How Cultural Institutions Are Using Tech and Social to Interact with Kids

CultureChild 2.0

Part one of a two-part series.

New York’s cultural institutions are employing an array of new technologies that help kids interact, collaborate and use social media with their families to enhance their experiences with the institutions.  Part one of this two-part series explores activities for children through The New York Public Libraries’ Summer Reading Program, The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

New York Public Library Summer Reading Program for Children

Each year, the New York, Brooklyn and Queens Public Libraries join forces and sponsor a Summer Reading Program for kids.  My daughter looks forward to it every summer.  To get started, children log onto the website and set up an account.  Kids create profiles with a new screen name generator (which sets up a screen name to fit them perfectly without revealing personal data) and design avatars using clothes, hairstyles, facial and features and more.  After logging in, kids can record the amount of time they have spent reading.  A running total for the summer appears on each child’s profile page.  Kids earn special badges by keeping logs and reviewing their favorite books, music, movies and games.  They can also “like” others’ reviews and click on others’ avatars to see other items that those users have logged.

Summer Reading culminates in late August.  Volunteers organize parties at various branches throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, and children come in to receive certificates and prizes. The Summer Reading 2011 kick-off is June 9, 2011.

American Museum of Natural History Explorer App and Website

The American Museum of Natural History Explorer (AMNH Explorer) Phone/iPod touch app is awesome.  Through the museum’s wi-fi network, Explorer can identify your location and offer GPS directions, so getting around the museum is a breeze. In addition, it serves as a guide to more than 100 exhibitions with explanatory text and images of important objects, and provides directions to cafes, gift shops and bathrooms.  You can also share an interesting exhibit or artifact via e-mail, Facebook or Twitter.  You can download the app free at iTunes or borrow a preloaded device at the museum.

My husband and I took our daughter to the museum last Saturday.  We used our long subway ride to plan our visit. Once inside, I simply touched my exhibit of choice on my screen and received step-by-step, on-screen directions with a map.  It couldn’t have been easier.  I have to admit, though, it took getting used to carrying my (silenced) phone around a museum.  Once I got to each exhibit, I preferred to read the wall tags, watch the films and interact with the exhibit versus trying to read about the various sections on my phone.  However, the GPS map was brilliant, especially for finding the bathroom quickly with children.  It was also easy to reconnect with my husband via a quick text and digital map after we got separated.

My daughter loved touring the giant brain as part of Brain: The Inside Story. Thanks to AMNH’s fantastic children’s section of the website, she can play the interactive games from the exhibit anytime.

AMNH also offers two new dinosaur iPad apps.

MoMA Kids Interactive Website and Audio Tours and Mobile Apps

The Museum of Modern Art’s free Droid  and iPhone/iTouch apps offer calendars, tours of all MoMA audio programs, general information and an index of all the museum’s works and artists featured in its collection.  The apps’ Snaps feature lets visitors to use their camera phones to snap photos and send them as a museum postcards to family and friends.

No smartphone?  No problem.  MoMA also offers free audio tours (sponsored by Bloomberg) throughout the museum.  The audio tours for kids are interactive and engaging, providing a wealth of information about MoMA’s collections and the building.  During a visit with friends, we gave the children the audio guides.  While my seven-year-old liked the independence of being in charge of her guide and was interested in facts it espoused, my friend’s younger children (ages four and five) had more fun punching the buttons.  This turned out well for all of us, as the younger children were entertained with their new gadgets, and the rest of us could view the pieces in each gallery in which we were most interested and at our own pace.  The audio guides are free, but you need to leave an ID to get one.

Post-visit, children can participate in an online Intergalactic Journey to MoMA and P.S.1 with an alien creature to recall paintings, sculptures and installations that they visited at MoMA and complete art projects; or they can plan their visit to MoMA’s sister museum. PS1.  The online program is designed for children five through eight and requires Flash.

MoMA’s Kids and Family program offers a robust array of activities, including family gallery talks, workshops, films artist talks and other resources for children.

Does teaching children about art help them become better students overall?

CultureChild: Learning Through Art


A study by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum says it does.

Still curious about this connection from my conversation with Megan Lucas, I dug up an article that ran in The New York Times  following the release of the 2006 Solomon R. Guggenheim Learning Through Art study.  According to the article, the study found that students who participated in the Learning Through Art program performed better in six categories of literacy and critical thinking skills—including thorough description, hypothesizing and reasoning—than students who were not in the program.

