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Alternative Learning Environments
girl exploring with texturesResearch has helped us understand that learning happens in many different types of environments. The formal structure of classrooms is only one of many environments in which children can explore and discover answers to questions about science, history, anthropology, and the humanities. Museums have long provided alternative learning environments where their rich collections of artifacts can stimulate questions and provide answers through dialogue and tactile handling of teaching objects. In this way they can reenforce classroom learning by providing actual objects that serve to ground abstract ideas. For instance, tools in a sewing kit can help explain the chores of a pioneer woman.

The Brooklyn Children’s Museum, the oldest of museum spaces dedicated solely to the learning of young children, began in 1898 by providing areas and objects that encouraged hands-on tactile learning. The idea that young people take in information differently than adults, and research supporting that idea, has given rise to specialized museum education programs in specially designed spaces that help teachers and children benefit from the unique environments that can naturally link to classroom curriculum. Natural history museums, history museums and culturally specific museums provide authentic artifacts that ground the abstract material of the classroom. Many museums have structured education programs for school aged children. These programs vary from group tours and workshops to special family days and classes.

The rise in the number of children’s museums in the past 20 years has been stimulated by research showing that the learning curve for young children rises when they are learning through new and different, hands-on stimulation. Children’s museums provide interactive exhibits where questions are answered by manipulation of levers and pulleys that physically involve the visitor. Abstract concepts are grounded by involving play. They evolve into interactive games and mechanical or musical exhibits in these alternative learning spaces.


SFMOMA, Three year old girl explores different textures — feathers, chalks, colored papers, while creating a collage with parent; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.