Looking at the Educational Functions of Lao Niu Children’s Discovery Museum in Hohhot
From My Childhood Experience
One morning six years ago, the dean called and told me Lao Niu Foundation was going to build a philanthropic museum for children designed by C7A from the United States. He told me the museum wanted to combine with local culture and asked me to give them some advice.
Since then, I knew Mr. Niu, Mr. Lei, Curator Zhang Ni, C&A Design Company from the United States and the staff of Lao Niu Children’s Museum. I was attracted by this sunny, wise and lively team and I’ve learnt a lot from them.
Six years ago, when investigating an environmental project in Hawaii, Niu Gensheng, the founder of Lao Niu Foundation, visited Hawaii Children's Discovery Center by chance and was deeply touched by this kind of museum that you can see, touch and participate in.
He believed that one can be seen how his adulthood could be when he is still 3 years old, and how his old age could be when he is 7 years old. The age group between 0 and 7 is an important stage in the formation of the basic quality of a person. Then he decided to invest a large amount of funds from the Foundation into the construction of children’s museum, planning to build one hundred children’s museum all over the country and put the first one in Hohhot, his hometown.
The cognitive process of a person can’t do without four stages, i.e. knowing, acting, comprehending and using.
From concept design to great discussion on detailed design; from collecting materials by wandering about the streets to naming the exhibition areas, from finalizing the design of exhibition items, such as “Myself, Home, City, Region, Country, Universe”, in Pavilion One to the combination of Pavilion Two “Hongshan Culture” and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), from the establishment of Children’s Museum Research Center, China to various kind of extremely nutritious professional trainings, from “engaging in idle theorizing” to implementation of the venue, and from decorating the exhibition hall to testing the exhibition hall, I gradually understood what is real children’s museum through six years’ discussion, learning, thinking and experiencing.
Unlike traditional museums that adopt the educational pattern focusing on “looking”, it allows children to know about the world and know about everything in a larger and safer environment through playing.
My mind also jumped out of the original framework and gradually realized that the world was actually a museum. If we have a pair of eyes that know how to see and are able to see, all the things in the world will be exhibition item for us.
In our life, we will hear a lot of words with rich philosophy, but not every sentence will go deep into your heart.
On the first training class for professionals of museum, a conversation with a Spanish teacher coincided with my childhood experience.
“Different types of games can cultivate children to develop towards different directions. The larger the range of playing and the richer the content of playing are in childhood, the deeper the impression will be and the greater the room for future development will be, the stronger the comprehensive capacity will be.”
Different types of games
Can cultivate children to develop towards different directions
The Chinese character “趣” (which means interesting) is composed of the characters “走” (means go) and “取” (means fetch). What kind of strength can make people “go” and “fetch”? Apart from eating and drinking, playing is the largest impetus.
Our childhood was spent in the process of “learning” and playing.
In my memory, one thing I remember is the boring and lifeless school with reviling teachers and intimidating parents; the other thing is the bright sun and uncontrolled liberty, or No. 28 at Gongyuan North Road, or rural hometown with broad prospects and a lot of things to do, or even the shout of “Suihe, time for sleep!” after nightfall, or the closer and closer back-to-school season that you have to face.
At that time, learning and playing seemed to be incompatible mortal enemy. We can see how unpopular the word “playing” is simply from the many derogatory idioms left by our ancestors, such as “eat, drink, play and make merry”, “excessive attention to plaything saps the will”, “play all the time and idle away months”, “play all the time and idle away days”, “play all the time and idle away hours”, and so on and so forth.
In retrospect, if I have to find the source for the constant things settled down on me, I think they are mostly related to the playing experience in my childhood.
The Chinese checkers and military chess I love have trained and cultivated my consciousness of innovation and strain capacity in the future. When I was very young, I was able to creatively make the chess pieces go backwards, return to my base camp and then tactfully enter the base camp of the opponent from the other side. I was able to look one way and row another, break through the enemy’s heavy line of defense and let the smallest solider take out the opponent’s flag by surprise.
Piggyback fight, one-foot-jump fight, hide-and-seek, playing marbles, brick making, play house and other games that require cooperation of multiple people explored my ability of the combinatorial use of hands and brain, communication and exchange and cultivated my team spirit to cooperate with others and march forward bravely towards the same goal.
Catching cricket, raising cricket and fighting cricket cultivated my endurance and emulative personality. Of course, it was also directly related to the influence my father had on me. He is a really stubborn person.
Reading children’s book, watching movies and listening to storytelling broadened my vision and helped me to cultivate the hobbies with lifelong benefits.
