While most museums prohibit touching exhibits – keeping art, paintings or historic artifacts at a distance behind ropes and protective cases – that’s not how the Omaha Children’s Museum rolls.

In fact, visitors are encouraged to interact with displays.

It’s called experiential learning – learning by doing and experiencing something first-hand.

So it’s no surprise that one of the museum’s biggest attractions is "Super Sports: Building Strength, Sportsmanship and Smarts." The special exhibit teaches children how their bodies move through motion in 10 sports.

At the same time, without even realizing it, children are learning about biomechanics – the study of the body in motion in space – and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Just by playing and doing.

“They’re learning about balance playing on the balancing beam and how their body reacts when jumping and landing in volleyball. They don’t even know they are learning because they are having so much fun doing it,” says Dr. Anne Karabon, assistant professor of early childhood and STEM education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Karabon is on the museum’s executive board.

“In curling, as they move rocks down the ice, they can notice action-reaction and acceleration while having a great time. That’s the idea.”

When it comes to identifying opportunities for learning by playing, Karabon is an expert. She began her professional career as an early childhood and public elementary school teacher. Today she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on culturally responsive and socially just science and mathematics practices for young children. Her research and published work focus on practices that draw on children’s multiple resources and knowledge from daily experiences at home, in the community and in play to influence STEM content.

She is currently researching how early elementary school teachers can incorporate biomechanics into curriculums and how young museum visitors learn through play and exploration.

“When they are doing these activities, it’s important that adults ask them what they are doing. Use rich words and help them start to make the connection between engaging in a fun activity and learning in the process,” Karabon says. “So ask them to identify what parts of their body they are using when they move from side to side or are jumping and landing. This reinforces the learning process.”

Last November at the museum, Karabon hosted a Biomechanics Night with Dr. Amelia Lanier Knarr of the Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence at the Department of Biomechanics at UNO. Professionals in early childhood education attended to learn about biomechanics in a partnership between the museum and the UNO College of Education. UNO’s BODYMODELS, a three-year project that introduces biomechanics into classrooms, is funded through the National Science Foundation’s Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers.

“Children are naturally curious. They love to explore and find out answers,” Karabon says. “Imagination play, such as being a baseball player in the Super Sports exhibit, is a great way for them to try out different roles.”

“What’s exciting about biomechanics is that it’s low cost because it’s learning about how the body moves in space. Children of every socioeconomic group can learn about this simply by doing. They use their bodies as tools to study science and mathematics even if they don’t realize they’re doing it.”

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