learning by the teacher to one revolving around respecting and getting to know children’s various perspectives (Griffin 1998). This research offers a new perspective on the increasing interest in such informal environments as museums in education. However, there remains little research-based information on how these environments support children’s social and cognitive development. In addition, only a few educational approaches aimed at situated and experiential learning in museum and other cultural environments have been developed (Paris and Hapgood 2010). Despite these limitations, different forms of problem- and project-based learning appear to enhance children’s engagement, motivation, and participation in informal environments, such as museums (Krajcik et al. 1998). Therefore, learning in informal environments through different activities for children is a relevant topic for future research.