The school had indeed taught me some useful knowledge, such as add, subtract, multiply and divide, reading and necessary behavioral patterns and common senses. However, most of them were used in solving problems, sentence-making and exchanging scores and seldom used in real life. In my memory, we were taken out of the school only for a few times in Tomb-sweeping Day and movie-watching time. For the rest of the time, we were all staying in the classroom, learning knowledge through formula, symbol and imagination.
The Chinese characters I was able to write right after my name were the name of my old school “Beiheng Primary School”, but no one had ever told me what did the “Heng” in “Beiheng” means. As a result, as someone born and grown up in Beiheng, I only knew “Beiheng” meant the north wall of Suiyuan City or the relationship between the “Sui” in my name “Suihe” and the city after a long time.
The saddest thing is my knowledge of music and fine arts. I can hardly remember whether I have had these two classes in primary school, only that our music teacher would tell us stories every time during music class. The story was A Pair of Embroidered Shoes, which was told for several semesters. I was eager to know about the following content and even went to ask the seniors about it.
Today, I am very good at telling stories, but very week in music knowledge. Apart from 1, 2 and 3, I have to use fingers to identify the notes that come after. Apart from music, I’ve also lost many artistic beauties!
It now appears that it is exactly the playing and applying later that activate some of the “knowledge” imparted to me ponderously.
We all know that knowledge comes from life. It is the aggregation of the understanding and experience of mankind for things in the process of practice. As far as the knowledge is concerned, it should be interesting. However, the knowledge is not vivid; the process of knowledge transfer is not interesting. Together with the unilateral pursuit for scores of schools, parents and society, the students are strengthen in skills but weakened in soul, resulting in the aversion to learning.
How should we connect learning with interest? Lao Niu Children’s Discovery Museum in Hohhot has achieved this wish. The museum takes our real life as the model and condenses into a 3D museum from “Me” to “World” through highly refinement and integration by designers.
After entering the pavilions, children will feel like entering a kingdom of their own. They can shuttle back and forth freely and play to their hearts’ content in the exhibition areas that expand gradually from “Myself”, “My family” and “The City I Live In”, “District”, “Country”, “World” and “Universe”.
Judging by appearance, they are playing, but they are actually learning. The designers have already integrated the teaching content into various exhibition items. The activity of education starts right after the kids start to play.
First exhibition area: Self Recognition
Before knowing the world, we should first know ourselves. Many of the problems we are facing are caused by the lack of understanding for ourselves. How can we get a clearer and three-dimensional understanding of ourselves? The best way is to walk into ourselves and analyze ourselves from inside out.
The first exhibition area of children’s discovery museum spreads out around a huge smiling face of a baby. Children can freely walk in and out of the five sense organs and systematically perceive the mutual relationship among our visual sense, auditory sense, sense of smell, gustatory sense and teeth from inside out, and get zero distance contact with surrounding organs. In the process of interaction and playing, children are able to explore and discover the structure, function and working principles of human body and recognize the importance of health.
Take common actions like opening doors and riding bikes for instance, the designers tactfully set up skeletal structure with synchronous movement by the side when designing door locks and children’s bikes. It will allow the children to see clearly how the bones in our arms are rotating when we are opening the door and how the joints in our feet are moving when we are riding bikes.
The designers also designed Mystery House, which tests children’s comprehensive practical ability in the coordinated use of their auditory sense, sense of smell and sense of touch in dark environment and cultivates children’s courage to explore and problem-solving ability.
The second exhibition area: Happy Family
Walking into “Happy Family” exhibition area is like walking into a palace of nationalities with special pass. Children are able to walk into the families of the most representative five ethnic minorities in Hohhot (the Mongol nationality, the Han nationality, the Hui nationality, the Manchu nationality and the Korean nationality and use various kinds of traditional tolls, utensils and musical instruments in the families without limitation. For instance, they can repair pipelines and install appliances in “Workshop of Dingding’s Father”, play various kinds of musical instruments in “Piano Room of Bartel’s Mother”. In the process of hands-on activities, they are able to know about the distinctive folk cultures formed in the long-term historical development of different nationalities, grasp the basic living skills and common sense family members should acquire, and lay a foundation for their future in the society.
The third exhibition area: Vibrant City
Walking out of the house and enter urban district, the city exhibition area adopts Hohhot as prototype, extracts various most representative elements from the city, such as simulated construction site, convenient store, milk tea store, pet hospital, automobile service area, fire department and power train station, and provides a series of hart-to-get game platforms for children. They can bring their imagination and creativity into full play and participate in urban construction and city life, learn about urban functions and professional characteristics in the process of role play and interactive experience, and lay the foundation for their future in the society.