Without wishing to oversimplify the issue, I can share from my own experience how one child I know increased his aptitude for learning through the use of art.  As a Learning Leaders volunteer, I tutor kids in reading at an under served public school.  Last year, through a trial-and-error process, I discovered a link between drawing and reading with this particular first-grade student.

It was clear that he had attention issues, but I was never briefed on his background.  He had difficulty sitting still for more than five minutes, and often walked out of our sessions. I knew that he loved to draw, and in an effort to keep him from abruptly ending our 40-minute sessions, I equipped him with a drawing pad and an array of newly sharpened colored pencils each week.  I quickly figured out that if I let him draw the characters and themes in a story that I read to him or let him draw pictures of some of the words that he read on flashcards, he stayed engaged for the 40 minutes.  He also took pride in talking about his pictures and using them to illustrate the stories that we read together and to create his own stories.  Through this exchange, we gradually spent more time reading and writing than drawing.

I’m taking a break from tutoring this semester; however, I plan to return to it in the fall, armed with some new ideas in my toolkit that I’m gleaning from this blog.  Art supplies will be essential in that toolkit.

Internet and Technology in Schools: Why We Shouldn’t Pull the Plug

CultureChild: Technology and School

Most parents of school-aged kids are aware of a current debate taking place on- and off-line, regarding the use of computer technology and the Internet at school.  During the past week, there has been a lot of heated comments on theThe Huffington Post as a result of Laurie David and Susan Stiffelman’s recent post, “Technology and Schools: Should We Add More or Pull the Plug?

I believe in teaching children in school and at home the importance of balancing technology in their lives and how to use the Internet responsibly, in tandem with a lot of teacher and parent supervision.  I’ve seen technology offer my daughter educational experiences that wouldn’t have been as dynamic for her otherwise.

Internet games accessed in school libraries—such as Free Rice, which donates 10 grains of rice for each question kids get right through the World Food Program, international pen pal programs run by Students of the World and cultural exchanges like the Thorn Tree project—exemplify how the Internet can be used as tool to enhance learning, broaden children’s knowledge of the world and further their understanding of different cultures.

Packer Collegiate, a pre-K through grade 12 private school in Brooklyn, NY, has established an ongoing cultural exchange and fundraising program with the Ndonyo Wasin Primary School in Kenya, which is also part of the Thorn Tree project.  Named for the thorn trees under which the preschool children meet, the Thorn Tree project is an exchange between educators in the north Kenyan region of Sereolipi and Jane Newman, a retired New York City advertising executive.  The venture has raised funds to build classrooms and dormitories to house students and has boosted the number of children attending primary school in the region from 132 in 2001 to 651 in 2008.  No doubt, the learning exchanges between the U.S. and Kenyan schools would not have been as successful without the use of technology and the Internet.

At Packer, students in the second grade begin a pen pal exchange via e-mail with the second graders at Ndonyo Wasin.  One year, fourth graders at each school collaborated to write and produce short videos about their schools and share them with one another.

In an article on the school’s website, Andrea Kelly, Lower School Head at Packer Collegiate said   “Our goal has always been to provide both schools with an exciting window on another world.  We want them to know that there are many different ways to live a life.  And with all the differences, we want them to identify the commonalities between their cultures.”

The fourth-graders’ videos described on Packer’s website showcase these ideas beautifully.  In the Packer video, the children proudly display a large garden in which they play, the infra-red controlled sinks and soap dispensers in the restrooms and the wide selection of books in the library.  In the Kenyan piece, the students lead a virtual tour of Ndonyo Wasin—through the dormitories equipped with mosquito netting, into the solar-powered library where the children can watch Sesame Street, and by the athletic fields where children play “football” (soccer) and netball (a game like basketball).  With pride they introduce viewers to two of the 40 camels on Ndonyo Wasin’s campus that provide milk for the school, as well as the solar-powered well that gives clean water to the whole school.  Previously, the students had to fetch water from a well that was two miles away.

While these are just a few initiatives, countless schools are using technology wisely.  Sadly, Laurie David and Susan Stiffelman, who claim to be “in the trenches” as a mother and psychologist, seem far removed from the innovation that educators, who are also deep “in the trenches,” are making on this front.