INNOVATION, WONDER AND AWE: CREATING SPACES FOR CHILDREN TO EXPLORE
There are roughly 70 museums in Tbilisi, spanning from history and art to money and Georgian medicine. There are many great exhibits. But the city is noticeably lacking museums that are children-friendly, hands-on and interactive - the three keys to engaging young minds.
Innova Cafe in Vake (Photo by Innova Cafe)
I have a science kind of kid. She likes dinosaurs, plants, wild cats, volcanoes and sharks. She is fascinated by the idea of bacteria and can spend hours discussing animals' proclivity to mimic.
When we travel to the states, we go to children's museums and science museums - and she walks around like a curator, pointing out facts she knows, pondering the ones she doesn't. I trail behind her, wondering why it is we don't have anything like this at home, in Tbilisi. The problem is not a lack of museums - there are, depending on the guide book, about 70 in the capital alone. Many are full of priceless and fascinating things. Entrance to all is free or just a few lari. But they are not geared toward children. They lack hands-on experiments, exhibits you can touch, programs that engage.
And the spaces themselves are not child-friendly. You are supposed to be silent, not jump, shout, and explore. While children do not require much - popular exhibits can be nothing more complicated than exercises in building dams with plastic discs in tubes of running water - the freedom to touch, feel and question is an essential part of successful places for encouraging young minds, according to the Exploratorium's Executive Director, Dr. Dennis Bartels.
The Exploratorium is one of American's most renowned science centers, created by a pioneer in the field, American physicist Frank Oppenheimer.
"I think what makes great science centers is enough attractive, interesting, surprising experiences that create this curiosity, create this desire to know what is going on," he said in a telephone interview from San Francisco.
"So much of what we know about the natural world is from the written word ...We were born with a gene wanting to know how things work."
A New Kind of Museum
Photo by Innova Café
Museums that allow children to do all those things have been popular in the United States since the beginning of the 20th century, starting with the Brooklyn's Children's Museum, which opened in 1899. In a 2010 research paper outlining why Turkey needs a children's museum, Ceren Karadeniz, a graduate student in museum education at Ankara University, noted that some of the world's best known educators, including Maria Montessori and John Dewey, influenced a new generation of child-friendly museums from 1899 to 1925. Oppenheimer took the idea of museums to a whole new level when he opened the Exploratorium in 1969.
Dr. Bartels noted that when Oppenheimer and his brother first began working on the Exploratorium, they didn't want to call it a museum - they wanted something far removed from the idea of "precious items behind glass".
At first, he said, it was difficult to convince people. But Oppeneimer would drive around the state, with science experiments in his truck, and when he met someone with a doubt, he would demonstrate the power of hands-on science right there, on the side of the road.
"It really caught on quite quickly, not just locally but around the world," Dr. Bartels said.
He noted that Oppeneimer's Exploratorium - and any great science museum - taps into a very democratic idea: "You don't need people to tell you want to think...You can use your own curiosity to pose questions."
Science, he said "is mostly seen as a book subject or a school subject...we were making it overly complicated."
Natia Mzhavanadze, an education specialist who is currently a Doctoral student at University of Massachusetts Amherst, said museums can be a perfect fit for "educating kids and instilling and encouraging curiosity."
She noted that this is "especially significant for Georgian context - where science education is problematic."
"So showing that science is all around us and it is not restricted to long-bearded professors and boring formulas will encourage kids to understand the world better, be environment-conscious and learn better."
Natural Born Scientists
Denver Science Museum
Tamuna Gabisonia, an education specialist and the founder of the children's development site, the Little Giraffe, agreed that children are natural scientists when given the opportunity to explore.
She and Mzhavanadze are working on developing concepts for a child-friendly space where kids will be able to explore science in Georgia.
"Children have natural curiosity and love making observations and discoveries," Gabisonia said.
"Children love learning when they have hands on experience. They need to see that learning can be fun... Hands-on experiences show children that science is not something unreachable and very obscure; through hands-on fun science experiences, children are able to see that science is actually part of our daily life and start understanding its importance."
In today's world, with computers and technology changing faster than parents can order the upgrade, hands- on, approachable science is even more important for children, noted the Exploratorium's Bartels. "I think it has become even more important to have places like the Exploratorium because there is even more distance [between people and science]," he said.
He added that it is important to have a place where people can "ask questions and try to understand how things work; "[places where people can] get the confidence again to ask people questions about these very important science and technology questions, to ask the right questions to find out for themselves how they feel about these important issues."
Daniel Blaho, the director at QSI International School in Tbilisi, said hands-on activites help children learn better. "There is an abundant amount of research out there that shows when students are actively engaged in learning...it taps into a different part of their minds...They are experiencing the learning and when children experience something, that knowledge is theirs. They own it," he said.
A Mental Change
Bartels noted that in India and China there is a huge push to build science museums, and governments are stepping in to finance them. In Georgia, however, that is not currently the case. The Georgian National Museum is "keen" to have a science museum, according to the education department. But there are no concrete dates or plans yet.
Mzhavanadze noted more awareness is necessary in the Georgian public.
"Generally I think we have to become more child-friendly. We are not. It isn't anyone's fault. We don't have a lot of options. I learned about options when I had my kids in the U.S.," she said.
Gabisonia agreed, noting that while the country currently lacks children-friendly entertainment, there is growing demand from parents.
"Women, young mothers want to know. They are open to information if there is anything available," she said.
"We need a mentality shift in this country. There is a type of cultural crisis because today amusement or having a good time is just eating khinkali, unfortunately, and we need to change this for the generation of our children."
Currently the two women are writing a concept paper for their plans, which revolve around creating a safe, child-friendly space for kids to engage in hands-on learning.
In the meantime, the closest thing Tbilisi has to a science/children's museum might actually be a cafe: Innova, a cafe in Vake Park.
From water served in beakers to hand-drawn formulas on the walls, Innova is wall-to-wall science. Lali Papashvili, the creative director at 2L Gastronaut, the company that created the concept for the café, the idea was to bring science - and the feeling of being in space - alive for clients.
The children, she said, love it.
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