The fourth exhibition area: Charming Prairie
We should not only travel all over the city and know about all walks of life, but also walk around our hometown and learn about local conditions and customs. Represented by Inner Mongolia, the region exhibition hall extracts geographical styles and features of prairie, village and dissert, providing a immersive environment for children and allowing them to have a profound understanding of how nomadic people on the prairie get food from flocks and herds, how to build Mongolian yurt with willow branches and wool felt, how to ride the horse and Lele vehicle and migrate with the herds and live where there is water and grass, and how to transform wind power and solar energy into electricity and bring light the night on the prairie, all through playing.
Compared with nomadic life, the farming culture in villages presents a whole new picture: cropland, houses covered with agricultural and sideline products, henhouse and orchard. How do farmers create their own beautiful live through farming, raise chickens and planting trees for basic necessities of life?
Through this type of comparison experience, the children will have a preliminary impression of the life of farmers and herdsman deep down in their heart, gradually understand what kind of folk culture will be formed in what kind of living environment and production method and life style, and lay a foundation for them to understand the world and form good aesthetical standard in the future.
Charming Prairie exhibition area also designed excavation site of dinosaur fossil in combination with the natural environment in Western Inner Mongolia for children, providing them with the opportunity to experience how workers of paleontology conduct field study and excavation work in desert areas.
The fifth exhibition area: Wonderful China
We not only need to walk all over Inner Mongolia, but also need to travel throughout China. The designers linked up the second to the third floors of the venue and formed a natural landscape featuring higher in north and lower in south. In the meanwhile, the Yellow River and the Great Wall and other Chinese elements were also integrated into the landscape, presenting an intact and beautiful China in front of the children.
Here, the children can climb and explore freely in the dense birch forest of Northern China and experience how mankind creatively produces traditional canoe birch bark. They can also walk into ancient grotto like archaeologist to identify the oracle bone script carved on rock faces and imitate primitive man to make mural in the cave.
They can also shuttle between the dense bamboo forest of Southern China, determine whereabouts and explore path based on the footprints left by animals, get in zero contact with panda mother and child, and experience the differences between North and South China.
The Yellow River is the mother river of the Chinese nation. Since ancient times, we have utilized the water from the Yellow River to irrigate the land and cultivate Chinese people from generation to generation. It’s a good way to cultivate children’s creativity by allowing them to do it by themselves, mulling things over, and make use of the water conservancy devices in the water channel, such as waterwheel, water gate and water drainer, to change the direction of water flow.
After experiencing the water conservancy projects in Northern China, they also need to experience the rice cultivating culture in Southern China. The children can bend down and transplant rice seedlings, and shake winnowing machine to husk rice just like farmers, experience how the rice we eat in everyday life is produced, and experience the true meaning of the poem: “Hoeing in the paddy under the mid-day sun, sweat dripping to the soil underneath the plant. Who knows that every morsel of meals in our plates comes with toil and pains.”
The sixth exhibition area: Explore the World
Walking out of the country and we will reach exhibition area of the world. From the coral reef in Australia to the mangrove forest in Indonesia and from the rainforest in Brazil to the world of snow and ice in Alaska, children will blend in, play various roles, learn about various kinds of environment, experience various cultures through the process of exploration and discovery, enrich their brain in the wider and wider horizon, understand the diversity of the world, and prepare for their going out towards the world in the future.
The seventh exhibition area: Space Travel
Leave the earth and travel in the space. Here, children can learn about the exhibition items related to the solar system, explore the principles of “day follows night” and the change of moon phases, or wear costumes for different planets and imagine themselves as a planet in the solar system. They can also learn about the change of seasons and the principles behind the generation of wind blowing, raining and other natural phenomena.
There is also a small planetarium, which allows children to learn more about information regarding the universe and astronomy. This exhibition area can stimulate children’s curiosity for the universe and encourage them to constantly explore and discover the mysteries unknown to mankind.
Playing can not only cultivate the personality, capability and interest of children. As the range of playing grows, it can also stimulate stronger curiosity.
The more you know as a child,
The wider interests you’ll have after you grow up
Compared with children of the same age in the city, my range of playing was wider. Every summer vacation, father would send us to our grandparents at the suburbs of Hohhot to ride cows, pasture horses, mow and swim with our cousins. My interest in farming culture today must be the result of my experience as a child.
It has been proved scientifically that interest exists between the things we are familiar with and the things we are not. The things we are too familiar with might lead to psychological tiredness through association; the things we are not familiar with might be difficult to imagine. Only the things in between can lead to curiosity and drive us to seek for the unknown on the basis the things already known.
The things stored in my childhood memory, namely the farmhouse, the yard, the cropland, the threshing ground, especially the farmhouse doors and windows with beautiful patterns on window decoration, the mural painting of Three Sieges of Zhu Village, the roof board and beam covered by newspaper, and the cattle and sheep, pigsty, henhouse and roofless latrine in the courtyard, as well as the familiar, yet strange traditional farm tools on the threshing ground, have all been deeply carved on my mind. When I see them again after growing up, they will pull me back to that time without hesitation and bring many familiar faces and stories from these familiar old things, evoking my unforgettable childhood memory.
