In Draper Spark!Lab, the Lemelson Center’s hands-on invention workshop at the National Museum of American History, we use museum objects to engage young learners in the invention process. As they explore inventions from the museum’s collection—in person or virtually through our History Time video series—children examine the materials used to make the objects, notice parts of the object that tell us about the people who made and used them, think about how the object works or might be used, find similarities and differences between the new object and things that they are already familiar with, and use the what they learn from the object to begin to grapple with abstract ideas.
Object-based learning provides early learners with captivating, multi-sensory experiences; museum collections offer interactive opportunities that honor the concrete and active way children learn. The objects become conduits for storytelling and teach children the value of practicing what we call careful-noticing skills—looking, listening, smelling, and touching. As they gather clues about the object, children come to see learning as a search for knowledge rather than a passive process of being fed information.
HISTORY TIME VIDEO: What inventions do you use in your life?
Questions are one of the most powerful tools we have to spark children’s curiosity about objects and help them build new understandings. When we first approach a museum object, we encourage learners to use their careful looking eyes and describe the object through questions like “What do you notice about this object?” or “What do you see?” Someone may notice colors, materials, and shapes or they may point out the different parts of an object. You can model the process of close looking for them by pointing and listing the things that you see. This can be especially helpful for pre-verbal learners.
HISTORY TIME VIDEO: How can you tweak an invention to make something new?
By first emphasizing close looking and then inviting careful describing, we foster critical thinking and create space for learners to take in the whole picture and to notice parts they would ordinarily have missed. The process of exploring an object this way helps create a shared understanding and builds the foundation for a richer conversation. It also helps build vocabulary by introducing new words and phrases and helps reinforce that communication is reciprocal.
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Observations quickly turn into ideas! After observing an object together, you can use follow up questions to invite your learners to think critically about what they saw, express their ideas, and build explanations based on evidence. “What do you think you know about this object?” and “What do you think this object is?” are two great questions to help a learner start to make connections. They encourage learners to probe a little deeper at what they noticed on the surface and apply their knowledge and personal experiences.
HISTORY TIME VIDEO: How can your invention help someone?
When observing objects, validating the young learner’s contributions is critical. Remember, observations are not “correct” or “incorrect.” If a learner’s comment is unclear or seems to be inaccurate, take your cue from the child, repeat the comment and ask clarifying questions like, “what makes you say that?” to gain a better understanding of their thought process. If needed, you can take the opportunity to provide more contextual information that may better inform their thinking or you can let the observation stand and see if it changes as you continue to explore the object together.
HISTORY TIME VIDEO: How can an invention from the past help us understand something happening today?
Asking “What do you wonder about this object?” helps stimulate a learner’s curiosity. For example, a train enthusiast might visit the John Bull steam locomotive and wonder what the wheels sound like when they roll along the tracks or how fast the locomotive might have gone when pulling a train full of passengers. This kind of high-level inquiry helps encourage young learners to find information themselves. There is also power in making space for learners to take what they thought about an object and let their imaginations run wild.
HISTORY TIME VIDEO: How will you share your invention with others?
Even if you don’t live near a museum, you can still practice close looking with your young learners! Use these tried-and-true techniques to engage your child by looking at a photograph in a magazine, making observations on your next walk, or exploring museum objects virtually from your home or classroom with our History Time videos!