Memories of Science Playground

I’ve got some big news to share with you: Friday is my last day working at OMSI. I can hardly believe how quickly the past 5 years have flown by. Really, it’s been 8 years total, since Annie hired me as a Science Playground intern, fresh out of college in 2012. The past few years have been the best of my life and I owe it to the happiness I found working with kids in Science Playground, our fantastic team of volunteers, and the incredibly talented and supportive staff at OMSI.

I’m sad to be closing this chapter but am equally optimistic about the future. I see that, more than ever, there are opportunities to serve others in our community and to support the social/emotional development of children (and their caregivers!) I’m hoping to use this time to explore other avenues of play and learning, such as forest preschools, learning pods, and homeschooling.

Here is a small selection of my favorite memories and proudest achievements in my five years as the “Sheriff of Science Playground.” My only regret is that I was never able to have my title officially changed to that!

In the months leading up to the pandemic, my work life was already topsy-turvy. For three months in early 2020, Science Playground underwent a massive (and much needed) renovation – which meant three months of our very popular playground being closed to the public. At the time, this seemed like a horribly long time to be closed (oh how naive we were!) and so we introduced an event series in the auditorium called Winter Weekends, a pop-up play event for kids under 8 and their families. On select weekends, we hosted musical groups like this one, Micah and Me. We received great feedback from parents, who hoped we would continue the series every winter, and I can tell from the looks on these kids faces that they agree!
The first year that I worked at OMSI, I was really terrified that I would have to teach squid dissection. So terrified, in fact, that I begged Annie not to make me do it! She was very understanding and, though she insisted I at least attend the class, she promised I wouldn’t have to touch one if I really didn’t want to. About 10 minutes into that class though, something amazing happened – I started enjoying it! I loved looking inside the little squids and seeing all their guts and body parts. It was so cool and such a good reminder to me that we shouldn’t rule out any new experience just on the merits of not having tried it before.
In 2019, I had the opportunity to teach a very different subject for a week: designing and building Rube Goldberg machines with a group of kids through our Middle School makers program. This rag-tag bunch of rascals spent the week learning to use power tools, working together, and plotting the most elaborate way to annihilate a walnut. I actually hollered “HELL YEAH!” when our machine proved successful and the nut was smashed. This remains my proudest teaching moment to date.
In another life, I’d like to be a toy designer and I am grateful that my years in Science Playground occasionally gave me the opportunity to create the toys that I think kids will like. This felt gingerbread house is one such toy. A couple years back, OMSI introduced the Gingerbread Exhibit, a yearly celebration of elaborate gingerbread sculptures, along with coordinated programming around the museum. Naturally, I wanted to find a way to let our youngest visitors ‘decorate’ gingerbread houses, without the mess and the sugar. I remembered playing with paper dolls made out of felt as a kid and thought that felt would make the perfect reusable material for these gingerbread houses. I commissioned my mom to make the first gingerbread house (out of cardboard boxes and brown felt) and the product was a hit with visitors! Without any help from their grown ups, toddlers can independently practice putting decorations on (and then pulling them all down!) and preschoolers like imagining who lives in the house and other pretend games.
Teacher Alison hiding under a table and talking to 18 month old Brady via a raccoon puppet. This picture is close to my heart for several reasons. First, it perfectly captures the magical thinking of little kids – notice, he’s not looking at me, he’s deeply interested in getting to know better the raccoon who is talking to him. Second, his wonderful mother printed this picture and gave it to me as a teacher appreciation card, which hangs on the wall of my office. Finally, Brady’s parents and I have since become good friends, affording me the chance to spend lots of time with Brady and help him learn and grow, hopefully for a long time to come.
Over the past 5 years, I’ve also had the opportunity to travel around the Pacific Northwest on behalf of OMSI and deliver professional development trainings to teachers and educators. Often, we also bring fun activities along and host pop-up play events for the community. This picture is from Coos Bay, where I worked with these two super sweet girls to create “Captain Hook’ from our Rig-Ama-Jig set.
One day in 2016, I looked at Annie and said, “What if, instead of March Madness, we hosted March Mathness and did a bracket that kids could fill out, with stuff that kids care about? And we do a whole month of hands-on math activities?” What started as a pun has blossomed into a yearly tradition, my favorite aspect of which is our Discovery Lab mural. As kids entered our exhibit, we asked them to color one square with their favorite color marker, and ‘cast their vote’ into the box. Every afternoon, we would add the votes to our mural, anxious to see which color would take the top spot. Every year, the final tally for the winning color would reach the ceiling! What color do you predict won?
One of the best areas of Science Playground to witness strong parent-child co-play was in our block area. With its three walls for keeping crawlers contained, and high quality, solid wood block set, this area was a simple hit with so many families. Many times, I watched entire families work together to build elaborate structures, with imaginary story lines to keep the preschooler entertained (“This is the bedroom and over here, is the garage”), engineering design challenges for the school aged sibling (Why does this bridge keep falling over?), and enough extra blocks for a separate tower for the toddler can destroy (Mom! He knocked our house over AGAIN!”). If there’s one toy that I recommend for almost every family with youngsters, it’s a decent set of blocks. Ours have certainly brought us a lot of good memories.
The very best memories of Science Playground are those that were made spending time with my two wonderful colleagues, Annie and Abby. I hope they don’t mind my posting their picture here but it’s the best reminder I have of how much the quality of one’s work experience is impacted by the spirit of the people you work with. These two are so funny, supportive, kind, generous and loving. I absolutely could not have asked for two better officemates and co-teachers over the past 5 years. Luckily for me, they also became two of my best friends, so leaving my job at OMSI does not mean leaving my friendship with them.

Published by playfulchildhood

The cool kids call me Teacher Alison. I'm an early childhood educator living in Portland, OR.

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