Later, my work requires me to explain these related things in the museum. So for the first time, I bend down and look closely with my own eyes. The more I see, the more strange things I find. As it turned out, we don’t really know about the familiar things around us. When I saw the farming cultures in the field and inside and outside the house in the past, I turned a blind eye to them. However, there are too many secrets and beauties hidden in them.
Take the cooked rice, millet congee, deep-fried cake, fried bread stick and bean curd we are familiar in our lives for instance. Their original forms, i.e. rice, millet, wheat, bean and sesame, are actually strange to children grow up in cities.
It is the running-in of familiarity and unfamiliarity and the collision between known and unknown that arouses my curiosity. From “getting close” to “getting in”, I gradually notice that there are so many beauties and secrets that we turn a blind eye to in our lives while traveling together with the creators. I cannot help exclaiming: the “席” in “主席” (chairman) is actually the mat we are familiar with. They are compiled by the straws of crops and the one or the seat in the center of mat surrounded by others is the “主席”.
Apart from this, the straw cover (also known as Piepie), lantern, basket and shallow basket we are all familiar with are also produced with sorghum stalk. In retrospect, it turned out the mocks my second uncle-in-law used in oil mill of the production brigade for manufacturing oil was actually extracted from the some seeds called sesame. After rot the straws in water, we can get the hemp we are familiar with. The bovine bone called “Bodiao” my third aunt kept rotating on the side of the heatable brick bed was actually the hemp rope twisted with hemp.
The children’s discovery museum in Hohhot is trying to provide a 360° view for children to know about the world in an all-round way and from multiple perspectives. Apart from the “Me” series in Pavilion One, there are also STEM series in Pavilion Two “Hongshan Culture”, which will organically combine history with science, technology, engineering and mathematically, seek for the beauties and secrets from the source, development sequence and development law of things, allow children to learn knowledge and accumulate experience in a broader space through playing, and cultivate more extensive interest points for future life.
Ancient Greek Philosopher Zeno once said:
Our knowledge is like a circle. Inside the circle are things you know about, and outside the circle are things you don’t know. The more you know, the larger the circle is, and the more you know you don’t know.
Meanwhile, the more you saw and the richer the content you were familiar with in your childhood, the bigger the space you’re familiar with will be and the more things you will be interested in.
It is exactly the friction and collision between the things you know about in the circle and the things you don’t know outside the circle that provides children with curiosity. On the road of life, there is always endless knowledge. The important thing is that we need to keep on walking on the road of exploration and discovery.
Good experience leaves good memory
Good memory leads to good impetus
When I was young, I would hike for dozens of miles to the foot of Daqing Mountain, just to get a big Halaqin cricket. I would hold my breath, crouch on the rocks and wait patiently for the cricket to call out under the burning sun and biting mosquito. That kind of endurance and passion are all for getting back the beautiful memory I once had: I catch it! They are fighting! I win!
In a cycling team I am participating in now, the average age is about 70. But when they play, they are all as passionate as seven or eight years old children. I think they are just trying to get the memory of playing in childhood. Although what they get is no more than 10% of what they had in the past, they are still enjoying it and searching doggedly. This shows how big the influence of childhood memory can have on someone.
On the contrary, the memory of taking injection, taking medicine, reciting texts from our childhood will become the experience I would turn pale at the mere mention of it, without any interest to mention about it again.
Therefore, we can deduce that if your child likes some course better than others, then the course must have left a good memory for your child. With better memory and stronger interest, the greater the incentive to return to the Garden of Eden will be. This kind of strength will conquer all the obstacles on the way back and ultimately help to achieve the goal.
On the contrary, if your child doesn’t like some course, then the course must have left a bad memory for your child, resulting in losing the fun in learning and turning into a blind spot in the whole life.
Therefore, the more important things than mastering a course is to maintain the child’s strong interest in the course. Although they might be like a spark at the beginning, a single spark can start a prairie fire. The future days are often the results of the process we fight for the beauties we once fought for.
Lao Niu Children’s Discovery Museum in Hohhot is exactly a place that will leave a good memory for children. Judging from the results of the trial operation, the number of children who have applied for a second visit is beyond the imagination of the staff in the museum. This is the result of good memory brings good impetus.
Education is not to fill up a bucket of water, but to light up a lamp. Once the lamp is lightened, children will live in the light and guide what they see to life, to the world and to everything in the universe. All of them will have a pair of eyes that know how to see and are able to see. By then, the creativity hidden on them will naturally and continuously flow out.