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Teaching Elementary Students

The immediacy of objects in museums, parks, gardens, and I historic sites can clearly demonstrate the compelling and satisfying experience that comes from learning. Their potential to stimulate curiosity and hold interest is inherently great. This is one reason why the brief encounters that volunteer or staff educators have with school children in such settings are so significant.

The greatest number of school groups visiting such sites are grades 3, 4, and 5. To maximize one’s effectiveness when working with this age group, an educator must have an understanding of the learning characteristics of children ages 8 through 1 1 . A few of them follow:

For most, this will be their first experience in a museum setting. Therefore, the educator’s primary emphasis should be teaching how one learns from objects.

Educators ought to avoid reciting facts, or providing students with the information that other people have found when looking and thinking about objects. Instead, they should develop activities that allow the children to look, to find, and to consider. Children learn best by doing. That is why they have homework, reading groups, and are assigned projects to do and problems to solve. They are physically unable to listen for long periods of time. They retain less of what they hear than of what they do.

It is, therefore, best to involve young visitors. Ask children questions that require them to look closely, compare things, or use their imaginations. For instance, you might have children compare two works of art, two life forms, or two rooms in an historic house to one another.

At this stage of their development, youngster are just beginning to view the world beyond their own “personal context.” In other words, they tend to think in terms of what they have experienced, felt, or thought, and not to comprehend as well the abstracted experiences of others. History and historic time are still new concepts. Therefore, it is best if children can relate to objects or time periods through personal references.

In most instances, circumventing these limitations is merely a matter of how one phrases questions. For example, rather than ask youngsters “What was life like for children living in the 19th Century?” try asking them “What might your life be like if you lived without electricity, telephones, heat, or hot water?”

A visit to your institution should be a positive experience, and should reinforce what children are able to do. It should not be an experience where children discover how little they know.

Avoid asking youngsters “right or wrong” type questions, as you may have to say “no” or “wrong” too often. Ask “open-ended” questions that accommodate a diversity of answers, and that allow everyone to offer one that will be accepted. For instance, rather than ask children, “Do you know what this object is?” try asking “If you found this object in your kitchen, what would you think it was used for?” Or, rather than ask children, “What is the subject of this painting?” try asking “If you had painted this picture, what title would you give it? Why?”

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Teaching Elementary Students,” The Docent Educator 4.1 (Autumn 1994): 6.

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