When children first lay eyes on the Children’s Museum’s three story climbing structure, their eyes usually light up with awe and excitement. For many children, it is their favorite part of a visit to the Museum. However, some grown-ups are not quite as thrilled. Despite the fact that it’s an extremely safe structure, it is nerve-wracking for any grown-up to let their child climb up so high, especially by themselves. I have to admit that when I first started working on the floor at the Children’s Museum as a Visitor Experience Associate, standing at the exit at the top of the climber was my least favorite shift. I quickly realized I was going to have to overcome my fear of heights in order to muster the courage to help children who were scared, and also celebrate the amazing successes of all of the children who proudly make it to the top.
Those of us who work at the Museum strive to be positive role models for the children who visit us and in many ways I believe that the children inspire us just as much. One day at the climber exit, I witnessed a boy of about 8 years old guide a young girl he didn’t know down from the top because she was scared, helping her each step of the way. Another time, a girl from South Korea who didn’t speak English played peak-a-boo with me, grinning from ear to ear. I have even seen two year-olds reach the top!
Over time, I have not only developed a more positive relationship with the climber, I have begun to see it as one of the most empowering exhibits in our museum and a place that I believe most clearly displays the importance of learning through experience and play. The climber is a physical, emotional and cognitive challenge to children which allows them to not only push themselves but also to experience the immediate rewards of their actions. At the same time, when grown-ups engage with children along their journey through the climber, they can learn to trust their children and find a balance between guiding them and letting them discover the way on their own.
One day while standing at the climber exit, reflecting on the impact of the experience on children’s and their grown-ups’ lives, I realized that the climber can really be seen as a metaphor of the learning process and specifically, the power of play and experience in children’s development. I see the climber as representing the intrinsic motivation that learning can provide us; children want to learn and discover just like they have a desire to climb to the top. As grown-ups, we can foster their curiosity and guide them along the process by giving them the space to explore, but also giving them the right amount of support so that they can achieve their goals. I often see parents follow their children on the stairs, as their child is in the climber, giving them encouragement and hints. When children accomplish their goals, whether it’s making it to the top of the climber or finishing a math problem, they gain confidence to face the next challenge. What I think is often missing from both our own and children’s relationship with learning is the joy of the learning process. While learning can be scary and requires taking risks, the climber has shown me how to live in the moment and appreciate the satisfaction and joy that children experience when they are playing and learning. Next time you visit the Museum, take a moment to reflect on your family’s experiences with the climber and how it has maybe helped both your children and you grow to become more confident and joyful.