There used to be some memorable elderly friends who spent time at the museum just hanging out. A staffer would go for mail, return and tell one of the gentlemen, “You left your pony idling in the parking lot.” It didn’t hurt that there was a passle of female interns also on duty. They would take the old gentlemen into the café for soup. The elders both male and female developed a fan base because they knew a lot. They were generous in sharing reminiscences about the past for which the younger staffers seemed hungry.
One elder would talk about getting in trouble as a kid because he always wanted to fight. Neither he nor his brother seemed violent-natured–quite the opposite, both were humorous and easygoing. As boys they were constantly turned over to the whipman because of fighting. Whenever they would encounter strangers, boys their own age, they immediately wanted to stage a brawl just for fun. There was no television in those days. An elder woman talked about Chemawa, the government boarding school in Salem. Students would habitually get up after ‘lights out’ and congregate for fights.
If all that combative behavior could be called play, perhaps certain forms of mastery and competency were the outcomes. They say play is a reward in itself. No one plays for any reward or compensation except the pleasure of intense engagement. A set of lifelong patterns, knowledge, and skills are honed and developed as a child plays. The child explores novel situations and environments. He or she builds a base for responding to later experiences. In adult life, it may translate to characteristics of flexibility and creativity in problem solving. Play undoubtedly teaches the rules and signals of social communication, the kinds of teachings not transmitted with words. In fact, play is all about transmitting meanings. Play is also a de-stressor and removes what may be a major obstacle to learning. (Judy Diamond, “Playing and Learning” Association of Science-Technology Centers’ (ASTC) About Learning: A Field Guide for Museums. http://www.astc.org/resource/education/learning_diamond.htm )
So how can this information be used? They say museums should be a place of play, even a cultural-historical museum such as Tamástslikt. We once held a day camp for the tribal recreation program. We taught the kids how to make tule duck decoys. The next thing you know, the tule ducks had been transformed into Kalashnikovs. Each and every duck was confiscated by the counselors. It only goes to show that the adults can try to direct play, but kids will deploy their skills to flexibly adapt. Adaptability really is the goal of play.
Museum people have sometimes felt disappointed when youth gallop through the exhibits without stopping to pore over the text panels. Do you remember how intensively you were involved in play? –when you could not be distracted or diverted from what you were doing? It’s that engrossed state of mind that is very conducive to learning. Even if kids don’t read the text panels, if they are stimulated by what they are experiencing, cognitive machinery is turning.
Of course some children never stop playing, and they are next door at the Wildhorse Resort & Casino. We’re still trying to lure them in this direction.