Docent Educator Logo

Watching Children Grow: A Guide to Childhood Development

Unlike most people in “the teaching profession,” docents engage students of many ages and backgrounds.

Think about it. Third grade teachers teach eight-and nine-year olds. Most of their students probably live in the neighborhoods near the school. These teachers can become experts on their students’ thought and behavior patterns. High school teachers might teach a broader range of students, but they still have the opportunity to spend day after day with students ages 14-18, really getting to know their thoughts and feelings.

Docents, on the other hand, teach any school group that comes to their institution. Classes may range in age from pre-schoolers to 18 year olds. Few of us have the opportunity to get to know any particular group of students in great depth. But while we may not have intimate knowledge about the characteristics of any single age group, we do need to be able to gauge, at least in a general way, the Children thrive on genuine interest. This docent’s acknowledgment of a student’s effort has obvious results. level of abilities and interests of students on our tours.

Much has been written about the developmental stages of childhood. My comments were culled from two sources, The Good Guide (Grinder and McCoy) and Approaches lo Art in Education (Chapman), and my own observations gathered from almost 20 years spent talking with kids in museum galleries. Please note that the exact age at which children move from one stage to another is fairly fluid, but the ranges given below are the most common ages for each stage to be in effect. The titles given to each stage are my own.

The Magic Years – Ages 3 to 6

These are years when nothing is impossible. Santa can still come down everyone’s chimney on the same night, and fairies can live at the bottom of the garden. These young children have vivid imaginations and cannot easily separate reality from imaginary events.

Their sense of themselves as separate persons with individual identities is still weak, which is why they move very easily in and out of becoming other people like princesses or super heroes (what we adults call pretending). Children in the magic years seem to be bundles of physical activity and feelings. Although they are beginning to make sense of their world, then impulse toward empathy (which translates into becoming or pretending) and physical activity (running, jumping, hugging, dancing) is much stronger than their intellectual curiosity. by Maria K. Shoemaker Children of this age have few inhibitions and will be eager participants if you plan activities that engage their imaginations.

Ideal activities for children of this age level are those that involve imagination and pretending, physical movement and activity. In a display of musical instruments, students might imagine they are playing one of the instruments and act it out for the class. Then, involve all the children in the same activity. Have an imaginary band concert while you parade around the room letting each child “play” an instrument. The docent’s job is to lead the parade, but also to ask children what instruments they have chosen and to make sure that they are “playing” it with appropriate body movements.

Children of this age associate their identity very strongly with their name. Ask teachers to put large name tags on these children so that you can call on them by name.

Two cautionary notes about children this age in museums. One, they have very short attention spans. Counter this by keeping them busy in imaginative activities. Discussions should be short and directly related to objects they can see, and a certain amount of wiggling is to be expected. Second, children of this age have very little impulse control. Pre-schoolers particularly cannot remember not to touch something just because you ask them not to. Their touching is not so much disobeying you as it is responding to their own, strong internal impulse to feel something. The best way to control this situation is also to keep them busy. If they are engaged in imaginative play, walking like an Egyptian pharaoh or making the sounds of various animals, they will not even think about reaching out and touching a display.

The Discovery Years – Grades 1 through 3

The most wonderful thing about children at this age is their delight at discovering new things. Because their eyes are now fully developed, they love being challenged to find objects from visual clues. Having developed a stronger sense of who they are, these children have an increasing awareness about and interest in what is going on around them. They are avid observers of the world and its people! They continue to enjoy imaginary stories. They have also developed a great sense of humor and enjoy silly jokes, especially when they make them.

Perhaps because they are accomplishing remarkable things in school — learning to read, learning to write, learning how to interact with their classmates — they have a great sense of their own power and believe strongly in the power of others to accomplish things. They enjoy games, especially when they can participate with a classmate.

Their ability to express themselves verbally is increasing, although still somewhat hampered by limited vocabulary, making it easy to underestimate what concepts children this age can grasp. These are the students who enthusiastically raise their hands to answer a question even when they do not know the answer. It is an expression of their sheer delight at participating.

Activities that allow children to experience the excitement of discovery are critical for children this age. Don’t tell them, ask them to find out. If you think about your tour in this way it will also lead you to discover the kinds of concepts you should be presenting. Can they find it out by looking and thinking? Or, is the fact or concept so separate from the object that you must tell them, adding another layer of meaning beyond that which they can discover. You will certainly want to tell them a few things, but for the most part at this age children should be given the chance to discover for themselves the joy of making sense of objects.

