Talking to kids about social injustice and discrimination

As a cultural institution and a place for children, Chicago Children’s Museum is constantly thinking about how kids understand and interact with the world around them, and how that world impacts them. Kids’ ears can pick up bits and pieces of the most complicated conversations, which in turn can prompt adult-sized questions.

Regardless of your political beliefs, these conversations can bring up questions and concerns about discrimination and fairness, and it can be challenging to know the best ways to tackle it with your kids.

We’ve put together some ideas for parents and caregivers to have meaningful conversations with children of all ages about issues of equality and diversity, and how to get those conversations started.


Teach them empathy.

Being able to empathize with others who are treated unfairly is an early step in understanding the damage that is done by discrimination and inequality. However, kids need to learn empathy—we’re not born with it. Parents and caregivers need to talk about what it means to empathize, encourage their kids to work toward it, and model it themselves.

Sometimes books can be great discussion tools. Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry is a great story to kick off conversations about empathy.


Relate larger issues to their smaller worlds.

Children may not be able to understand the details of civil rights, but they can understand why it isn’t fair to cut in line for the playground slide. Kindness and fairness are ideas that kids understand and relate to very early on. Show kids that their worlds and the world around them are related.

The book What Does It Mean To Be Kind by Rana DiOrio talks about kindness in a world that kids understand: the classroom.


Help them explore difference—without generalizing.

We ask kids to point out which block is red and which block is blue, but when it comes to people, we insist we’re all the same. Kids notice differences—be honest and encourage them to explore those differences in positive ways.

The book The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler (and published by Chicago Children’s Museum) teaches kids to not only acknowledge difference, but to celebrate it too.


Hold yourself accountable—but not to the level of perfection.

Nobody’s perfect. We all have our own biases, and children hear what we say and take it all in. Avoid speaking in generalizations about other people and question others when they do so. If you do speak unfairly about a person or group, openly acknowledge the mistake.


Continue the conversation—but avoid oversharing.

Listen carefully to children’s questions and take cues about what they want to talk about. As adults, we have a tendency to provide too many details and concepts that may well be beyond their comprehension. Try using open-ended questions like “What are you curious about?” to get to the heart of their concerns. Then you can help them find more information about what they would like to know. And if you’re not sure how to start the conversation, you can always turn to books like the ones we listed above.


Talking about prejudice and discrimination is not something we can check off a list—it’s an ongoing conversation. Help your children see the world through a lens of compassion and kindness throughout their childhoods that will last well into their adult lives.

Why Danger?

Exposing children to danger may seem counterintuitive, but when done right, and with the support of caring adults, it is ultimately the best preparation we can give them for becoming resilient, thoughtful and capable human beings.

Exposing children to danger may seem counterintuitive, but when done right, and with the support of caring adults, it is ultimately the best preparation we can give them for becoming resilient, thoughtful and capable human beings.

Kids just don’t have enough “good danger” in their lives these days.

No, really…Hear us out!

Think back to your childhood… What are your strongest play memories? Often, when we at Chicago Children’s Museum ask adults how they played as children, the things they recall most vividly were a bit risky. They climbed trees—or rooftops—and played in alleys. They experimented with tools and took things apart.  They launched things into the air, demolished things, melted things, and (maybe, just maybe) created some minor explosions. Why? Well, because they were curious!

From these experiences, they learned. There were minor cuts, scrapes, and bruises, but, oh, were there also revelations!

Encountering risky, seemingly dangerous situations provide children some of their greatest and most important learning opportunities. From interactions with hot, sharp, breakable, fragile, high up or otherwise strange things, we develop new understandings about the ways of the world. We grasp why some things really are dangerous (to ourselves or others) and how to be safe.  We learn about our own abilities and sensibilities.

As Gever Tulley, author of Fifty Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do, says, “While there are aspects of danger in virtually everything we do, the trick is to learn how mastery actually minimizes danger.”

Yes, exploring what is dangerous presents a prime opportunity for children to learn safety and responsibility.  It is also a natural motivator for learning in general. Danger is exciting; therefore, we pay attention.  You can bet that a child who learns about chemistry by creating an explosion is going to remember it far longer than the child who reads about it in a book. The “risk” aspect makes the experience stick.

Here are a few key ways adults can support “good” danger:

Ensure that children have opportunities to take risks that are developmentally appropriate.  For an eight-year-old, using a sharp tool or experimenting with heat could present an appropriate level of risk.  For a six-year-old, swinging on a rope swing might be just the right challenge. For a toddler, exploring a new material or attempting to walk over an uneven terrain may be a healthy risk. Children naturally want to push the limits of their abilities; it’s up to us, as adults, to help them find the right opportunities.

