Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Praise and Understanding: The Bubble Room

We all seemed captivated by the Bubble Room. Maybe it was the fact that we were indoors on a hot summer's day and wanted to be near splashing water, or maybe its because the room was full of bubbles, and who doesn't love bubbles? The Bubble Room was a great spot to watch interactions and there were two groups that caught my attention.

Scenario 1: Good job, Dad!

A mom and dad came into the Bubble Room with two children who appeared to be about two and four years old. All four of them started at this boom-like contraption with rope and pullies that made sheet of bubble when it was raised at just the right speed. The parents raised the boom over and over without really engaging the kids. In fact, they seemed more interested in lifting the boom than either of the kids, so much so that the older boy walked away. The young girl kept putting her finger in the bubble sheet and popping it and her mom asked her to stop doing it. The parents don't seem all that concerned that their son is out of their sight line in another part of the room. They seem highly interested in trying to get the girl to pull the rope to raise the boom, but she doesn’t know that she has to pull it slowly to make a bubble and the parents don’t tell her, so she too loses interest. The father leaves, presumably, to join the boy, but ends up blowing bubbles on his own at another table. The boy saw what dad was doing, but wasn’t interested, so he went to another part of the room to wait in line for a different activity.

It seemed to me that the parents were able to understand how surface tension works in making bubbles so they were having an enriching experience. Making bubbles was easy for them. Eventually, the parents stopped watching their children entirely and started snapping photos of one another making bubbles. The girl started hanging on mom's arm, the brother was still in another part of the room, and the mom was generously praising dad’s bubble making. The brother, once he left his family, seemed to be having a good time, while the sister was unsuccessful with the bubble boom and didn't leave her mother's side to try an activity. She showed her feelings by hanging on her mother and whining. The only person who was praised was the dad. The daughter seemed to be having fun by popping the bubbles but was scolded because this interfered with mom's bubble making. Really, the only person who really wasn't having fun was the daughter because she was directed to a task that she neither understood, nor could do successfully. If I had the opportunity, I would have liked the chance to observe this family in another play space to see if the dynamics changed.

Scenario 2: Bubblehands!

I got to witness an honest-to-goodness social learning activity when a brother was teaching his sister how to hold her thumbs and index fingers together to turn her hands into a bubble wand. They were both making large bubbles and seemed be having great time. A younger boy approached the table, watched the pair, and mimicked what the older kids were doing. It took him a few tries to get it right, but eventually he succeeded in making a bubble.

Later, at the same table, a mother, son, and daughter stood together and the mom demonstrated how to make bubbles. The boy seemed reluctant to put his hands in the water approach bubble table. The sister immediately copied her mother and began trying to make bubbles. The sister was really engaged, but her brother looked like he’d rather be someplace else. Mom praised the bubble making saying “ooh! Good bubbles!” but she appeared to be giving the praise as a means to keep the kids engaged long enough so she can snap pictures. After the photo op, they stepped away with the brother not having gotten his hands wet.

Before I went to the museum, I decided that I wanted to keep my eyes and ears open for hovering, overly-praising parents. I had just read Alfie Kohn's article "Five Reasons to Stop Saying "Good Job!" and I was ready to dissect the praise-heavy parenting of the museum-goers. Other than the mom praising the dad, I didn't see all that much undeserved praise. What I did see in abundance was parents who compulsively redirected their children to engineer a photo op, or try to get them interested in an activity that they had chosen for their child. The kids who seemed to be having the most fun were exploring at their own pace and in their own way. The museum trip was their instructional anchor, but the children who seemed the most happy and engaged were those who chose authentic tasks and created their own solutions.

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