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Reaching Out to Head Start Families: Building Bridges of Trust

Few museums target or have any great success reaching low-income families. Typically, Head Start families do not take advantage of museums in their communities even when the museums make their programs available at little or no cost. However, when museums take their interactive, hands-on learning experiences into the community, they can begin building bridges of trust with these new audiences.

The dictionary defines a bridge as “something built across an obstacle so that people can cross over from one side to the other.” Docents and museum educators planning to work with Head Start Centers will build stronger bridges if they are aware of Head Start’s 31-year history and certain demographics relevant to this audience.

Head Start is a comprehensive, federally-funded preschool program for three, four, and five year olds from low-income families. Since 1965, Head Start has been successful in improving the lives of many low-income children and their families and has served as a national laboratory for early childhood and family support services. All parents who want to enroll their child in a Head Start program must commit to being involved in the classroom in some way. This structure provides museums working with Head Start access to teachers, parents, and children in one environment.

The following statistics help to define the families Head Start serves: 54% of Head Start families have incomes of less than S12,000/year; 63% of Head Start children are four years old and 27% are three years old; 37% of children are Black, 33% are White, and 23% are Hispanic; and 55% of enrolled children live in one-parent households. The Delaware Museum of Natural History was well positioned within its community to develop a partnership with its local Head Start Center. The museum board’s long-range plan called for “increased community impact.” As a museum of natural history, its exhibits were user-friendly to a pre-literate audience. A variety of outreach programs were already ongoing, including “Natural Wonders,” a weekly museum program for children aged three to five and a parent or care giver. This program had a five-year history of success serving more than 3,000 children annually, and the experienced early childhood educator who had developed these classes was on staff to teach them. This same educator agreed to pilot the Head Start outreach lessons and later train docents to take over.

We contacted our local Head Start grantee. The idea was very positively received by the director of New Castle County Head Start, Inc. With eight centers within ten miles of the museum, we could expect to serve 532 children and their parents. Our project would also support New Castle County Head Start, Inc. in another way. In order to maintain their current level of federal funding. Head Start has to match every federal dollar received with 25 cents in contributions from parents and/or the community. Our project fulfilled the match criteria.

But first, another community partnership was created — a consortium of four community businesses agreed to share all administrative and program costs, providing financial support for this partnership between a museum and its local Head Start agency. Now, the museum was ready to build bridges of trust and reach audiences new to viewing museums as a personal and cultural resource. The Delaware Museum of Natural History (DMNH) Head Start Museum Visit Program would bring interactive, hands-on learning to all 532 preschool-age children enrolled in the eight New Castle County Head Start, Inc. centers.

Crucial to the success of our program was having Head Start personnel participate as equal partners to ensure that both the outreach and museum visit lessons were meaningful. Initially, the outreach portion of the program called for five visits to each of the eight centers. This was far too ambitious for both the museum staff and the amount of available time in the classroom. It also did not provide a balance between teaching outside the museum and bringing children in to see “the real thing.” We reevaluated the concerns of all involved and decided upon one visit to each of the eight centers during the fall and early winter. Following the outreach visits, each center came to the museum for a follow-up lesson.

For the first outreach visit, in a program called “Animals A to Z,” we brought screech owl, spoonbill bird, porcupine fish, and armadillo taxidermy specimens. These animals proved to be far too unfamiliar to the children and we quickly lost their interest. By involving Head Start personnel in the planning, testing, and implementation of the lesson we were able to develop different strategies and adapt another outreach program, “Grinders and Gnashers.” In this lesson, children compare their teeth to elephant, shark, and bear teeth specimens and talk about how teeth tell the story of an animal’s diet. Using individual hand mirrors, children count their own teeth and talk about which teeth grind and which teeth cut. Using different tools and play dough, children experiment with the different ways teeth grind, mash, or cut food. Children match real animal teeth specimens to animal pictures and different types of diets.