A look at the kinds of learning tasks children this age perform in school leads to the best ideas for museum activities. In science, children are asked to observe closely and describe accurately. In math, they count, match, sort, and place things into sets and subsets. Ask children to look at an object for a few seconds, then turn away and describe it. This appeals to their sense of power and also is a fun way to reinforce the notion that in a museum we must look carefully if we want to learn a lot about an object. Rather than telling them how a spinning wheel works, ask them as a group to try to figure it out. You can supply key pieces of information if they get stuck. Ask them to look at three animals and decide which two are most alike, and why.

Children this age love riddles and problem solving. A favorite activity for this age group at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is to ask them to go into a room full of armor and find … a suit that would fit a child, a suit that would not fit a human (horse armor), and something that flies in the air (a stuffed falcon that served as the crest on a helmet). We can hardly contain their enthusiasm as we remind them not to touch or run while playing the game. Conversations center around the pieces they found and what can be learned from them.

Keep in mind that an understanding of historical time for this group is as yet undeveloped. For most of them, Moses roamed the desert at the same time dinosaurs roamed the Earth … “a long time ago.” Efforts to place things in historical periods should be minimal and are best when linked to a person the children have studied, for example, “in George Washington’s time.”

In addition, although these children are wonderful at noticing specifics, they are not yet able to infer generalities from them. Don’t ask them to look at a group of paintings and decide what was important to the artists who painted them. Instead, ask them to find all the examples of outdoor painting in the room. Then you can tell them that all these painters liked to paint the out of doors, and that’s called landscape painting … and so forth.

The Confident Years – Grades 4 through 6

For many museums, fourth, fifth, and sixth grade classes constitute the largest single block of field trip visits among all the stages named here. Children of this age have, for the most part, mastered the skills they need to be able to take in information and process it. They can read, write, understand addition and subtraction, and are learning more complex ways of relating numbers. They now study subjects in school that are content driven, such as Colonial America or the Caribbean Sea. Because they read and learn more on their own about subjects that interest them you should always ask students this age and older, or their teachers, what they already know or have studied about the theme of your tour. Students this age still respond best to questions that are specific, not general. They are much more aware of, and interested in, the range of feelings people have. They have a growing interest in status and will often tell you, “She’s the smartest kid in the class,” or “He always acts like that.” Not yet rebellious against rules and authority, these children are eager to learn about new things and, for the most part, are still eager to take part in all discussions and activities.

Activities for this age should involve the whole child. Confident Years children do quite well at independent assignments. They like attempting to observe objects on their own, although they still need your help in drawing conclusions from the things they have observed. They like to talk and have a vocabulary adequate to discuss most things. At this age, it is appropriate to introduce new terms specific to the discipline of your museum.

Students are now slightly more self-conscious in imaginative activities requiring body movement, but they make up for it in their greater capacity to ponder intellectual issues. This age learner is particularly captivated by things that are odd or unexpected, such as hidden pictures and secret languages. They are very good at categorizing objects into groups, and love to do it.

In general, activities that these kids accomplish easily, such as “Tell me whether you think a rich, medium, or poor person would have owned this cabinet.” or “What kind of food do you think this animal would eat?” are wonderful when followed by, “Correct, how did you know?” Kids this age ai”e very perceptive and quite able to reason, but are somewhat challenged when trying to explain their reasoning process.

Look at an abstract work of art and see if each youngster in the class can come up with one adjective to describe it. 1 promise you will see things in the piece you have never seen before. Do not neglect the emotional side of these children; they are very sensitive, especially when responding to the mood or feeling of a human drama. If they seem shy when asked to express their feelings (remember, you are a stranger), suggest opposite words to inspire them. “Is what’s happening in this painting exciting or peaceful? What makes you think so?” Or, “If you were that person would you feel scared, brave, or both? Why?”

Looking in the Mirror – Grades 7 through 9

The transition from childhood into puberty has powerful effects upon young people in this age bracket. Bodies change shape. Girls begin menstruation; boys’ voices change. Some people shoot up in height, while others feel they will never grow. Hormonal changes associated with this volatile time of life cause skin blemishes to appear. Is it any wonder that people this age become self-conscious and terribly concerned about the way they look? These are the years of endless looking in the mirror. Students are keenly aware of their appearance, but also of their skills and talents, wanting to be recognized for accomplishments and chastising themselves for what they perceive as their shortcomings.

Emotionally, young adolescents are anxious to establish their own set of rules and values within their own peer groups. As they move slightly out from under the watchful eye and comforting safety of parents, their need to belong to a group of their peers is powerful. Intellectually, these children arc just beginning to think abstractly. This means that you can discuss with them not only coins, but currency, the effect currency has on civilization, the political implications of coin design, etc. Young adolescents see themselves as very different from “children,” with good reason given all the changes they are going through. It is very important that we docents respect their desire to be treated in a more adult fashion, all the while understanding that, in fact, these young people still have a lot more growing to do.

