The Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota and all children’s museums across the world have one thing in common: a team of people making the magic happen. People who make the exhibits, people who raise the money to create the spaces, people who manage members and funds, and many more. When you visit the Museum, however, there is one role that is the most visible, the most interactive, the most involved: the Playworkers.
Playwork is the work of creating and maintaining spaces for children to play. The theory and practice of playwork recognizes that play should be freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated. The Playworkers facilitate whatever is necessary to make that happen.
You will find two to three (or more during special events!) Playworkers in the exhibit spaces at all times, usually one outside and one or two inside. Some of the primary duties of a Playworker include:
- Engaging children and families in the exhibits spaces and daily activities
- Greeting visitors and answering questions
- Being knowledgeable about Museum exhibits and daily activities
- Setting up and maintaining exhibits and activities during business hours, special events, and birthday parties
- Ensuring a clean and well-maintained Museum space
But what does that actually mean? What are the Playworkers doing while the kids play? Watching? Playing? Cleaning? To find out all the details, we asked Wyatt Miller, Guest Experience Manager and longtime Playworker, to give us the scoop.
(This interview has been edited for space and clarity.)
CMSM: Thanks so much for agreeing to an interview! Tell us in your own words what you do as a Playworker.
WM: The core of what Playworkers do is they advocate for kids’ right to play, because it’s just a basic developmental need for social skills, behavioral skills, and just how they learn as a whole. So much of kids’ lives are already kind of mapped out and controlled by other people, but play is really their domain. Without really needing to be told what to do, they know how to play and what it does for them and learn all sorts of things from it. So a lot of what Playworkers do is setting up environments in places where kids can do what they do best and play and learn by diving right in.
CMSM: How much do you get involved?
WM: Largely as a Playworker, it’s kind of sticking to the background, making sure the spaces stay engaging, but also recognizing we’re in the space–we are a part of the play experience–so if a kid says, “Hey I want your help to pick these vegetables!” or “I want to cook you a meal,” you engage, but you wait for them to engage with you. I think a lot of Playworkers recognize there are varying degrees to which little kids are OK with them. For me, I am taller and I have a beard, so yeah.
CMSM: Good point! How do you–or how DID you–become a Playworker? Who is this work good for?
WM: For me, I was a student at MSU, majoring in Art Education, I heard that the Museum was hiring and applied and then just kind of fell in love with it. I’m learning what I can do here–I don’t want to short-change teachers or what they do–but it felt like I was able to do so much more with kids here to impact their learning. I felt like I got to do more for the individual kid as a whole.
CMSM: And for others?
WM: Being a Playworker is very much its own kind of unique deal–there are lots of things that kind of pull into it. Experience working with kids is really the big thing that we’re looking for, just because kids are super cool, but they can also wear on you pretty easily if you’re not used to engaging with kids, let alone 300 to 400 in a day. People like me with an education background, or childcare background often apply. Retired teachers are great, and people with early childhood education experience. I’m usually looking for a passion for working with kids, because if you don’t like working with kids, this is gonna be a really hard job.
CMSM: Tell us about your day. The Museum opens at 9am. What time do you get here?
WM: I’m usually here about 8 o’clock to get everything set up and ready. We make sure things are in place–supplies filled, the mud kitchen’s got its stuff, the exhibits look inviting, all of that.
CMSM: What does it mean to make the exhibits inviting?
WM: So as we wait for friends to settle in, it’s a lot of just traveling from space to space. I try to change something about every exhibit that I walk into every time I’m in there, because as much as things look nice when they’re put away and stacked, if you’re a small child it doesn’t look like it’s a lot of fun to play with. So I’ll take like the blocks in our quarry and set them up to look like a really shaky wall that’s just waiting for someone to knock it down.
CMSM: Oh that’s so smart! Just make it look fun to be in, so you’re setting them up to enjoy it.
WM: You can see in the Museum, there is a lot going on here, so we can feel kind of intimidating to step in and be like “Where do I even start?”. But if they see that one thing that looks really fun, they’ll have their starting point and then they’re in, and that’s what they need.
CMSM: What’s your favorite exhibit?
WM: I bounce back-and-forth. One of the best things about this job is none of my days are exactly the same, so it’s nice to be able to say, “Today I know Art Explorers is going on, so I can set up upstairs with kids,” but then there are other times that I can sit in the Grow It Gallery for a little bit and plant the garden beds. That’s probably my favorite. Sometimes I’m planting vegetables that make sense and sometimes we’re gonna try growing fish!
CMSM: So, you don’t correct kids ever?
WM: No, absolutely not. We want to see the process of their play and foster that, so I might say, “Oh, a fish? What do you think a fish plant would look like?”
CMSM: That’s so smart. Do you train new employees on things like that, or do they just learn them with time?
WM: It’s really a little of both. We’re very lucky here, because we have things and try things that other children’s museums just don’t. I just went to a conference this last year, and it was exciting to get to talk to people about “here’s how we’re engaging with visitors when they’re here.” A lot of places are just you walk up and jump in, whereas ours is kind of unique in that we have more loose parts. When I talk to people about “Oh yeah we have an entire garden that’s full of fabric vegetables and a quarry that’s full of real sand and foam blocks,” they’re like “How on Earth do you manage all of that?” And we just always have. It’s tiring absolutely, but then getting to see that experience the kids have when they get to pull those things out and move them around, it makes up for it.
CMSM: It is a lot, though. At what point do you ask the guests NOT to move all the stuff?
WM: It’s pretty rare. If a friend is taking vegetables into the quarry, for example, they often have a reason or a story to support that, so we go with it. You might be surprised at how frequently they bring things back to the exhibits they’re from when they’re done. And if they don’t, the Playworkers have a pretty good eye on what’s traveling where.
CMSM: And what other kinds of rules do you have? Do you consider them rules?
WM: So from a safety perspective, largely Playworkers aren’t here for the individual safety of a child, just because we could not hire enough Playworkers to make sure that every child is safe. At the same time, there is a degree of child development where risky play is a part of it, and by no means do we want kids leaping out of our tree, but we want them to experiment. Adults with the kids know what they’re more comfortable with and capable of. There are a few things, like we encourage our friends to use walking feet, and that’s just because we know we have lots of really little friends that come and play at the Museum and small toddlers can turn a corner really quickly, so if a big friend is running through the Museum, that can create an accident pretty quickly.
CMSM: Under what circumstances would you stop a friend from doing something?
WM: We want the Museum to be a special experience for everyone who comes here. So, if a friend was taking the vegetables to the Quarry, say, then we’d make sure they don’t take ALL of them, because the friends in the Grow It Gallery should still get to experience that exhibit. The first guest who comes in on a Saturday morning and the 559th guest to come in at 2pm should both get excellent experiences. The boundary lies where a friend is diminishing, or taking away from, another friend’s Museum experience in a negative way.
CMSM: That’s so smart.
While we’re talking, Wyatt is working, and a young guest and his grown-up approach. “Excuse me, can you please help us? The bank isn’t working.” Wyatt’s smile lights up his face as he follows the child toward the bank to be of great service.
Join us back here next week for Part Two of A Day in the Life of a Playworker! Find out what was wrong with the bank, what Wyatt’s thoughts are on working outside, how things in the Museum are made, and what the end of the day at the Museum looks like.