On a recent weekday morning at the Vancouver Aquarium and Marine Science Centre, a mother with two children and deep rings under her eyes breezed by the massive Pacific Coast tank downstairs from the lobby. A shiny halibut bobbed at the surface. Sturgeon cruised, their ancient rows of grey bumps bending as they swam by. Rockfish, spiky fins extended, teemed below. The seaweed waved and the fish bumped up against each other; even the rocks were fascinating worlds of plant and animal life.
The exhibit is a re-creation of a local undersea habitat, the kind of scene that usually only scuba divers experience. Though it’s a lot simpler than diving, bringing kids to see this exhibit at the aquarium is still a major effort. You can spend $138 for a one-year family membership or $27 for a single adult admission and $17 per child aged four to 12. Plus, there’s the travel: at least $5 for a bus trip, or $2.50 per hour for parking in Stanley Park. Not to mention the time and energy spent feeding, napping, and dressing young kids for an outing. You’d think visitors would make the most of the experience. This mom, however, didn’t stop pushing the baby in her stroller.
“Look at the fishies,” she said to the four-ish boy she had in tow, barely looking at the tank. Then she kept going.
It’s easy to pick on parents for sloughing off their role as their child’s most important teacher—and it’s certainly not hard to find disengaged parents and nannies at Vancouver’s premier cultural institutions: dads on cellphones, moms kicking back with lattes, nannies chatting to each other while their young charges race around exhibits of marmosets or goats or interactive science experiments. A rainy afternoon at the aquarium can feel more like a visit to Crash Crawly’s than the making of a new generation of Jacques Cousteaus. Ditto for Science World, Maplewood Farm, and other attractions where education is a core mandate.
But parents don’t deserve all the blame. Many institutions are light on resources to help nonexpert parents lead their kids. For example, if that worn-out aquarium mom had wanted to offer her son some information, there was a sign on the side of the tank, and photographs of dozens of fish with their proper names. As well, there was a sign showing how people eat some of the fish. But apart from these aids, the aquarium doesn’t provide help for a parent—who is likely not a marine biologist—to enrich their child’s gaze through the glass.
Whether or not this—an institutional laziness about early childhood education—is a problem depends on who you ask.
The most paranoid creature in the world is a well-educated 30-something mom, according to Sandy Eix, who oversees science content for Science World. On any given day, the silver Expo 86 landmark is thronging with strollers and the preschool set, brought by their caregivers for an early start in science. It’s a relatively new phenomenon that has inspired a special room filled with play-based equipment for under-sixes: a water table with a strong current and movable dams, a set of vertical ball mazes, and a climbing structure with a pulley.
What you won’t find is posted explanations of the science behind the games.
“The challenging thing for me and my colleagues is to make that learning visible to all the parents and teachers,” Eix told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview, noting that play-based learning is the bedrock of Science World’s offerings. She also noted that the institution’s on-line preschool resource, Big Science for Little Hands, helps families take science learning home with them. “It’s the trickiest part of our job.”¦Sometimes we do too good a job having fun, and it feels like a playground.”
To Eix, who has a PhD in physics and an education degree that allows her to teach high-school physics, children are natural scientists because they are driven by curiosity. If a child is trying stuff out and asking questions, he or she is doing science. So, physics-averse parents, worry not: there are no big-word lectures needed. Play is enough.
Similarly, at Maplewood Farm virtually no information is posted about the animals. However, there’s no mistaking when kids haven’t internalized the compassion message the farm hopes to impart.
Facility manager April Johnston often sees kids chase chickens, kick sawdust into rabbits’ eyes, and drop rocks into the animals’ water dishes. But the farm, which is run by the District of North Vancouver, offers virtually no help for parents wanting to teach their children about the animals—and thus to respect them—apart from a bundle of colouring pages at the exit. It’s something that Johnston, a former 4-H leader who has been with the farm for 30 years, would like to fix. The issue is money.
“The finance department and politicians”¦would like to get rid of us,” she told the Straight in a phone interview. “They don’t see the intrinsic value.”
At the aquarium, the director of public-engagement programs, Eriko Arai, told the Straight that it would be impossible to post all the signage needed to engage every age, language, and interest group that walks through the doors. So Clownfish Cove, the area reserved for young kids, aims to bring the conservation message to preschoolers through play, she said. There, kids can care for stuffed seals in a pretend lab, learn to gently touch starfish, and dress up like salmon.
“Try to remember that the ocean is very much relatively unexplored, so there’s a lot of things we don’t know about,” Arai said during an interview in the aquarium’s administration building. “So you don’t have to be able to answer every question a child has.”
Is that all there is to nurturing a young scientist or animal-rights advocate or marine biologist—plop them in a constructed environment and let the magic happen?
There’s much more to it, veteran early childhood educator Susan Hoppenfeld argues. She says on their own, razzle-dazzle attractions don’t offer much in the way of meaningful learning. She isn’t bashing the institutions. In the language of early learning, she said, they function as “provocations”, or places offering exciting content a child won’t know much about.
“Sparks can fly,” she told the Straight in a phone interview. “[As a parent,] you take that and you go deeper.”
Hoppenfeld teaches a course in Vancouver Community College’s early childhood education program called Learning Child. Although play-based learning has been an enduring ideal, she argues that there’s more to it than kids going bonkers while parents stand back and supervise the madness. Learning happens best in trusting relationships, she noted; ideally, parents should be drawing out their children and making exhibits meaningful. She said that during her dozen years designing children’s programs at the Vancouver Art Gallery, her goal was to offer caregivers the tools to teach art theory to children, “so they can competently use art as a language”.
Is that an overly ambitious goal for a preschooler? Hoppenfeld, who is also the director of preschool and daycares at the Jewish Community Centre, says it isn’t: children are innately curious, competent, and creative. Learning is a dance between relationship, play, information, and conversation.
“Children begin to form hypotheses really early,” she said. “When they’re three, they can be delightful.”
Hoppenfeld notes that most childhood learning happens in the real world, rather than formal settings such as Science World and the Vancouver Aquarium. She suggests that parents would be well-advised to take their kids to the beach or the North Shore trails, where they can have a real experience in a genuine context.
That rings true for Vancouver artist and mother Roberta Smith. She said she doesn’t depend on cultural institutions to feed her preschool-aged son’s curiosity. Instead, she explained, learning happens in experiencing the everyday: going for walks, seeing flowers, naming them, and noticing the differences between them. This, rather than a flashy experience in a big building, has led her four-year-old to be interested in plants, she noted.
In 2009, Smith self-published a colouring book of B.C. coastal fish, with sophisticated descriptions of each one. Although her paintings for adults are often a dark reflection of the environmental crisis facing the ocean, she wanted to create a tool to engage kids in the first step to environmental stewardship: knowing and appreciating what’s there.
“I wanted kids to understand there is physical beauty and complexity in the natural world, so as they grow up, they have an imperative for protecting it,” she told the Straight. “This is my responsibility as an adult and as an artist: to show kids what we have, before it’s lost.”
To Smith and Hoppenfeld, giving information to children isn’t the opposite of play but a key to promoting curiosity. In fact, a holistic learning experience should include preparation, exploration, reflection, and research, according to Hoppenfeld. It seems that at attractions like the aquarium, Science World, and Maplewood Farm, parents must do most of that work themselves.
Hoppenfeld urges parents to expose children to very small parts of an institution during each visit, then go deeper. Otherwise, she said, it’s the learning equivalent of a sound bite.
Without some serious help from the institutions’ education departments, overwhelmed caregivers such as the mom who breezed by the sturgeon are clearly at a loss. Until then, “look at the fishies” is where most of them seem to be stuck.