NEWS

Shrieking and laughing, kids love this learning

It’s 8 a.m. and I’m walking up Kydathinaion Street in Plaka to the Hellenic Children’s Museum, an experiential learning center founded in 1987. The tourist shops haven’t opened yet, so the neighborhood is relatively empty. I flip through a colorful information pamphlet about the museum which details how the institution wants to help children discover and transform themselves and their world through imagination, curiosity, speculation and realism. The museum is one of many international institutions for children which espouse a hands-on philosophy for exploring learning through trust and respect for others and the natural environment. The museum also emphasizes the joy of learning, since it’s a place where children will never hear the words «Don’t touch that!» or «Be quiet!» Because it’s so early, the first little visitors haven’t arrived yet. Instead, the staff – young women who are wearing bright orange aprons – have gathered in the lobby around a winding wooden staircase to coordinate the day’s events. I glance at a book chronicling years of children’s impressions here. «It’s the only museum where kids don’t get bored of listening or learning!» wrote Olina. «We made biscuits and a dessert with chocolate, and we found a boy with a guitar and we sang children’s songs,» wrote Vassilis. There are drawings and descriptions that chronicle the impressions of so many children. For some reason, I find their spelling mistakes utterly charming. A little before 9 a.m., the first scheduled visitors arrive. They are the third-graders of an elementary school in Pallini, about 15 kilometers northeast of Athens. The children affix stickers with their names onto their blouses. One little girl from the group tells me the kids have to do this «so we can get to know each other better and so we don’t have to yell at each other across the room and say things like: ‘Hey you!’» I put on a name tag, too, since I want to get into the spirit of the place. I follow them along a hallway toward the exhibitions, which in essence are rooms designated by theme – art, science, the environment – and targeted toward children between 3 and 12 years old. The rooms are filled with objects intended to invoke curiosity, discovery and cooperation, along with a little help from the museum employees or guides. In the recycling-themed room, children try to come up with new uses for everyday objects. In a loft, the kids rummage through building materials, objects and clothes from the past. In a space devoted to Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, children examine botanical plants with therapeutic qualities. Then there’s the blue room, called «The Deep.» It’s a compelling space, designed with stars, seashells and a real embalmed fish – the width of two hippopotamuses. No one says «Don’t touch!» or «Don’t yell!» – which usually stops the spontaneous inquisitiveness of children right in its tracks. The museum is full of laughs and shrieks from paint-splattered little artists and flush-faced explorers. Next, we head into the kitchen. The kids in this space are studying the basic principles of physics and chemistry – things like mixing, setting, melting and solutions – by trying various recipes. Today, they say, they’re going to make a cake out of sweet biscuits. Again, I’m reminded of the museum’s philosophy – that a child learns best through experience, interaction with real objects and recreation – which the museum’s communications director, Anna Alexandri, had already articulated to me. «Prepared answers don’t help children,» she said. «The goal here is to learn through experience. That’s why children learn to love the journey. In other words, they learn how to learn. That’s why, especially at these ages, using objects is especially important.» As I leave, I notice a teacher from the school group wearing her name-tag sticker, of all places, on her forehead. She’s gotten into the spirit of things. Laughing, she leans closer to her co-worker and whispers, «I got hurt, so I’m going to go to the pharmacy» – the room devoted to Asclepius – «so the children can take care of me!» It’s obvious that by the end of the visit, we have all learned a thing or two. Hellenic Children’s Museum, 14 Kydathinaion, Plaka. For more information, call 210.331.2995 or log on to www.hcm.gr. This article originally appeared in the January 29 edition of Kathimerini’s color supplement, K.