A field trip inside the mind—it may sound like a psychedelic rock song, but that’s the big idea behind AlegreMENTE | Happy Brain: Celebrating Early Connections, an exhibition on view at the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose through May 1.
Made possible by the National Institutes of Health’s Science Education Partnership Award, AlegreMENTE originated at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). The experience invites kids to play, but the adults have a role, too. Rather than solving the Wordle or reading the news, they take part by discovering simple, everyday interactions that build social-emotional, language, cognitive and motor skills through dance, storytelling, counting and games.
I spoke to three of the exhibition’s creators, and here’s what I learned.
1. The title is a Spanish-language pun:
Alegre = happy
Mente = mind or brain
Alegremente = joyfully
In the United States, where 13% of residents speak Spanish at home, museums are increasingly providing translations of interpretive texts, but this exhibition takes it a step further, putting Spanish front and center.
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Designing the exhibition for bilingual Spanish/English and non-English speaking populations isn’t just a welcoming gesture toward communities not often enough made to feel at home in cultural institutions. It’s also an intentional way of engaging families who have had an especially difficult, even traumatic, pandemic.
2. The pandemic has underscored the importance of informal learning. Sometimes, the less an experience feels like school, the better. The informal education found in museums and libraries is central to the development of lifelong learning habits. While exploring a whimsical forest populated by human and animal families, children 0-6 may accidentally learn a thing or two. An AlegreMENTE kiosk offers families Vroom© content in 17 different languages and information on how to use what they learned in the exhibit at home or on the go with their child. Additionally, Vroom Tips™ and other brain-building messaging are integrated throughout the exhibit. (In case you missed it, Vroom is a science-based global program of the Bezos Family Foundation that facilitates brain-building interactions between caregivers and young children.) Anthony Detrano of Vroom is excited about future museum engagements that “activate underutilized learning spaces” like restrooms and hallways through Vroom decals.
3. Reading exhibit labels isn’t essential. The installation features colorful illustrations by Johanna H. Kim, whose work includes a series of books on transportation written by Patrick T. McBriarty. “Interactions are in the illustrations,” says Victoria Coats, OMSI’s manager of exhibit R&D. “You can experience it without reading instructions.” The pictures, which show children and adults engaging in activities together, allow the youngest visitors to navigate their own journey through AlegreMENTE.
4. Parents might just learn something, too. In her upcoming book Parent Nation: Unlocking Every Child’s Potential, Fulfilling Society’s Promise,Dr. Dana Suskind writes, “If we could increase parents’ knowledge—and beliefs—about their children’s language and brain development, we could have a positive effect on their parenting skills no matter how much education a parent had.”
Dr. Suskind contends that parents parent differently when equipped with knowledge of the brain science behind cognitive and social-emotional growth and that this shift in behavior can improve outcomes for their children. While not directly inspired by this research, OMSI’s team is equally committed to improving parental knowledge.
Referring to a focus group of parents, Coats observes, “They understood the value of family play together, but not its significant role in brain development.” AlegreMENTE helps to build this understanding.
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5. Museum professionals are learning from families. “People in an environment can surprise you,” says OMSI Exhibit Developer Cecilia Nguyen. “The things kids are interested in might not be what we expect, so we try not to make too many assumptions about how people will use things.”
The exhibition’s creators view it as an ongoing experiment that will unfold differently in each new venue. Hands-on, interactive exhibitions are common in children’s museums, but not with specific content that explains connections to early brain development. (One noteworthy precedent: Superpowered Metropolis at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan. Funded by the Bezos Family Foundation, this exhibition is also based on Vroom and Mind in the Making, and integrates Vroom Tips throughout.)
The OMSI team must have done something right, because many families are visiting again and again. “For regular visitors, the exhibit provides something new every time,” says Catherine Diaz, exhibit business development manager, who recently visited AlegreMENTE in San Jose and observed her two-year-old niece engaging with the stacking and counting activities. “Her parents were talking to her about her brain, and she was taking it all in.”
Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.