I have a confession: I have never found science museums particularly interesting. As a homeschooler, I am a little afraid to admit this. We, as a group, tend to be thrilled with such things. Don’t they give real, hands-on experiences? Aren’t frequent field trips to such places just why we homeschool?
I was encouraged to admit this because of something I read recently. I am once again looking at Anthony’s Esolen’s book Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (see my review of it here). In it, Esolen speaks of the value of the natural world in building a child’s imagination (which he with his tongue-in-cheek approach ostensibly is trying not to do). In this context, he says:
“One way to neutralize this fascination with the natural world is to cordon it off in parks and zoos, and then act as if only the parks and zoos were worth seeing.” (p. 37)
And again later:
“Now the science museum, by contrast, won’t have anything you can actually do that might lead to things breaking (or bones breaking). But the science museum, like science classes in school generally, is not about the business of stirring the imagination. It is instead about persuading the child to Believe the Right Things about Science.” (p. 75)
Esolen goes on to talk of the specific things we are to believe, including controversial subjects like global warming and evolution but also more generall accepted ones like the need to recycle. However you feel about these topics, it is hard to ignore that many science museums do just that — reinforce these ideas to children.
My main problem with them is that for the most part they seem to involve children push a button which makes something light up. Maybe a few parts move, but almost always there is a pre-programmed response (and half the time the displays are broken as well). The signs usually do not interest children who have no desire to stop and read. But if they did, they would be given explanations along the lines of “when you do such-and-such, this reaction happens.” There is no real experimentation here. There is nothing that stimulates the brain. Everything functions just as it is designed to and nobody gets dirty.
We live about an hour from a big city with a well-respected science museum. My kids call it the boring science museum. The best part of it is the taxidermied animals on the lower level, followed perhaps by the rock specimens. These at least are, or were, real things, though there is not much one can do with them now other than look at them. There is also a room on the third floor with playground equipment designed to show physics principles. This room is not too bad though often so packed it is hard to see. But honestly, couldn’t we just go to a playground? Our local one has some wonderful old unbalanced see-saws that demonstrate how levers work really well because if you do it right, a lighter kid can easily raise and lower a heavier one (unfortunately, there is a committee to revitalize the playground, so these may be leaving soon).
There is also a “fun science museum.” It allows you to do things that are more than just pushing buttons though as an adult I find it pretty boring too. The best part of it (and my children agree) is a room where they have wood and tools and let you build whatever you like. It is best when we go when others are in school and they are allowed to create to their hearts’ delights. The good thing about this is that it is a real experience. And if there is the added bonus that the wood shavings are on someone else’s floor, all the better.
I guess the point of this post is that I am encouraged by Esolen’s remarks. It is also nice to know that one is not alone in one’s opinions. Science should be open-ended. When the answers are already there for us, there is no desire to know. It is in exploration, when the answers are not already given, that we really engage in science.