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Let Them Make a Mess! Science, Young Children, and the Museum Environment

It’s opening day of a new, costly exhibition on natural disasters. Adults meander through the displays, reading copy, pushing buttons, discussing information with their companions, and drawing conclusions about what they’ve seen. In one corner of the exhibition, however, a couple struggles with their four-year-old daughter. She has discovered a small, re-created tide pool that is a part of the exhibition on hurricanes. The little girl doesn’t want to leave. Naturally, she isn’t reading copy or studying the graph of water patterns; she’s just putting her hands in the water and lifting them out. again and again.

Each time the water flows through her fingers, she laughs. Soon, a three-year-old boy joins her, pouring the water from his hands to hers. What are parents, or museum educators, to do? These children clearly aren’t interested in learning the material as presented. They aren’t discussing the information or drawing important conclusions. They’re just making a mess. Or are they?

Young children learn science, and other subjects, through a basic use of their senses. The most important tools we can give them are:

  • varied and appropriate materials
  • permission to make a “mess”
  • free time to explore.

The girl and boy enjoying the Natural Disaster Exhibition aren’t using it in the way envisioned. But, the designer should be proud because, unlike many exhibits for adults, this one actually had one component of potential interest to youngsters . . . water. Most exhibits designed for adults are deadly dull to children because they provide few concrete “tie-ins” to the exhibit that young minds can access. Though the tide pool wasn’t meant for water play. the children created their own activity. And, through their activity, they were making discoveries about water’s properties that helped form a core of understanding about one of our world’s basic elements.

Finally, after separating the little girl from the tide pool, her parents take her to the children’s room, which is for newborns through seven-year-olds. The girl’s face lights up. Inside she sees water play, sand play, climbing and building, an area for mixing materials like paint and shaving cream, and several small ice sculptures, melting. It could be the ideal school environment, with a few differences. There is no teacher— the children guide their own learning. There are no institutionally imposed time limits, so children won’t be interrupted and can use their time as they see fit. And, children are free to construct knowledge on their own, without being told outcomes or conclusions.

What makes such a learning environment so appealing to children? And how can we, as those who teach in these environments, help facilitate this type of learning? Let’s look again at the three most important tools we can give young people.


Children from the ages of six months to seven years require very different learning situations and materials than do older children. The best activities and materials invite children to be involved, but do not require reading or abstract thinking.

For example, at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, children can build cars and send them rolling down a ramp. The parts of the car available are six different types of wheels, three sizes of bodies, two sizes of axles, and two different kinds of cargo boxes that can be attached to the cars. Cargo, in the form of wooden blocks, is also available, so children can load up the boxes on their cars and see how the cars’ movement changes with the load. The only graphics for this activity are labels on each container of objects, reading “small wheels,” “large axles,” and so on, and two small signs that say “MOVE IT!”

Children of all ages play with this activity. Toddlers slide themselves down the ramp, experimenting with an barly interest in motion as it relates to their own bodies. Older children exercise skills in sorting, problem-solving, predicting, comparing, teamwork, and more.


Look again at our example called “MOVE IT!” One four-year-old boy dumped all of the small axles, small round wheels, and square wheels out on the table. Adults might assume that he will use four wheels and two axles, but he hasn’t decided that. He wants to see everything the containers offer, and only then will he proceed to make a car. In fact, he never does make a car. Instead, he attaches one square wheel and one large round wheel on either side of an axle. Then, he slides it down the ramp, over and over again.


The young boy in our example is in no particular hurry. He isn’t late for anything. Story time is not about to begin. There are enough stations in the room so he doesn’t need to finish what he’s doing so another child can play. He is able to see his activity through to completion, without interruption.

Free time is very important. Children require opportunities to enter into activities and construct meanings at their own pace. Even well-meaning instruction or direction can interfere with learning at this age.

Volunteers who teach in this type of situation or setting, which is sometimes found in museums and more often found in “children’s museums,” have an important responsibility. They need to ensure that 1, 2, and 3 happen.

What should you do if a three-year-old begins to build a castle out of the parts meant to make a car? I suggest you let her make the castle. The creativity and exploration involved will probably surprise you, and just think what she’ll learn about building structures. Children will create their personal versions of activities. Allow them to finish before discussing other options or directions they might have taken.

Wait until children are completely through an activity, and leave an area, before straightening up or putting materials away. It is important to allow children to finish their exploration. Disruptions in the form of intermittent clean-up will break their concentration and may result in a loss of interest.

Hold off your desire to assist. Even seemingly helpful statements such as: “Can I put this away for you?” “These go in here, honey.” “Wouldn’t you like to use this one?” “Do you want to change that part so it works right?” or “What are you going to put on it next?” can be counterproductive.

Try facilitating, rather than directing, learning. Use neutral statements that do not judge a child’s actions or lead the child toward a decision. Neutral statements basically state, verbally, the actions a child takes. For instance, “I see you’re using the square wheels.” or “You pushed your car down the ramp.” While these kinds of comments may seem awkward at first, they become easier with practice. And, you’ll be surprised to see how a child will note what you say and even respond to it, without being interrupted or distracted.

Finally, be aware of the child in yourself. When introduced to a new exhibition, look at it as a child would. Does it allow for interaction? Does it use changeable components that would be safe and attractive to youngsters? What open-ended questions could be used in connection with the exhibition to facilitate learning? Focus on concrete elements that may already be familiar to young children. Above all, don’t worry too much about the mechanics of teaching. Rather, help facilitate the natural desire to explore, engage, and learn characteristic of this age group.

Laura Lundy-Paine is the Early Childhood Education Specialist at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, OR. Ms. Lundy-Paine received a Bachelor’s degree in Theatre from Pomona College and a Master’s degree from Lewis & Clark College in Special Education – Hearing Impaired. In addition to her museum responsibilities, she is an actor/ writer/director in the Portland area.

Lundy-Paine, Laura. “Let Them Make a Mess! Science, Young Children, and the Museum Environment,” The Docent Educator 3.2 (Winter 1993): 16-17.


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