Documenting the Children Experiencing the Full Exhibit: what we know now

At a certain point in this process we had doubts about how audible the voice of the child was in the making of this exhibit. As a group we wondered how we could amplify their voices and ensure their fingerprints are on every piece of this exhibit. We had the idea of offering the full exhibit to the children first and documenting their experiences. Shelly, Sequoia and I were tasked with documenting the children’s first interactions with the full exhibit. Each child had been offered various sounds pulled from the exhibit previously in their own programs but hadn’t seen the exhibit in full.

We knew we wanted to offer the full exhibit to the children for other reasons as well. We wanted parents to know that the children had been offered the same experience with their peers, so they would feel comfortable experiencing it on their own. We wanted parents to be able to take their time and really be able to reflect on what they were experiencing. We also resonated with the idea of all of the children coming together to witness and interact with the exhibit, even though we couldn’t be together physically we were coming together over these shared ideas. Lastly, we wanted the children to be able to see the exhibit in full so they could see how valuable their thoughts are to us, how much we value their voice. As Carlina Rinaldi states, when we document children’s thinking we show them how much we value them.

“Above all, they feel that by giving value to their thoughts, we give value to them as unique individuals who are saying something important; they feel how important they are to us” – Carlina Rinaldi

With 4 days remaining until the exhibit launched, we were armed with voice recorders, cameras, pens and paper as we awaited the first group’s arrival. A rush of toddlers came through and were excited to explore. We took pictures, asked the toddlers questions, took videos and rapidly wrote down jot notes for the fifteen minutes they were there. Five minutes later, another group of toddlers came through for their fifteen minutes, five minutes later the first preschool group, and the day continued as such with a break in the middle for lunch. The day was an absolute whirlwind and we found we felt that we came up short by the end of it. We felt with no time to digest information, form theories, organize notes or much of anything else in between groups, we were left feeling lacking. We knew we needed to reflect together. Below are some of our questions and thoughts.

Did this process end up giving the children more of a voice?

After much reflection, we decided that no, it did not. With only days until the launch of the exhibit and so many other facets still needing attention, this documentation was unintentionally pushed to the side. We wrote to the pieces that immediately stood out to us, moments of real connection or relationship but after that all of our videos, photos and jot notes sat waiting for us to return to them. A month later, we are feeling discouraged with the quality of both our notes and our memories. We feel that a few pieces were valuable but so much was left undocumented

What could we have done differently?

The best thing we could have done was given ourselves and the children more time. Time is, we are coming to realize, one of the most important factors in listening. We cannot listen if we are in a hurry, if our minds are racing and we are trying to capture much more than we can. We need to be present, unhurried and ready to set aside distractions. As we are learning, listening exists outside of chronological time. We fall into moments of discovery and connection and we exist in a space outside of time as we create meaning together by listening. This cannot happen when we are being ruled by the clock.

When reflecting on an ideal version of this day we imagined each group spending an unhurried hour in the space, laying in the grass, running around, visiting and revisiting panels and sounds and having conversation around ideas that capture their interests. The documenters would speak to the educators about their experience and what about their group interacting with the exhibit stood out to them. With our minds full of questions and theories from the conversations with educators and children along with our digital evidence we would spend the next hour inside reflecting on the experience, taking notes to be revisited later.

What do we do now?

We think that the best people to document the children are their educators. The adults who know them better than most, who spend their days together. We know that some educators have offered and reoffered these sounds to the children in their programs. They know the best times and best ways to offer sounds that will connect them to this project, to the ideas and people behind who made this exhibit such a beautiful experience.

Shelly had the inspired idea to take these notes, photos and videos back to the children. We will compile a collection for each program and have the educators share these, one month later, with their groups. What new things will come to light from this information that we collected? Along with their educators, what will they offer back to us? It’s not too late for this day to gain new value.

What we learned is that while documenting, we must listen to their voice, to stay by their side and that listening includes joint action, joint decision making and joint research about the documentation itself. As we have said from the beginning, this is a living installation that changes and grows with us. We have learned so much. The children have taught us so much and yet, we know, simply by engaging in this process together, that we still have much to learn.

Michelle Wolford, RECE