By Ruth Shelly
Opening April 22, 2014, Outdoor Adventure, the newest permanent exhibit at Portland Children’s Museum, has transformed more than 1.3 acres of previously inaccessible land into an intentional, education-based outdoor play space where every area is designed to support learning through play in nature.
Portland Children’s Museum is the only children’s museum in the nation that also integrates a tuition-based preschool and public K-5 charter school (Opal School) and research center (the Museum Center for Learning). The Museum, School, and Center inform each other in a dynamic dialog between informal, formal, and professional learning. The Opal School is inspired by the pre-primary schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy, and the corresponding method, and offers rich learning experiences and environments resulting from the practice of inquiry-based approaches through the arts and sciences. The Center studies how children learn in these environments, and helps to apply those approaches to exhibits and programs in the Museum. The result is an integrated, pedagogical approach based on playful inquiry, where adults and children learn together both in and out of school. Our best practices are shared with educators worldwide through publications, workshops, and symposiums.
The exhibit design of Outdoor Adventure is an exemplary product of this collaboration. Center teacher-researchers studied how students at the Opal School have used the nearby Hoyt Arboretum as an outdoor classroom, and applied that research to design the elements in the Museum’s Outdoor Adventure experience. The new exhibit will be an opportunity for the Museum to demonstrate even greater educational leadership. The Center will use Outdoor Adventure as a laboratory to gain insight into the interaction between children and nature, and to articulate how learning, a love for the environment, empathy, creativity, and expression can be fostered through natural environments.
The Center’s professional development workshops and publications are accessed by thousands of educators from around the world each year. In 2014, the Center’s annual Summer Symposium will focus on outdoor learning and will include a museum educators’ track for the first time. Outdoor Adventure will serve as a new context in which children’s outdoor play may be documented and studied, with dissemination of best practices to show how museums and educational institutions can use nature-play to advance healthy childhood development.
Outdoor play provides a myriad of other benefits like nurturing empathy for other living things, encouraging creative expression inspired by nature, and cultivating a sense of environmental stewardship. As a trusted community resource, the Museum will offer parents a sense of comfort in releasing their children to the outdoors, particularly because open site lines and an observation deck have been incorporated into Outdoor Adventure’s design. This sense of safety is particularly important as today’s generation of parents may not have played outside as children themselves. The exhibit will support both parents’ need for security and safety of their children, while also supporting the development of a relationship between children and nature.
Building on Outdoor Adventure’s collaboration between the Museum, School, and Center, we will embark on a new strategic plan in Spring 2014 to chart a course for facility and program improvements over the next decade. It is our hope that Outdoor Adventure will shine as an exemplary model of integrated pedagogy, sustainable design, focus on sense of place, and incorporation of local community talent that will provide a foundation for planning for years to come. For more information and images, please visit: http://www.portlandcm.org/mission/outdoor-adventure/
We would like to extend an invitation to museum professionals to visit us on Opening Day on April 22, 2014, or thereafter! Please note, we maintain a policy of no admittance for adults without children, but enjoy giving museum colleagues a tour with advance notice. Contact Executive Director Ruth Shelly at email@example.com to arrange a visit.
Ruth Shelly is the Executive Director of Portland Children’s Museum. A lifelong museum professional, she has worked as an exhibit director and administrator in museums across the country. Ruth was hired by Portland Children’s Museum in May 2013, and was specifically drawn to this organization for its potential to transform public education, based on the unique combination of the Museum, School, and research Center.