After visiting all eight Head Start Centers with this outreach lesson, the children came to the museum where they enjoyed games, songs, and stories that reinforced the concepts of animal adaptations, habitat, and survival. The museum docents and outreach teacher were there to greet the children and reinforce the outreach-museum connection before dividing into smaller touring groups. During the museum lesson, children found the now familiar elephant tooth and bear skull in the children’s hands-on room as well as new specimens to explore on their own with their parents and teachers.

As part of the fall docent training, a licensed psychologist with prior experience as a New Jersey Head Start teacher conducted a two-hour session for docents and education staff. The special emphasis on preschool age children was invaluable to the Head Start museum visits. Docents teaching the museum lessons incorporated age-appropriate strategies and plenty of concrete handson experiences into their tours. Children touched owl wings and talons, became silent fliers and caught imaginary mice, slithered on the floor like snakes, arranged Whelk shells in a growth series, and camouflaged colored paper polar bears.

There is little question that the DMNH Head Start Museum Visit Program challenged both the Education Department and the local Head Start providers. As a first year pilot program we gained a lot of insight into the 1996- 97 program ahead. In a follow-up meeting with key Head Start directors many improvements were planned for the upcoming year. A Head Start teacher and aide’s workshop will be given on an in-service day in the fall to introduce both phases of the program and get immediate feedback from the teachers. The workshop will serve to give teachers a sense of ownership in the program as they see their ideas incorporated.

The outreach lessons will take place after the New Year when the children are more comfortable with their routines. The museum visits will be scheduled within a week or two of the outreach lesson for better continuity. Pending funding and recruiting of an outreach docent, we will expand the program to include an additional 200 children from a second Head Start grantee.

The challenges of conducting outreach require someone who can adapt immediately to new and different situations. Outreach is more physical, time consuming, and intellectually challenging than in-house museum teaching. You have to be willing to travel to new areas. (Street maps are strongly advised and come in handy when thrown off course by road construction, traffic jams, or other travel problems.) Because you bring “the exhibits” to the classroom, you need time to pack and unpack programs that can be bulky and/or heavy. It also means that set up may be different from one class to the next. In addition, classroom teacher support may be minimal and there is an increased likelihood of distractions.

Bringing the interactive, hands-on learning styles of museum education into the comfort of Head Start classrooms provides an initial, positive first experience for children, parents, and teachers. In the museum, we know what is around the comer and we don’t have to bring it there: the exhibits are predictable and already in place. With their daily routines left behind, children and adults can be more attentive in these new and exciting spaces. Yet, in the museum, intellectual, social, and economic barriers may prevent learning and discourage a needed level of comfort. Outreach visits to Head Start centers can prepare children for a museum field trip and familiarize them with the museum’s collections. Reaching out to Head Start Centers gives museums the opportunity to “grow” new audiences who will take advantage of the educationally enriching programs that museums have to offer. And, these partnerships can create patterns of lifelong learning while building bridges of trust in the community.

Learning Characteristics of Young Children

  1. They are not good at sitting still.
  2. They can’t be quiet for very long.
  3. They tend to be shy and often need to watch first before doing.
  4. They are egocentric and are not good at sharing.
  5. They are beginners at most things but need to feel competent, proud, “big,” important, and loved.
  6. They are insatiably curious about the world and want to learn.
  7. They learn through concrete, hands-on experiences.
  8. They learn through trial and error and practice.
  9. They need to involve all their senses.

Tamsin Wolff was most recently the director of education at the Delaware Museum of Natural History in Wilmington, Delaware. In 1985, she began the Outreach Division at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, where she was outreach specialist for five years. Topics of outreach programs she developed include quilts, 19th Century maritime life, Maryland Indians, using primary sources, and portraiture. She has also worked at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Ms. Wolff has an M.A.T. in Museum Education from George Washington University and serves on the Board of the Museum Education Roundtable. She is currently a museum education consultant based in Chadds Ford, PA.

Wolff, Tasmin. “Reaching Out to Head Start Families: Building Bridges of Trust,” The Docent Educator 6.1 (Autumn 1996): 12-13+.

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