Provide time, space and support. While some “risky” activities require adult supervision (learning to light a campfire for the first time), others are best left for children to explore on their own (taking a leap from the monkeybars). If the worst that can happen is a cut, scrape, bruise, or even a sprained ankle, give children the freedom to do it on their own. Remember, you learned some of your best “lessons” when adults weren’t even looking!

Take comfort in the knowledge that “dangerous” activities help children flourish. Exploring fire, water and other physical phenomena, and using real tools and machines acquaint children with how the world really works. Nothing beats first-hand experience for learning how objects are engineered, why heat transforms water into vapor, what it’s like to drill a hole. Such “risky” physical behaviors as climbing, swinging or jumping from high places build strength, dexterity and self-confidence. Non-physical risks—performing in front of an audience or standing up for a principle—are similarly important learning opportunities. In each situation, children are developing critical cognitive and social-emotional skills: assessing risks, grasping consequences, practicing self-control, taking responsibility.

Exposing children to danger may seem counterintuitive, but when done right, and with the support of caring adults, it is ultimately the best preparation we can give them for becoming resilient, thoughtful and capable human beings.

So go ahead… Take the leap.  Make it blow.  Melt it down. Launch it. Watch it burn.  We’re learning here!

Field Trips and Self Identity

Museum educators Holly Denman and Alexandra Pafilis look at how field trips can provide a special platform for children as they work on developing their unique senses of self. 

Daily, we are reminded that children are individuals, growing into their potential and personality, developing their senses of self. As we watch children enter and explore Chicago Children’s Museum, we are often struck by the varying reactions, interests and temperaments of our field trip visitors. Some children eagerly burst into the nearest exhibit—passionately curious about what it could hold. Others dutifully stick close to their teacher as they look around their new setting. Some express concern about putting their lunch away, looking for reassurance that it will be waiting for them.

Field trips can be a powerful tool for fostering self-efficacy, the feeling of being a “doer” inthe world and capable of success in new situations. We love to watch feelings of self-efficacy bloom as children build structures in our Skyline exhibit. At first, children may puzzle over how to line up the wooden struts, nuts and bolts. After some tinkering, they quickly discover how to assemble the


materials into the frame of a building. As they work with busy hands and minds, they can see the results of their actions—all of a sudden they have a house that they built! Similarly, children have a chance to work with real tools—many of which they are using for the first time—in our Tinkering Lab exhibit. When children swing a hammer for the first time, they often miss the nail completely. But on the tenth, 20th or maybe 50th time, they have the technique mastered and are driving nails into wood like a pro. The healthy pride on a child’s face at that moment is a peek into a bolstered sense of ability, efficacy and confidence.

Continue reading

The Importance of Imaginative Play

Those of you familiar with Chicago Children’s Museum know that we’re strong advocates of play. See our resident expert Tsivia Cohen’s past blog post on the topic.

According to The American Academy of Pediatrics,

Play contributes to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children and youth.

The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights recognizes play as the right of every child.


With the recent opening of our Forts exhibit, we’ve been thinking a lot about imaginative—or pretend—play, in particular, and its importance in developing young children’s social, language and problem-solving skills.

In an interview with the American Journal of Play, Dorothy and Jerome Singer, experts in the field of imaginative play, explained why make-believe play is so important for children.

Pretend play is the act of creativity. The child engaged in pre-tend play is engaged in what Piaget called ludic play. She’s playing a game, and by taking a piece of mud and pretending that it’s a birthday cake and putting candles on it, she’s using her imagination. She is differentiating between what is real and what is not real. She knows that this is mud she’s playing with, but it becomes the cake. She knows that a broom is something that you sweep the floor with, but when she wants it to be a horse and rides it, then in her imagination it’s really not a broom but a horse.

At first glance, Forts is a large, bright room filled with usual—and not-so-usual—fort-making materials. But it’s much more than that. Specially designed by CCM’s in-house education and exhibit experts, Forts is a rich, immersive environment that inspires imaginative play in children of all ages—and quite a few adults!

Summer of Make: Maker Corps at Chicago Children’s Museum

Dustin Thacker – Educator, Maker, Tinkerer


Tinkering Lab at Chicago Children’s Museum is a workshop of freedom and flexibility. Families enter the space and instantly start to understand that this is a place where they will have the chance to work with real tools and materials in whatever way they see fit. After a little bit of time becoming saturated in the space, children start gathering supplies. Each person begins to formulate ideas of what they will do, what they will make. They draw inspiration from previously completed projects, materials available, and whatever else is going on the space . . . and then the work begins.

