by Carrie Kirk
Do any of you remember the train layout at The Children's Museum back when dinosaurs weren't attempting to break in its welcome center? It was on the fifth floor, and while it wasn't decorated with the numerous sponsorship signs that now adorn The Children's Museum, it was captivating. At one point, older gentlemen (volunteers, I think) operated this O-gauge train, sitting in a control booth overlooking the layout. The working trains weren't historic, but the setup was sweet, intimate and the kind of thing adults and kids alike could look at and imagine how magical that miniature world would be to live in. It's long gone now, but there's another enchanting train exhibit, Jingle Rails, that spends almost two months at The Eiteljorg during the winter holidays. And while it works the same magic on both young and old, it also became a study in science and geography for my son's classroom.
You might remember that my youngest son George is a force of nature. I am the first one to admit the faults and trials of my children. I consider that one of my best features. But George is bright and introspective and serious. Those certainly can be good things, but it's difficult to teach someone to laugh at himself, you know? This year both my boys are in new schools, transitioning from one that was small and parochial to two separate schools that are both bigger and public. It has been a good step for both of them, but George's school was the most dramatically different due to its learning approach.
George attends the magnet IPS/Butler University Lab School #60. Inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach to teaching (named for the Italian city from which the education philosophy originated), it is a project-based school that builds its curriculum with the students' interest in mind. In partnership with Butler University, the school considers the environment (in and out of the school) the third teacher, and the children often work on long-term projects rather than brief academic blips. For the two second- and third-grade combined classes, one such project includes studying engineering for the year. You should know that George Kirk has repeatedly asked me for a couple of years now (knowing I am an IU grad) if it will be okay when he goes to Purdue. (Remember I said he was serious?) As any good parent would reply, I told him, "Of course! I just want you to get a job!" He wants to become an engineer and "build things." Not only were the kids studying science through the scope of an engineer, they were also mapping. Mapping their classrooms, bedrooms, school, blocks surrounding their home and beyond. Pretty cool.
In December these engineers-in-the-making traveled a bit south to The Eiteljorg for a school visit to Jingle Rails: The Great Western Adventure. The entire exhibit is made out of natural materials situated at eye level with trains running around, above and through the landscapes and historic hotels in the National Parks. And while the kids did marvel at the miniature lights in El Tovar Hotel, the steam rising out of Old Faithful Geyser and the ancient dwelling of Cliff Palace, they were on a different quest during their time at the museum.
As engineers, they were finding examples of pulleys and pendulums, incline and decline, wedges and widgets. And they were discovering states like Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado and their historic treasures. It was a study in art and science working hand-in-hand. Even the museum's President and CEO John Vanausdall commented that he had never heard of a young group of children looking at the exhibit in this way, with this perspective.
Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the Reggio approach, wrote a poem years ago titled "The Hundred Languages of Children." Its message is that children have many ways to express what they know about the world outside of reading, writing and arithmetic. They can draw, paint, sculpt, dance, act and, in the case on that cold December morning at The Eiteljorg, investigate, collaborate, seek and identify. And the beauty behind all of this is that along with being mappers and engineers, the kids still looked at this miniature world and imagined how magical it would be to live in.