Seeking Connections

Seeking Connections

While discussion and debate carries on about whether and how to open schools safely, we know that children’s museums will be unlikely to see visitors for many months to come. As we work to determine the best ways to welcome children back to Opal School in the fall, our home and partner organization, Portland Children’s Museum, remains closed. Like many organizations, the Museum has been trying to imagine new ways to continue to share its resources with children and their caregivers. An email newsletter called Museum@Home is one of the tools being used to nurture those relationships. For the past several weeks, I have been working with the Museum team responsible for this newsletter to develop its capacity to support Playful Inquiry at home. 

As we considered the framing for this week’s issue of Museum@Home, we asked ourselves the question that frequently leads us towards a theme: What is happening in the world that we might share with our “local” online community as an invitation to make it personal? We want to make every effort to practice creating connections between the global, the local, and the personal so that children have ample opportunity to explore the ways in which they are a part of things much bigger than themselves. We want to provide many opportunities for children to interpret what they see in their world – to ask questions, to express their feelings, and share what they notice – so that they can see themselves reflected in that world. Adults play a critical role in pulling the threads of those connections towards children so that they can put them in their own hands, give them a tug, and see what happens next.

This week, we were inspired by two global celebrations: Nelson Mandela International Day and World Listening Day. Listening is a concept that plays a central role in Playful Inquiry. Taking a moment to pause, share, and reflect on the story of Nelson Mandela is something we think is worth doing at least once a year. Both of these celebrations are observed on July 18 because the date marks the birthday of both Mandela and renowned Canadian composer, music educator, and author, R. Murray Schafer, who developed the field of acoustic ecology. We wondered: What does the field of acoustic ecology have to do with the history and legacy of Nelson Mandela? Where are the connections? Is it possible that in seeking the connections between the actions these global celebrations are intended to inspire, we might find a meaningful way to inspire action within our local community that leads to meaningful, personal learning? What surprises might we find as we explore the intersection of the contributions of these people to the world?

We value the work of Nelson Mandela in its own right. We believe that his story should never be forgotten. We also admire the work of artists like R. Murray Schafer and believe there is great value in knowing that the questions he asked and practices he created exist in the world. But by seeking connections between these seemingly disparate things, we open the door towards something no one has thought of yet. We invite children to create new possibilities, new ways of participating, new visions for the role they play as world-makers. This concept is at the heart of Playful Inquiry. Adults offer their experience, their knowledge, their expertise to children, invite children to play with those ideas, and then listen to what new things they notice and wonder. We build meaningful relationships between the global, the local, and the personal. And on it goes. Though the accumulation of knowledge and information is necessary and a desired outcome for children, we do not prize that collection as an end in itself. What we prioritize is the practice of paying attention, asking questions, and creating possibility.

Some ideas for activities that Museum program staff brought forward as we worked to seek connections between these global events:

  • Spend 67 minutes of listening to honor Mandela’s 67 years of committed action.
  • Invite children to go on a nature soundwalk.
  • Record the sounds in the backyard or in the living room or in the kitchen or at the beach. Make a collection of the sounds of special places.
  • Listen to a story about peace and reconciliation read by a child. Help children record their own. Share the video with others.
  • Sit back-to-back with a member of your “quaran-team”. Have one person describe a time they experienced conflict that eventually led to reconciliation, while the other person draws the emotions they’re hearing using color, line, and rhythm. Swap places and repeat.
  • Listening and dance to a playlist of South African music. Mandela loved to dance and once said, “Music and dancing makes me at peace with the world … and makes me at peace with myself.” It was music that brought the story of Mandela to the world. Listen to some of the music that was played at the 1988 Concert at Wembley Stadium in his honor.

These are meaningful and fun activities that children and families can do together. They are all likely to lead to opportunities to build relationship through play. On their own, however, they may not take us into the generative space that exists in that intersection of big ideas. Those of freedom, peace, reconciliation, and acoustic ecology. Where might we look to take us there?

Perhaps by looking at something that Mandela once said: 

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” 

In what ways might listening in new ways to the world around us help us learn better how to love? How might the activities we do help us reflect on the ease with which the human heart learns to love?

Something else Mandela said: “We can change the world and make it a better place. It is in your hands to make a difference.” How might inviting children to explore the world though their own senses help them find the world in their own hands?

As adults seek these connections, we open the door to Playful Inquiry, developing big, unanswerable questions that puzzle, confound, concern, and engage us. The theme for this year’s World Listening Day is “The Collective Field”. They ask: How does your song fit within the collective chorus? And there, I believe, is where we find the pattern that connects. It becomes easy to see the ways in which Mandela’s legacy and The World Listening Project complement and strengthen one another. We can see a place from which we all – children and adults together – might find something new, surprising, meaningful, and loving.

If you engage in activities with children that encourage you to explore a part of your local world by paying attention in unusual ways, or find and share meaningful stories, or create opportunities to listen and reflect on how conflicts resolve, or dance to good music and laugh and smile – and you bring your own awareness to it – you will create a collective chorus in which all your songs belong. You will hold the world in your hands and nurture love for it in ways you can build on tomorrow. Love comes naturally but is especially powerful when we are confident that we are loved. By keeping these unanswerable questions in front of us, it becomes possible for children to explore them, too – whether you ever choose to ask them directly or not.

This piece would not have been possible to write if we hadn’t found two important global celebrations on July 18. I could only make these connections because we began to think about them. And they are only one possible set among infinite numbers. I hope they invite you to create your own. And to share them, so others have the opportunity to find more and feel a part of something bigger than themselves that just couldn’t be the same without them – no matter how old they are.

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