Playful Learning with Classroom Museums


Classroom museums and research centers provide materials to set up classroom centers that allow students to study themes through exploration, manipulation, and inquiry, based on their curiosity and interests. Abstract concepts become more accessible by presenting them as concrete activities, objects, and projects.

The idea behind these materials is that children learn by playing. If we want our students to make sense of the material we present to them, we must make sure we present it in a way that makes sense to a child’s brain! Concepts of math, science, social studies, economics, government, and history are very abstract, and often unrelated to the lives of our students. Expecting them to learn enough to understand what we are trying to teach them by lectures or textbooks alone is unreasonable, and goes against all we know about how children learn. Asking them to simply memorize enough facts to pass a test is an enormous waste of time in this “Information Age.”

School reform advocates have been talking about this for years, now–decades, really! There is a lot of talk about 21st century education, but a decade and a half into the time period shows little has changed in American classrooms. Employers complain about a lack of problem solving skill, difficulty in participating as a part of a team, and basic communication errors, in their work force. Colleges complain students can’t write or do math. Parents complain there are no alternatives to college preparation programs, to provide occupational training for students who need it. Students complain there is nothing relevant to learn. Teachers complain there is not enough time for any of it! For thirty years, educators have offered numerous suggestions to attack these problems separately, yet nothing seems to have helped.

I think it’s time to go “Back to the Future”! Maria Montessori said a hundred years ago, “Play is the work of the child.” I suggest presenting information in such a way that children are immersed in the subject. Present it in such a way that students NEED to learn in order to accomplish something that they WANT to do. Rather than lecturing about government, set up a classroom government. Rather than lecturing about history, recreate an event. Rather than lecturing about ancient rock art, create it. Let children play to learn.

If we set up conditions where children can research, analyze, develop, and create, for a REAL purpose, both individually, in small groups, and as a whole class, creating a final product to be shared outside of their own classroom, it seems that many of the complaints would be addressed. Children would have to read, discuss, research, write, create, develop, analyze, evaluate, revise, produce, critique, and communicate in a variety of ways, with different sets of people, as an individual and as a team. Children would no longer be passive recipients of teacher direction, but would discover, as they search for solutions to their “playful” problems, how to be productive members of society! Problem solving is a foundation for this type of instruction—real problem solving done by students looking for real solutions to their needs. Today, more than ever before, we have the tools available in our schools to make this approach possible, and even easy. Students create learning for themselves and others. Children can create materials for other children (and adults) to use.

“Maps, Murals, and Mini Museums” and “Research Centers” based on thematic units will give you a start on setting up and using thematic museums. Each year that you use these materials, your students will add to your collection of artifacts, wall displays, and print materials. Your classroom will become a rich laboratory for discovery, inquiry based learning, as your students gain knowledge and experience in life! Your students will begin to learn the skills they’ll use as adults in your kindergarten classroom. (Well, they ALREADY do this in kindergarten–it maybe more appropriate to say in your fifth grade classroom—just to pick one out of the air!)

This is such a no brainer to me. I’ve been ranting about it my whole teaching life. I don’t understand, truly, why more people don’t engage in “playful” teaching. There is a mountain of research to support it. It always ranks right up there with best practices, but still, it’s hard to find. Materials can take a lot of time to create initially, but once you make them, they’ll last your whole teaching career. In fact, each year, students will make even better artifacts than you started with and your classroom will look like a real exploratorium in no time! Behavior problems go away, as long as you teach your students how you want them to use the materials, and then stick to it. Test scores rise. Children want to come to school. Newspapers visit your classroom to see what’s going on! There’s just no down side, that I have ever found.

If you are interested in finding simulation games, or historical recreation activities, Interact is the best source I’ve ever found. They’ve been around for more than 30 years and have games for just about everything you’ll ever need to teach. Check ’em out!  They are truly engaging materials!

Here are some materials I’ve created to help teachers set up little museums in their own classrooms.  Hope you’ll find something to “get you goin’!”

I’m nearing the end of a unit containing materials for a Research Center on the Mayflower.  Although it’s not yet ready for sale, you can find out more here.  The following items are available now.

Rainforest                        Ancient Rock Art                   Natural Resources of Colonial America

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One Response to Playful Learning with Classroom Museums

  1. Fatmawaty says:

    Thank you very much, Teacher Sandie for this beneficial post!
    In my opinion I have to add new techniques in teaching. Here in class 4, the students learn about politics n government and only some students who could understand those themes. Your post has given me more ideas in teaching. 😊



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