One of the wonderful things about young adolescents is that they are not so far away from childhood as to have lost their sense of fun and play. They have a very active sense of humor and love to laugh, and tease, and joke. If treated with respect, these students love to engage in looking activities of all kinds, particularly if allowed to do so with friends.

The discussion of activities for adolescents in museums brings us into new territory. Thus far we have talked about what kinds of games or questions engage an age group. With young adolescents we need to add another ingredient — the perceived attitude of the docent toward the students. This aged person will rarely run up to you and say, “Are you our guide? What are we going to do today?” Instead, they will stay in their peer groups and let you know that they are more comfortable with a slight distance from you. They will not immediately display trust in you by answering your questions, but will reserve judgment until they see how you treat them.

Three key attitudes on your part will help these young people open up to you. 1. Do not treat them in a juvenile fashion. Talk to them using adult words and intonations. 2. Do not criticize them or imply criticism for being who they are, even though their joking and teasing can be tiresome.3. Express through your body language and general attentiveness your genuine interest in them and what they have to contribute. This can have a magical effect on kids this age, since they are very self aware. They will appreciate your interest in them, especially because they often do not expect it.

Activities similar to those named for The Confident Years work well for this age if introduced as mature projects. Worksheets are terrific, since they help ensure that all of the students will think about the questions you are posing. Try to develop strategies that allow students to work independently or in small groups. This will give you the opportunity to talk with them in fewer numbers or individually. Students this age will often engage in conversation with you one-on-one that they would not do in front of the whole group.

The Approach to Adulthood – Grades 10 through 12

The great thing about working with high school students is that they think like adults on many levels. Though their experience base may be more limited, their abilities to process information, make assumptions, predict outcomes, and discuss generalities are now fully developed. Instead of focusing on what a work of art looks like and how the artist created those effects, you can also discuss whether a painting of similar’ subject matter would still be relevant today or what a feminist interpretation of the work might be. Older adolescents also have longer attention spans and can retain more information, especially when it helps to explain what they see.

This age group has formed fairly strong opinions about what they find interesting and relevant in their lives, so try to make as many connections as possible between the material you cover and what students are studying in school. If you have teenagers at home, or can make yourself aware of current trends, music, and so forth, by all means do so. But beware! If your assumptions are not up to date, the kids will let you know.

Young people of this age have a great desire to be seen as competent, which leads them to resent, for instance, having to be chaperoned in a museum. They like doing things on their own and displaying their abilities They are still very focused on conforming to the norms of their peer group. They may not be eager to answer your questions verbally, but will respond with a nod or a look. They typically have an overwhelming interest in male/female relationships, and this can be a rich area for discussion.

Ask students this age to go into an exhibit area and make some particular observations or decisions before you gather to talk. For example, in a historic house ask students to walk around the downstairs and decide the function of each of the rooms, or ask them to look around a room and come up with five activities that they think may have taken place there based on observations of the furnishings and so forth. In a gallery full of chairs, ask them to identify three chairs that are clearly different styles, and then name three that are in the same style. Students will appreciate the autonomy you give them as they look, and you can base your discussion on what they observed.

Finally, this age student is very critical of the adult-run world, and can be very articulate at criticism in general, especially when it is negative. If you have a particularly taciturn group, try taking them to an area of your institution that you think will affront their sensibilities. At my museum it’s the contemporary art section. I know that even the quietest group will challenge me on how something can be considered art if it looks like “a monkey could have made it.” Rather than perceive these challenges as a threat, use them as the point of departure for discussions. Do not feel you have to prove to the students that they are wrong to have the feelings they do. Instead, let them express their feelings, then express your own. If you feel positively, tell why you do. But, let the students be the ones who decide for themselves whether they should value something or not.

One of the truly wonderful things about being a museum docent is the opportunity to see young people at so many different stages of growth and understanding. Keep in mind what is positive about each of these stages and allow yourself some time to marvel at the amazing things they accomplish on their journey from infancy to adulthood.

Maria K. Shoemaker is the Associate Curator of Education for Youth and Family Programs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The recipient of the “1992 Outstanding Pennsylvania Museum Art Educator of the Year” award given by the Pennsylvania Art Education Association, Ms. Shoemaker is the author of numerous articles on museum education and a lecturer/presenter at museum conferences throughout the country.

Shoemaker, Maria K. “Watching Children Grow: A Guide to childhood Development,” The Docent Educator 2.1 (Autumn 1992): 6-9.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *