Hard at Play

From Sesame Street to the Berenstain Bears, the colorful exhibits at the nation's second largest children's museum are nearly empty on this morning. In a couple hours, hundreds of little feet will be running to their favorite spots in the ever-popular museum. Right now, however, nine Nazareth College students and their professor are getting a private tour of the Strong National Museum of Play before it opens its doors for the day.

The group is part of the College's undergraduate inclusive childhood education program, and they are spending the semester taking two Nazareth education courses on-site at Strong. During their tour, the students learn why the College's partnership with Strong works so well: both institutions understand the immense value of integrating play and learning.

"An excellent teacher knows how to play," said Nancy Niemi, Nazareth associate professor of education and site coordinator for the Nazareth-Strong partnership. "Play is the work of children, it is absolutely what they should be doing most of all."

This is the fifth semester Nazareth has worked with Strong, and the education students are taking classes in the first and only Nazareth site school at a Rochester cultural institution. More than 70 students are currently in placements at Nazareth's four other site schools, but the Strong site differs from the others in one big way: at Strong, Nazareth students don't go into a traditional classroom with the same students each week. Instead, they constantly meet diverse new groups of students and teachers from private and public schools.

"Last semester I was in a traditional third grade class setting," said student Lindsey Shields, of Ithaca, N.Y. "But when I got here, I realized that this is how learning should be, and I had never thought of it that way — play is really a key part to learning."

Strong works with a constructivist philosophy, allowing children to construct their own knowledge from what they experience and enjoy, rather than being told what to think. Knowledge-building happens when students apply what they've learned to new situations, such as places like the museum. This theory can also work for Nazareth teachers-in-training: putting their advanced knowledge into action inside a setting such as Strong can enrich their understanding of what it means to learn.

"Strong's education philosophy can be taken into the classroom as well," said Sara Boettrich, Strong's educator for school programs. "A big goal is allowing kids to think, and getting the adults to stand back ... don't answer for the children, ask them in another way."

In addition to attending the twice-weekly classes at Strong in human development and literacy (taught by Niemi and education instructor Jacquie Smith), students are required to complete 45 hours of participation at the museum. They are given the freedom to come to the museum outside of class time and to observe lessons ranging from Elmo's Neighborhood (social studies for kindergarteners) to Fractured Fairy Tales (literary lessons for older classroom children).

"I've always felt play is the most important part of education, and some traditional school placements don't give this kind of opportunity," said Tasha Bayer, a Nazareth student and Brighton, N.Y. native who grew up visiting the Strong Museum. "I learned through the hands-on approach, and I'm excited to be somewhere where I really agree with the philosophy on learning."

"Play is serious work," says Niemi. "It's built on education philosophy. If our students get nothing else, I hope they gain a workable philosophy to base their teaching on."

Strong National Museum of Play