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What can children learn from objects in museums?

By carefully looking at the objects they're seeing in the exhibits, children's minds become engaged, and the objects become learning tools. Careful observation acts as a springboard for new thoughts and ideas, stimulating the use of critical thinking skills. Some of these skills include:

  • Comparing and contrasting  — recognizing similarities and differences in objects
  • Identifying and classifying — recognizing and grouping things that belong together
  • Describing — giving verbal or written descriptions of the objects viewed
  • Predicting — guessing what might happen
  • Summarizing — presenting information that has been gathered in a shortened or condensed form

Your Child's Learning Style

Learning from objects is easiest when families know their children's learning styles. Research shows that most children learn best through one of three ways: hearing (auditory), seeing (visual), or touching/reenacting (tactile/kinesthetic), and some by a combination of all of these.

Generally, children who are:

  • Auditory learners like to be read to, understand more by hearing explanations of things, and are better at following verbal, rather than written, instructions
  • Visual learners often like to read on their own, love books with lots of pictures, like information that is presented on a graph or chart, and like to draw diagrams and pictures
  • Tactile-kinesthetic learners like to touch objects and feel textures, enjoy arts and crafts, and like to be in skits or plays, often pretending to be the person they're studying

Questions, Questions, and More Questions

Museum curators consider a variety of learning styles when designing exhibits. Docents or tour guides explain and interpret the exhibits for visitors, all exhibits have written descriptions that tell a story about the objects, and many museums have exhibits that are interactive. Tour guides are also available for individuals with visual and hearing impairments.

Is it real? How does it work? What is it made of? Children are naturally curious and ask lots of questions. Families can have a good conversation with their children by listening carefully to their questions about the objects and asking them to complete statements such as:

  • A good name for this is.
  • What does this remind you of?
  • What do you think will happen if.
  • What if?
  • What words would you use to describe this object?
  • How are these two objects the same? Different?
  • How does it make you feel?

Collections and Collectors

Museums hold many of the best collections in the world. Many people donate their precious collections to museums so that they can be shared with the public. In addition to giving collections a home, museums are collectors, adding to their collections as objects become available.

Why do people collect objects? Some people collect objects because they're rare and beautiful. Others collect objects because they remind them of a certain period in time such as their childhood, or of a favorite relative or friend. Occasionally, people start collecting by accident. 

A collector of American political items said that he started his collection of Teddy Roosevelt campaign buttons with a Roosevelt bandanna that belonged to his grandfather. A woman who collects tea cups and saucers started her collection while sifting through someone else's unwanted junk (to the seller it's junk, but to the finder it might be a treasure) at a yard sale. A well-known rare book dealer got started as a result of collecting Wizard of Oz books as a child. In fact, many people choose their careers based on the collections they had as a child. Serious collectors study the subject matter and acquire better objects and specimens to add to their collections.

Three girls sitting and showing their drawings

Be Inspired at the Smithsonian

The Smithsonian is an excellent place to help bring out the artist in your child.

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