We love visitor centers.
For one thing, they have taxidermy. I prefer my taxidermy to look like it was done in the days of Teddy Roosevelt, and most visitor centers are accommodating.
Actually, while spiffy new visitor centers can be awesome too, there is nothing that thrills my heart like 1970s-era headphones and a row of colored buttons. That droning voice — the same guy who did the voice-overs for film strips in the 60s — telling me about the eating habits of this mammal or the significance of that geological formation ... that's my idea of fun.
When we pull up to a visitor center, our kids burst out of the car and race in. They grab free hand-outs for their trip journals. They try to locate and stake out the best taxidermy. They are enthusiasm personified.
I should state here that my kids like to people-watch. They have been known to stare in slack-jawed fascination at people from a distance of about two feet.
Recently we shared a visitor center with a family whose kids were markedly not enjoying the experience. They were being dragged unwillingly from exhibit to exhibit with sullen expressions. This caught the attention of my junior anthropologists, who almost unconsciously began to tail them around the room.
The mom read each sign and label aloud in a booming voice that would have made a theatre teacher proud. Her kids stared at the floor. Her voice grew more fake-animated. “Just look at this! Did you see this?!” The kids continued to study the carpet pattern and grind their fists into their armpits. When mom marched them off to the gift shop in military fashion, I managed to snag mine and keep them from following.
My kids were fascinated. “How could you not like the visitor center?!” “Why were those kids so mad?”
After we left, I realized the visitor center makes a neat parallel to project-based learning. If the parent (or teacher) insists on being in charge and dispensing all the information, the kids are completely passive. They can become nothing more than reluctant victims, regardless of how interesting the subject matter.
When we go into the visitor center, the kids shoot off in different directions. “Hey, look at this!” “Come here! Come here!” Everyone gets to read something aloud and point out something that they knew first. Each person gets to be an expert.
Nothing causes a child to lose interest faster than having no control in the learning situation and having someone else in charge of each nutritional bite of information being spoon fed into them. Nothing excites a child more than having the opportunity to learn something that no one else around him knows.
If we define the parameters of a learning experience before a child has even begun — deciding what will be studied, in what order, what information is important/not important, etc. — then we have taken the steering wheel and delegated our child to the back seat.
If we let our children define the parameters — as they go — then they’re in the driver’s seat. They get to show us around; they get to follow the path that is most interesting to them. They decide how far they will go. It requires parents (and teachers) to give up control of the situation. But aren’t we really here to teach our kids to drive?