A mom sat in the Central Courtyard at Kidspace Children’s Museum one afternoon last week, pecking away at her smartphone with an index finger. Her daughter sat in silence beside her, peering at a similar device.
It’s a common sight in public these days, even as early childhood educators and pediatricians fret over the amount of screen time that very young children are getting these days.
Just a few steps from where the mom and daughter were sitting, one potential remedy will soon be up and running. Called the Storyteller Studio, it will be a spacious, sunny room in which the imagination of children ages 4 to 6 will be unleashed in four self-driven play areas: a drama venue with props and costumes, a puppetry corner with hand puppets and marionettes, a visual arts area for painting and crafts, and a book nook for storytelling.
“The concept for the big idea is that everyone has a story to tell,” Lauren Kaye, the museum’s assistant director of exhibits, said last week on a stroll through the studio. “What we intended to do was not re-create a kids’ version of a theater or a kids’ version of an art studio, but have a space for children to really be able to express themselves in a way that’s appropriate for them, depending on their age.”
“Without giving [direction] to them,” added Peter Crabbe, Kidspace’s chief program officer. “We want them to work it out.”
Child development experts indicate that this is precisely what young minds need. A preschool-age child watching an animated movie is being presented with the story and characters and setting fully fleshed out. A youngster playing a game with a phone app or on the computer — even something marketed as a “learning” exercise — is engaging in an activity that has been carefully orchestrated by a programmer. The designs are sprouting from someone else’s brain.
Nancy Carlsson-Paige, professor emeritus of education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., recently wrote in the Washington Post that researchers have begun to register a decrease in creativity for children in kindergarten through grade 6, due in part to an increased reliance on technology and a corresponding decline in unstructured play.
She posited that play fosters emotional health, imagination, original thinking, problem solving, critical thinking and self-regulation. “As children actively invent their own scenarios in play,” Paige-Carlsson wrote, “they work their way through the challenges life presents and gain confidence and a sense of mastery.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics echoed this sentiment last week when it recommended that screen time be limited to one hour per day of high-quality programs for children ages 2 through 5, and urged more “creative, unplugged play time for infants and toddlers.”
The little ones will get exactly that in the 1,400 square feet of the Storyteller Studio at Kidspace. As with most installations at the museum, there will be no prescribed route for experiencing it. Kids will be able to jump in at any one of the four areas and flow freely among them.
Features of the areas will include:
Dramatic play: In a dress-up area, children will have opportunities to don costumes and inhabit a character, and then arrange props to create a setting for a story. There will be a light wall that the kids can manipulate to change the backdrop.
A sky, for instance? No. “It will be abstract,” Kaye said. “We don’t want to be too specific. The whole idea is that they think of what it is.”
She added: “At that point in their life, acting things out and playing pretend is how kids figure out the world around them. When they’re playing a fireman, it’s because they saw a fire truck driving by and they’re trying to process it.
The dramatic play area “is not necessarily to put on Shakespeare,” Kaye said. “It’s more like, ‘What are we going to be today?’”
Puppetry: The small-scale dramas that will occur here are designed to give kids a sense of stewardship over the make-believe worlds they create. There will be hand puppets and marionettes, and also a table with figurines.
Kidspace is also collaborating with the Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry to showcase different types of puppets from around the world.
Storytelling: A child can be read to or can read along with a parent or museum educator. For the very young ones, that might just involve looking at the pictures in a book.
Children will be encouraged to create stories, too, at a magnetic wall where they will have various pieces they can arrange to create a plot.
Visual arts: Carlsson-Paige, the child educator, writes about the importance of young kids playing with materials and manipulating objects physically, in order to “engage all their senses, and move and interact with the three-dimensional world. This is what maximizes their learning and brain development.”
Visitors will have hands-on opportunities to paint, craft or sculpt at an art table. Better yet, there will be a large paint wall. Drawing on the walls at home may be strictly forbidden, but it will be enthusiastically encouraged here.
Adult influence in Kidspace’s Storyteller Studio may be minimal, but it won’t be altogether absent. Items might be strategically placed to provide structure and inspiration, said Crabbe, who holds a doctorate degree in education.
“You have to have something there so they know what they’re being invited to do,” he added. “With a little bit of adult engagement from parents or from our educator staff — stepping in at the right moment and saying something like, ‘Have you tried this?,’ or, ‘Do you know what you’d like to do here?,’ or, ‘What are you thinking?’ — that just gets the juices going and they just take it from there.
“I’ve often described it as an arena for activities. Hopefully, it will be a state-of-the-art space that is inspiring and comfortable and flexible.”
Emphasis on the latter. Kaye offered the hypothetical of a child hearing the story of “The Three Little Pigs” in the storytelling area, wandering over to the visual arts area to craft a hand puppet of one of the pigs, gravitating to the puppetry corner to re-create the story, then heading to the drama area to act out the role of a home-building pig.
The Storyteller Studio is the latest manifestation of the museum’s 4-year-old Campaign for the Future of Kidspace, a $13-million capital program that has resulted in the launch of new exhibits and the enhancement of others, including the Galvin Physics Forest, the Imagination Workshop, the Taper Early Childhood Learning Center, the Greenhouse and several new features in the Arroyo Adventure, including the popular Hawk’s Nest.
As Kidspace seeks to close the final gap in the fundraising campaign, it is working with a $500,000 grant source that will match any donation dollar for dollar.
Information about Kidspace’s Storyteller Studio or how to participate in its capital campaign is available from Christine Franke at firstname.lastname@example.org or (626) 243-4511.