Through the Maker Education Initiative, three Maker Corps Members worked in the Tinkering Lab from mid-June to mid-August.


Heather, Andrea, and Kaity immersed themselves in the idea that when we trust children with real tools they show great competency. All three Maker Corps Members proved to be supremely adept at letting children explore a tool, while simultaneously ensuring their safety. Providing the “just in time” information that enhances a child’s exploration takes a thoughtful person, with the ability to see the whole child. The facilitator has to read the child’s body language and keenly observe while making sure the child has plenty of physical, emotional and mental space.

The initial idea for a giant fabric sculpture was sparked by our wealth of fabric scraps, a heretofore unused sewing machine and the Maker Corps Members’ previous work with fabric art. The initial challenge was how to engage guests of the Tinkering Lab in a meaningful program that sparked their creativity. The tinkering began with finding the most effective way to introduce a long-term project. We were constantly adjusting the language we used to spark interest and inspire people to spend time creating.


As the sculpture began to take shape the introduction became less crucial. The sight of what we were creating enthused participants.

In the end about 100 people added a patch to the sculpture. It is now hanging in the Tinkering Lab. Each of its limbs tells a unique story. A story about how we can figure things out by fooling around. A story about how despite not knowing exactly what is going to happen, we are excited to find out. A story about how when we all work together, even with people we have never met or may not ever meet, we can make something incredible.


Read the rest of Dustin’s post at Tinkering School Chicago!

From Playspace To Practice: 4 Lessons I’ve Learned

Mary SueOur Early Learning Program Manager, Mary Sue Reese, is about to get a new title: Mom! Here she shares four lessons she has learned in the Pritzker Playspace that she plans to use in motherhood.

Slow down!: When I slow down I am able to witness and support children as they delve into their own interests, explorations, and navigate interactions with peers and caregivers.

Be Observant:  I love actively observing early learners explore movement, language and investigate simple (and messy!) materials at their own pace and in their own way.  Their competencies, personalities and interests really shine through when I’m free of my agenda and tune into theirs.

Be Fully Present: As a soon-to-be new mom, I hope that I continue to work on being fully present and provide the space and time for my new little one to overcome challenges, build relationships and make meaning of his/her world. 

“Do less, observe more, Do less, enjoy more.”: This is one of my favorite quotes and has become a mantra for me when facilitating in the playspace and hopefully will serve me well into motherhood.

The Insight Labs Interviews Jennifer Farrington

Insight Labs

Check out this awesome interview that The Insight Labs did with Chicago Children’s Museum’s President and CEO, Jennifer Farrington. As part of an ongoing investigation into the emotional lives of children, they talk with Jennifer about the positive effects that changes in environment can have on children.


Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So what emotions do you think are experienced only in the field trip environment, or at least much more frequently there than in most other places?

Jennifer Farrington: I don’t think there is any one emotion that is exclusive to any one experience. I think we’re constantly dealing with a kind of slide rule of different emotions.

I have worked with kids on fields trips for about a bazillion years, and I think the most compelling thing that you get is shared perspective. When we give children a common experience in which they are all equal, we give them a chance to connect with each other in a different way. When you get on that bus, you are a student anew. You are primarily a part of this group, like “McKinley Elementary, second grade class.” And you’re able to shed your individual identity — you’re not the smartest kid, you’re not the kid who always gets in trouble. It’s sort of like going to summer camp — you get to re-invent yourself a little bit.

So the field trip gives you that sort of opportunity. It’s like two kids have climbed to the top of the ladder together and they can both see the view from up above. They’ve seen together something that nobody else can see. Field trips can build that sense of a new, shared perspective between students.

The other thing that the field trip does is allow the adults and the other children to build an appreciation for something that they haven’t seen in that child yet. For years we did this inventing experience where we gave kids all sorts of materials — things you would consider trash — then ask them to solve a problem with them. When we asked children to talk about what they had learned after the experience, they didn’t say things like, “I learned about ramps” or “I learned about gravity.” They would say things like, “I learned that he” — meaning some kid across the room — “is really good at figuring things out.” The other thing you would see is teachers talking about kids making connections to the literature we used when in the classroom they were non-readers.

So those are a few of the strong elements that occur during a field trip that we need to pay more attention to. We need to let go of some of the desire to have a specific, content-based outcome. Instead, we need to be talking about what it means for these kids to have a shared experience and to operate as part of a pro-social group. What does it mean for them to go someplace new and experience hope and joy as a collective?

For the full article visit The Insight Labs.