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Sidebar: Growing Up in the Museum

Written by Jeri Robinson

Excerpted from an interview with Jeri Robinson, November 2005

I remember coming into the foyer of the museum and seeing all these things down at my height level. I can clearly remember seeing the birds. And then at some point I saw the dollhouses, and I was sold and in love. I was a doll person anyway. I can just remember going from house to house, going upstairs and walking through the dioramas that had all the dolls in them.

I think my first trip to The Children's Museum was when I was about three. My brother, who died of polio in 1955, was still alive, and I remember coming with my mother. It must have been a school vacation week. I remember having gone to the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) before and seeing statues. That's all I can remember about the MFA—the statues. So the idea of going to another museum—more statues. I remember coming (the museum was in the older smaller building) into the foyer and seeing the birds. And seeing all these things down at my height level. I can clearly remember seeing the birds. And then at some point I saw the dollhouses, and I was sold and in love. I was a doll person anyway. I can just remember going from house to house, going upstairs and walking through the dioramas that had all the dolls in them. That's about all I can remember about my first visit. We came back a lot—during vacation weeks and for special programs. I remember dipping candles in the colonial kitchen. I always remember feeling it was a really nice place, but not really quite understanding how it all came together.

The next time I remember coming back was as a Girl Scout when I was probably eight or nine, or maybe it was some special programming for Girl Scouts Day. Then, the summer after that, I had an opportunity through Boston Parks & Recreation to participate in July Jaunters which took place on Jamaica Pond. I had been to the pond maybe once or twice, but now I was here for a full week. I remember the nets, catching things and exploring things, and feeling like Jamaica Pond was a whole world away, even though it was only a trolley ride away from home. Understanding about nature and butterflies and birds and connecting with all of this stuff—it was a stuff-filled kind of experience.

I liked the people at the museum. I liked the games. The thing that I was always disappointed in was not being a neighborhood kid. You got to play a couple of games when you came as part of a visit, but those other kids had badges and pins and other things that those of us who weren't neighborhood kids didn't have. I used to think, "That's not always so fair." But I understood that the museum was a place you could always come to no matter where you lived in the city. It felt like you were going someplace far away. It was the beauty of the environment of Jamaica Plain, getting off the subway and walking down Burroughs Street—the beauty of the trees and the big houses. You would come to the museum and then you would go across the street to the pond. It was only a half an hour away from where I lived, but there was just something magical about it.

I remember coming, probably as a babysitter, when the new Visitor Center opened. And that was, like, "Wow! What is this?" The big telephone, listening to kids going up and down through the What's Inside? manhole—getting really excited about something that was just truly different.

I remember thinking, "Well, is this still a museum?" It still was a lot of fun, and it was happening at a time for me when I was beginning to think that education was not just learning answers. I was going to Grove Latin School. We learned a lot of answers in Latin School. That's all they wanted you to do: learn a body of knowledge and spit it back. It probably wasn't until I was in the tenth grade when I was in the summer program with Jonathan Kozol and John Holt that all of a sudden the idea that you learned for yourself even became a possibility. And it was, like, wow, this is crazy. We're in a class, a summer program at the Commonwealth School, and we're reading books, and somebody's asking my opinion? What's this about? You're not supposed to ask me my opinion. You're supposed to ask me for facts. This was a new sort of learning that made me think, "Wait a minute, this is about me, it's not just to please somebody else." When you came to a place like The Children's Museum, yes, you could still learn facts, but you could begin to explore things just because you were interested in them, and real learning could happen from that—an astounding idea. I wanted to bring kids here to shake them up and to see that a museum could be a different kind of environment.

The next time I came to the museum I was a student teacher at Wheelock College. The new Workshop of Things had opened in the middle of the "open education" revolution. Here, again, was The Children's Museum offering another set of new ideas about what learning could be—learning from materials. Even though I had been a paper-and-pencil-worksheet kind of kid, I was totally excited about using Cuisinaire rods and materials as a new way of exposing kids and myself to new ways of learning. I come back and forth to the museum as a student teacher. At the same time, in my community, EDC (Education Development Center) was working with the Hawthorne House to create a place that ended up being the Highland Park Free School. We had an EDC in our own neighborhood. I'm in college, surrounded by new ways of learning and exploring with inner-city kids—kids who we were told were "culturally deprived." But now we could all have similar experiences.

I graduated from Wheelock and stayed in my community. I taught at the Highland Park Free School and was reintroduced to the museum again as an adult, as a teacher. The museum's Community Services Department (CSD) offered a group of workshops for the staff of three Boston community schools, where your entry fee was an idea. Educators could learn from one another! On that first evening I met Bernie Zubrowksi and had the challenge of creating a square bubble. I met Dottie Merrill and learned a lot about bookmaking. The next day I went back to my classroom armed with bubble solutions, straws and strings and created a bubble mess all over the place. I was completely sold. There were just new ways of thinking about everything.

I attended a number of workshops with staff from the CSD. I was approached by Liz Hastie who told me they were thinking about adding an early childhood person to their team, and would I be interested? I thought I was going to be a kindergarten teacher forever. But at the same time there was something that was drawing me back and forth: The idea of being able to go out and take new ideas to teachers and to get a chance to do what teachers never get a chance to do—play with stuff and think through how these materials and ideas get interpreted back in the classrooms. The invitation came at a funny crossroads in my life. It was 1973. I was ready for a change, but wasn't quite sure what kind. I interviewed with Jim Zien for the museum job and for a job at the Eliot-Pearson Children's School at Tufts. I got both jobs on the same day. Which way to go? Either road was going to lead me in a totally different direction. If I worked for Eliot Pearson, then I would be going into academia—teaching, starting off in a lab school. The whole idea of working at a university—working with students—was something that I had been engaged in for awhile and was quasi-interested in. But I was also tired of being in a fishbowl at Highland Park where, funded by the Ford Foundation and others, we had a stream of dignitaries, students and other people visiting all the time. You always felt you were trying to teach with lots of people looking over your shoulder. So I thought maybe I will try out a museum for awhile. I thought that it would be a short-lived kind of little jaunt. I'm not a great risk-taker, but there was something interesting about the museum. It would give me a chance to pursue a love of materials and a love of getting out and supporting what others needed.

I walked into an environment with some of the most incredible educators—some of the most incredible people—I have ever been with. People with great integrity and great vision, people who had all their own quirks, but they all had passion. That's what was so important to us—working in a place filled with passion. Passion about lots of different things. Mike's leadership was something that gave people courage to push, to try. He certainly had his ideas about what he wanted, but at the same time, Mike offered invitation for new ideas, and he supported them. It was clear he didn't always agree, but he wasn't threatened by other people's opinions. He was willing to let other people dream, try, make mistakes, come back together. That was a real gift. No matter for how long or how short the job was, I thought I may never, ever get a chance in life again to have something and to have an environment where it's going to be safe enough to do that.

There was a philosophy about ways we wanted children and families to be treated. We didn't always know the answer, and sometimes, hey, it didn't work at all. But that was okay, because that's how life is, you know? You try things out, you can learn something even from the worst mistake. My mantra was and is "Learning all the time," no matter whether it was from mistakes, from the good stuff or from the struggles. Try to hear what others are struggling with and respect that. But at the same time, try not to lose the vision and the belief. At the museum I often felt like either it's going to work here or it's not. But I'm going to take this time and this environment and all of these colleagues and try to learn from their collective wisdom about what I was seeing and feeling. Could there be room for my ideas?

Next: Sidebar: First Impression