Child's Play: TCC Students Help Sculpt Young Minds at the Gilcrease Museum


We all know the importance of the arts in the development and education of young people. Numerous studies have shown that the arts improve academic achievement – enhancing test scores, attitudes, social skills, and critical and creative thinking; but did you know art enrichment programs can influence learning and growth in infants and toddlers as well?

Sarah Wright, associate curator of Family and Youth Programs for the Gilcrease Museum, affirms it is widely accepted that environment has an enormous impact on the brain’s development and growth in children ages 0 to 3. It is through learning words, touching objects, using sight, smell and hearing that children learn about what they experience.

In appreciation of the importance of this need for Tulsa’s youngest citizens to experience and explore art, and in an effort to encourage lifelong learning at the museum, the Gilcrease launched an innovative project called Museum Babies.

Museum Babies is a family enrichment program designed for infants and toddlers, along with one or both of their parents, to experience the art on display at the Gilcrease Museum. One-year-olds and younger can participate in Museum Babies I. The class is offered twice a month to nurture the needs of both parent and infant. For the first half hour, adults enjoy a casual experience in the galleries, learning about the art featured in the Gilcrease Museum. The second half hour is “baby time” with activities to stimulate the five senses.

Museum Babies II is especially designed for toddlers and their parents. For the first half hour, the moms and dads explore the galleries, gaining an appreciation of Gilcrease’s many collections, while the second half hour is “toddler time.” This time is occupied with the toddlers exploring sensory activities that encourage their progression to the next level of controlled creative self-expression.

“The program was developed to serve many different purposes,” said Wright. “I was seeing in our program for ages 3- to 6-year olds that the participating families were growing. The families were bringing infants to the program, so I thought those children and parents needed a program of their own.

Ensuring Museum Babies is an enriching environment for everyone in attendance, opportunities are provided to exercise an infant’s senses, stimulate development and encourage families to continue what they learn at home.

“Included in our gallery time for parents and their infants and toddlers, we also offer play time in one of our activity spaces in the museum,” said Wright. “The program is of benefit to parents in that they experience the museum with their child, learning activities and words to reinforce gallery time and play time.”

In order to provide an applicable and correct educational experience for parent and child, the Museum Babies Program partners with Tulsa Community College’s Early Childhood Education (ECE) Program. TCC’s ECE students’ responsibility is to provide the playtime activities for the two different age groups and to facilitate those activities. The students choose a theme that will be enriching for the families. During the 2013 fall semester, TCC students offered several themes:

  • Vision/Color/Patterns
  • Cowboys and Horses
  • Touch and Texture
  • Animals of the Museum, Big and Little
  • Feathers
  • Hearing and Sounds

The act of play cultivated by TCC students reinforces the learning that the children experience in the galleries. During one Cowboys and Horses session, families saw and learned about bronze sculptures of cowboys and horses that reside in the Gilcrease. Later, they moved to a kid-friendly area where children could touch and see a real horse saddle; color drawings of horses; decorate boots made of construction paper; ride a rocking horse; and play with plastic horse figurines.

Children get hands-on play time after their museum experience. During the Cowboys and Horses session, they touch a real horse saddle, decorate boots made of construction paper and ride a rocking horse.

Playtime also helps in a child’s development of fine and gross motor skills, eye-hand coordination, socialization and interactive skills, plus learning by association,” said Wright.

Dawn Parton, associate professor of Child Development at TCC, facilitates student participation in the Museum Babies Program as a required, academically based service learning opportunity. Parton and the students work together to design the curriculum and select activities for each session.

“These students are primarily in degree options leading to admission into university teacher education programs,” explained Parton. “They are learning to select and implement developmentally appropriate activities for infants and toddlers. They are learning to apply state-level content standards, ‘the Oklahoma Early Learning Guidelines for Infants and Toddlers,’ in lesson planning and evaluate their own progress toward meeting content standard goals.”

This semester, 24 ECE students are serving in the Museum Babies Program, gaining hands-on experience in creating and implementing fun and engaging lesson plans that foster art appreciation in young learners. One such student, Cheryl Wadley, an ECE sophomore pursuing an associate degree, is participating in the program for the second time.

“Last year I did an activity where the children made two types of sound shakers, one loud and one soft,” said Wadley. “This year, the activity [for Museum Babies II] has to do with feathers. The children will make feather head bands like they would see in the museum, just smaller. There will be books about feathers, folder games with matching feathers and then feather catching. Children can throw or blow the feathers up in the air then catch them.”

The partnership between TCC and the Gilcrease is an exciting opportunity for both parties. Wright contends the use of students, who are studying the latest advances in ECE, is important to the integrity of the program.

“Through their expertise, with the guidance of Professor Dawn Parton, her students provide safe and appropriate activities, and we at Gilcrease Museum are able to provide the students with practical, hands-on experience with the age groups that they are studying,” said Wright. “The TCC students are enthusiastic, energetic and are excited to work with children of these specific ages in a unique setting. They are eager to learn and to share their knowledge with others. They have wonderful ideas to share with the families. It is a win-win situation for us all.”

Author’s Note: Since 2011, more than 1,000 parents and children have participated in Museum Babies I and II. The program, which has inspired similar projects in museums across the country, offers classes in fall and spring. Enrollment is free with museum admissions, which is $8 for adults and $6 for seniors. Admissions for children under the age of 18 are free. To enroll in Museum Babies, contact Wright at (918) 596-2774.