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Partner Perspectives: Inspiring learning through the power of play

ISU Student and CDM employee Stephanie helps a guest view objects under the Microscope on a Rope in the Kid’s Medical Center Exhibit.

An Illinois State student and a CDM employee help a guest view objects under the Microscope on a Rope in the Kid’s Medical Center Exhibit.

Partner Perspectives are written by members of the Community Consulting Board through the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning. These articles provide examples of partnerships, best practices, and other insights from the viewpoint of Illinois State University’s community partners.

By Amy Pitzer, volunteer and events coordinator at the Children’s Discovery Museum

Amy Pitzer

Our mission at the Children’s Discovery Museum is to “inspire the love of learning through the power of play.” Of course, our primary focus is on our smallest guests ranging from 3 months to 12 years of age, but in my role as the volunteer and events coordinator, I get to continue that mission through our Volunteer Program with volunteers starting at the age of 13. The “student” then becomes the “teacher,” or as we call them, “play facilitators” within our exhibits and programs.

Even if you didn’t grow up going to the Children’s Discovery Museum in Normal, everyone was a child once and experienced curiosity, wonder, and imaginative play, making everyone qualified to apply for our Volunteer Program. As we work with students at Illinois State University, we welcome additional qualifications and interests with students majoring in education, biology, chemistry, nursing, psychology, music, recreation and more, but we also enjoy working with students generally interested in service and helping kids experience types of play that promote learning and brain development.

Play sets the stage for neurological development and creates the very foundation upon which all later learning, behavior, and health depend. Playful learning takes many shapes and forms at the museum and is at the heart of our mission making our institution a location that provides a diverse number of service-learning opportunities. I’d like to highlight two relationships with Illinois State University that represent a new partnership and established partnership.

ISU Chemistry Club students showcased sublimation with dry ice bubbles at the museum’s annual Day of Play.

Through an annual “speed dating” type luncheon about a year ago with the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning, we met Elizabeth White, associate professor in early childhood education. She was looking for a service-learning partner to incorporate into a new syllabus for her Child Growth and Development class. We offer a host of Early Childhood programs and classes that her students could assist with and observe in the process.

During a planning meeting, we shared the classes available to students and discussed growth opportunities for our partnership as students elevate to senior-level courses in her program. We know that during the first few years of a child’s life, their brain makes more than one million new neural connections every second. Babies are born ready to learn, and positive, meaningful experiences with parents and caregivers from their earliest days are a critical factor in brain development. Students help foster these interactions and moments for children and their caregivers during our Early Childhood Programs so that beyond our classroom the learning opportunities will continue. To date we have completed three semesters with her entry level course. At the end of each semester, we evaluate the partnership, make adjustments, and plan for the next semester.

On the other side of the spectrum, we have had a 15-year partnership with Cynthia Moore, associate professor of Biological Sciences who teaches BSC 161: Introduction to Teaching Science Seminar. Each semester, students in her class volunteer within three different STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) programs at the museum to experience a variety of informal learning settings. The museum helps meet the local demand for STEAM experiences by providing educational programs that allow children to delve deeper into these subjects, learning skills through informal experiences. Jobs with the largest projected growth are in STEM-related occupations, and as future educators having experience teaching these subjects in informal learning environments as well as formal classroom settings, the students are equipped to provide a holistic approach to STEAM learning for their students. After their observations within the museum, the students evaluate their experience with a written assignment, and we review any changes to our partnership for the next semester with Moore.

Both partnerships exist due to the help of the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning, even prior to its formal existence on campus. The center is a great resource for connecting community partners to professors, groups, and students looking for a service-learning experience.

An Illinois State volunteer helps a museum guest draw their favorite character during our Sensory Friendly Night.

I love that our mission applies not only to our primary audience but also to our volunteers. As you become an adult and enter the professional world your focus is on your career, day to day workload, and obligations. For most adults it’s much less playful, curious, creative, or imaginative than as a child.

A volunteer’s experience at the museum helps connect them to basic activities they may have experienced as a child, but they find new wonderment seeing it through the eyes of the next generation of playful learners. The process of encouraging that child to ask questions about the science reaction they experienced in Innovation Station, the problem they solved making a wind turbine in Imagine Air, or new color they created in the Paint Wall reignites the love of learning for the “teacher.”

Inspiring a lifelong love of learning transcends to all areas of your life—it keeps you authentically curious and excited to learn about the world around you, making the simple or, possibly, mundane much more fun—such as learning a new job function, networking, exploring a new community, serving at a local nonprofit, or learning a new hobby, etc. The list goes on and on. No matter the age we can all be inspired by the power of play!