Play is Our Brain’s Favorite Way of Learning

Museums are a great choice for families — they promise a fun, affordable, and memorable outing that brings the generations together. Scott Eberle, VP of Play Studies at The Strong National Museum of Play, share his thoughts on why museum visits are so beneficial (and playful!).

Families don’t need to search long for a reason to visit a museum. Museums promise appealing, affordable, valuable, enjoyable, and memorable experiences that bring the generations together. My early (and powerful) memories of mummies in glass cases, dinosaur skeletons, a medieval cloister, a space capsule, 007’s Austin Martin, and a dramatic diorama of a pride of hunting lions are touchstones that have lasted me a lifetime.

As much as a visit to a museum promises togetherness, no two visitors will leave a museum with the same impressions. The reasons they visit will vary greatly. The museums they visit will differ vastly.

One place will offer a quiet aesthetic experience, another hubbub, bright lights, and interactivity. One person might like to commune with great art, feeling enriched after. Another will sample a scientific demonstration—learning a principle and feeling educated thereby. One more will re-imagine a momentous historical event or bring to mind a great individual, feeling touched and honored by the association. Granddads at the car museum might like to explain to a grandchild how he drove that particular muscle car on display, or at the hall of fame will recount how he played outfield with that same old-fashioned glove. Girls might see in the First Lady’s dress or the immigrant’s cape a glimpse of women’s lives past.

This year, half-a-million guests will find half-a-million of their own reasons to visit The Strong museum in Rochester, New York, the active and interactive place where I work. And there they will find plenty to delight the senses, exercise the muscles, and stretch the mind. This museum offers opportunities to role-play in a kid-sized supermarket, to compete in side-by-side dragsters and pilot an indoor helicopter, to ride a carousel and spin in its “love tub,” to follow reef fish and interact with nature (even in winter), or to get up close and personal with butterflies in an indoor garden itself shaped as a butterfly.

In this museum where the medium is both the message and the method, guests solve puzzles, draw pictures, play games to follow sequences, extract lessons about the importance of play from movies, and explore the places where their own experiences join historical trends in play and recreation in North America. To most guests, the interactive exhibits will look like those at a children’s museum or a science museum. But The Strong—a.k.a, the National Museum of Play—is a history museum with play and culture as its centerpiece and with play and discovery as its educational method. And so the museum is a playground for the mind as well as the body.

“The museum is a playground for the mind as well as the body.”

Playful subjects proved crucial in inviting exhibit developers to design the museum as a garden of intellectual delights. And so if the subject is comic books (and the museum’s library holds more than 21,000 titles dating from the 1950s), then the exhibit—American Comic Book Heroes: The Battle of Good vs. Evil— follows the moral narrative of our superheroes who tell us so much about what we have valued and feared. When the topic is children’s literature, the exhibit—Reading Adventureland—features a giant walk-in pop-up book where genres come to life; an upside-down house for “nonsense”; a pirate ship for “adventure”; a wizard’s workshop for “fantasy”; and a yellow-brick road that leads to a Fairy Tale Forest where kids empower themselves moving the arms of a 15-foot-tall giant. A giant quotation from the poet Diane Ackerman invites visitors into interactive exhibits that feature thousands of toys from the American past: “Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.

These learning experiences follow guests home. The museum is also a branch of the metro area’s library system. All exhibits feature comfortable book nooks for reading aloud, and each exhibit is stocked with shelves of books available for checking out with a local library card.

The Strong also publishes a scholarly journal: the American Journal of Play, a truly interdisciplinary venture that for the last five years has showcased the diverse work of the historians, neuroscientists, psychologists, biologists, mathematicians, anthropologists, physicians, folklorists, and philosophers who study this complex and serious subject of play.

To help it follow a central mission to trace play as it has evolved over the course of the history of the United States, The Strong has a collection of more than 400,000 objects and chronicles how we Americans have amused ourselves, how we’ve lost ourselves in play, and how we’ve found ourselves in the process of playing. For example, if you ask your friends who they are, they might admit to an identity as a golfer, quilter, skier, or biker. And so the clubs, quilts, skis, bikes, and thousands of other artifacts remind us of our delight in play and its central role in our lives.

At The Strong, play is the subject, the object, the medium, and the method. Parents find it easy to play along, capitalizing on learning opportunities. In this museum, learning sneaks upon you playfully, pleasurably, and stealthily. Now try that at home!

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