Mindport Themes and Educational Values

Frequently visitors describe Mindport as a science museum, comparing it to the Exploratorium in San Francisco or OMSI in Portland. We are flattered by such comparisons (particularly since one of our major inspirations was the Exploratorium). A few of our exhibits may be reminiscent of some in those institutions, but our purpose is different.

Important themes at Mindport are exploration, observation, creativity, play, and, last, but not least, fun. The world view commonly referred to as “scientific” is represented here, but we consider it to be only one aspect of a more holistic way of experiencing reality, one which also includes art, and esthetics.

About Play, Fun and Learning

We live in a period when some people are questioning whether our cultural values are sufficiently “serious,” and are doubting that our children are acquiring the skills needed to survive in a technologically oriented world. Certain educators, on this account, are emphasizing an academic style of science study which denigrates the value of hands-on exploration and just plain play.

Unfortunately, this approach to learning alienates the many intuitive “kinetic” learners who respond poorly to intellectual presentations of subject matter, and to having science study set apart from esthetic and other inherently meaningful values.

In young people, and most older ones as well, intuitive learning, play, and fun, are closely associated. The desire to learn is built into humans because learning ensures survival. When humans engage in activities which they intuitively know teach them survival skills, they identify the associated feelings as “fun.” Which is why we emphasize it at Mindport.

Play is an essential activity which allows us to create in our minds a meaningful and useful model of the world outside us. Play is interactive: we do something out there, and whatever is out there does something back which we respond to. In the process of this exchange we explore, observe, and create. Not only do we create things outside ourselves, but we actually create our-SELVES as we come to understand the possible relationships we can have with the outside world and how we can best fit into it. Play is intuitive, which is to say that we play because something in us senses meaning, and we develop the meaning by further play. Play helps us, particularly as youngsters, to organize the seeming chaos of the outside world into a meaningful form. It is a “holistic” activity which not only involves learning physical and mental skills, but in integrating that learning into relationships with other people.

How Play and Fun fit with Academic Learning
None of the preceding is to say that gaining conventional academic knowledge of science and other subjects is not important. It is. But, by stressing academic learning to the neglect of intuitive learning our educational system has failed to nurture young people’s natural interest in what makes the physical world and society tick. Academic learning is much more likely to be successful if young people are first drawn to the subject matter by intuitive “fun” experience, particularly if their teachers can skillfully relate intuitive experience to the academic presentation following later. (In fact the front page of the 2/25/98 edition of the Bellingham Herald carries an article claiming that U.S. students of math and science fall shot of their counterparts in other industrialized countries. The article concludes that other countries require more math and science in the curriculum and “teach it in more engaging ways.”)

Presented with the right stimulus, children will observe and learn because they want to. Our classical tradition of herding them into classrooms and attempting to “pour in” rote learning, while ignoring their intuitive experience, is precisely what we’ve done to lose their attention. It is not a style of learning which competes well with the kind of “action” which they see played out around them, and is not a learning style even particularly compatible with the human organism. As we’ve argued, children possess a built-in craving for knowledge which is expressed through their innate desire to play and explore. For this inborn learning mechanism to operate, all that is necessary is an environment which engages their attention. Once so engaged, children will learn on their own with only minimal input from their elders.

Having observed the reactions of many youngsters to Mindport, we think we have succeeded in providing the kind of playful atmosphere which stimulates their learning instincts. We have taken it as a great compliment, upon hearing from parents that some youths with normally recalcitrant attitudes said “WOW,” when they finally had been convinced to explore Mindport.

The fact that young people seem to like what we offer does not mean that Mindport is a place stimulating to children only. All that we’ve said above about young people and learning applies to adults as well. In fact, our intention has been to provide an environment enjoyable to people of all ages. Judging by the response of our visitors, we have succeeded in this. The beauty of such a place is that, in being enjoyable to people of all ages, it provides an opportunity for children and adults to build a bond by exploring interesting things together.

About Observation and Exploration

We mentioned earlier the importance of observation and exploration as values at Mindport. These are fundamental human abilities which must be developed in order for human beings to interact effectively with their environment. Closely allied with these is the quality of attention. Our ability to attend is at the root of all creativity and innovation. Without attending to what IS, we have no power to imagine or create alternatives. Focused attention provides us with the building blocks we need to make new things or imagine different lives than those we now lead.

Unfortunately, attention is becoming another endangered species. Our attention is constantly under assault by compelling advertising which constantly bombards it in order to sell us things. Our perfectly reasonable response to this, in time, is to tune out everything, to become bored and jaded, to lose our sensitivity. For this we pay an enormous price. We lose the ability to pay focused attention even to those things which may allow us to improve out lives in real ways, or to create things which please us, whether useful or artistically expressive. In time, the fragmentation of our attention causes us even to lose touch with who we are.

At Mindport we try to build exhibits which will capture your attention as well. But, we aren’t trying to capture it in order to sell anything. Rather, we hope to remind our visitors that there are still things in the world worth paying attention to, for the simple reason that they add pleasure and fulfillment to our lives. They provide an alternative to losing ourselves in “media blitz,” and in the never ending consumption of commercial products.

In order to cultivate relaxed attention, we try to make our exhibits accessible. That is, we avoid complex and abstract exhibits which make heavy use of computers or sophisticated electronics in which the forces of cause and effect are obscure or hidden (unless we do so purposefully in order to create a sense of mystery or to encourage visualization). By attracting this particular quality of attention, we seek to encourage a playful spirit of observation and exploration which will carry over to life in the outside world.

Creativity

We at Mindport find creativity to be one of the greatest joys of life, and believe that it is a gift possessed by all humans, not just a few. Unfortunately, our culture is one which has gradually evolved toward belief in the illusion that the consumption of goods is the source of all happiness. Those who manufacture the material goods we consume are heavily invested in convincing us that we can only find happiness in buying what they sell rather than in what we can create. Many of us have bought this difficult-to-avoid message and have forgotten that any other source of joy exists. Our consumption has become obsessive and addictive because the things we buy constantly fail to satisfy us. In the course of this fruitless search for satisfaction, we’re destroying ourselves and the other living creatures which share the earth with us.

One true way to satisfy the craving which motivates our obsessive consumption of goods is in rediscovering our own ability to create. In creativity, we learn to find something new inside ourselves instead of constantly searching for it in the outside world. Not only can we rediscover how to create things, but we can relearn to create whole lives which center around each other and our abilities, rather than on the consumption of “canned” entertainment and goods funneled into us by manufacturers and media.

The blitz of corporate advertising contributes greatly to people losing touch with their own creativity. They come to fear being “trivial,” or doing something “foolish” or “different” or “wasting time,” because it doesn’t fit with the commercial hype which permeates all our lives. In losing touch this way, we fall into to that patter of desperate compulsive consumption of which we’ve spoken earlier.

To counter this pattern, at Mindport we try to dignify the “trivial,” the “silly,” the humorous, and the personal because they are at the root of what it is to be human. Our ability to imagine things unlike those we’ve imagined before is one thing which makes life worth living, and, ironically, is at the root of all the inventiveness which has given us the material products which are supposed to be enriching our existence. We hope the accessibility of Mindport’s exhibits will encourage our visitors to take back their own creativity by making it obvious that sophisticated machinery and electronic equipment are not necessary for human beings to lead fulfilling lives.