By T. Wayne Waters
Children’s museums have become a staple of major cities in North America and a much appreciated asset for both hometown residents and visiting families. According to the Association of Children’s Museums, there are more than 31 million visitors to children’s museums in the U.S. annually. Children’s museums are institutions that introduce kids to the magic that lies at the heart of myriad modern technologies and natural phenomena, and reinvigorate a sense of wonder and intrigue in adults. They are places where young and old alike can experience the joy in learning and exploration.
“Children’s museums are places where children learn through play and exploration in environments designed just for them,” says Janet Rice Elman, executive director of the Association of Children’s Museums, of the joyful primary function of a museum dedicated to youngsters. “A community with a children’s museum is a community that cares about children and families.”
All of those elements, along with good old-fashioned fun, are in especially ample supply at the award-winning children’s museums located in New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Montreal and Washington, D.C.
The Washington, D.C., area hasn’t had a museum devoted to children for nearly a decade. That changed last December with the opening of the National Children’s Museum (NCM) in National Harbor, Md., an operation that has the distinction of being designated by the United States Congress as the only national museum focused on children. Named one of the “Top 10 Museums” by a reporter covering the arts for the Washington Post, NCM’s offerings include the 3 & Under gallery, a toddler space where “Sesame Street” characters roam, designed especially for little ones under 3 feet tall or 3 years old.
For kids a bit older, the Our World gallery provides three intriguing sections: The My Town area promotes citizenship skills through the use of exhibits featuring hands-on activities and role-playing actors; Map Zone features a huge floor map, giant atlases and interactive touch screens that provide a global perspective; and World Cultures highlights various regions and cultures around the world, encouraging exploration and sparking curiosity about different places and people.
“We take our mission to inspire children to care about and improve the world very seriously,” says NCM President and CEO Willard Whitson. “From our exhibit bunk beds to the freight yard [in My Town] to the international marketplace, we’re also excited to be able to help children learn through play.”
The National Children’s Museum also offers monthly Free Family Nights throughout the year. (ccm.org)
In Pennsylvania, Philadelphia’s Please Touch Museum, open since 1976, claims to be the first museum in the U.S. to target families with children ages 7 and younger. It’s grown to become one of the most highly regarded children’s museums in the nation, and rated among the “12 Best Children’s Museums in the U.S.” by Forbes in 2012, one of the “Top 25 Tourist Attractions in the Philadelphia Region” by the Philadelphia Business Journal in 2012, and in the “10 Best Children’s Museums” by Parents magazine in 2011.
Please Touch Museum has two floors of interactive exhibits that invite wonder-inducing experiences in eight major exhibits. Among them are Flight Fantasy, where kids can experiment with movement and propel themselves into an outer space fantasy world; Roadside Attractions; where every bend in the road is an adventure in transportation; River Adventures, a journey combining science, nature and weather; and the Rainforest Rhythm experience, where children make joyful noises beating conga drums and turning rain sticks while immersed in the sounds of frogs, monkeys, rushing river water and other jungle music.
“Over the years, the museum has maintained and expanded its commitment to promote learning through play by providing inclusive and interactive displays, programs and public spaces,” says Please Touch Museum President and CEO Laura Foster. “Through themed exhibits, literacy, art, theater, history, science- and math-based programs and educator tools that supplement classroom activity, the museum continues to ensure that youth have access to the learning experiences that will prepare them for their future business, philanthropic and civic roles.” (pleasetouchmuseum.org)
In Atlanta, the Center for Puppetry Arts may not fit the mold of the typical children’s museum, but it definitely is a wonderland of delight and learning for both youngsters and adults.
“When you walk through the center doors you are immersed in a world populated by museum objects that are able to reach you in ways you never imagined,” says Center for Puppetry Arts President and Executive Director Vincent Anthony. “You will see fantasy and fiction come to life on our stage as you watch our expansive performances. A whole world will unfold for you at the center of the puppet universe, the Center for Puppetry Arts.”
June will mark the opening of “Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat,” and the center’s 35th anniversary celebration is scheduled for Sept. 21.
The center’s various collections include contemporary and historic puppets from around the globe, and special exhibits are displayed throughout the year that explore various themes, artists and cultures. The center offers more performances annually by more artists than any other U.S. puppetry company and has received numerous performance and educationally oriented awards through the years, including the Citation of Excellence from UNIMA-USA, the U.S. branch of Union Internationale de la Marionette, which is determined by nominations from approximately 43 qualified reviewers throughout the country and generally considered the highest award in American puppetry. (puppet.org)
It’s the silver anniversary for Children’s Museum of the Arts (CMA) in New York City’s Manhattan neighborhood of SoHo, and to celebrate, the 25-year-old art facility is adding even more distinctiveness to its activities.
“Children’s Museum of the Arts is a hands-on arts facility and exhibition space for children ages 1 to 15 years old,” says Jess Peterson, communications coordinator for CMA. “Our staff of professional teaching artists guides young visitors in a variety of fine art and media-based workshops including painting, animation, sculpture, textiles and more.” The museum was listed on Parenting magazine’s list of “25 Best Children’s Museums” in 2011.
Among CMA offerings is the Wee Arts program, just right for children ages 5 and under. The multifaceted Media Lab offers kids ages 15 and up great hands-on experiences in animation and filmmaking, including set-building and digital photography. The Sound Booth allows kids to explore voice-overs, music appreciation and production, synthesized sound and more.
The Fine Arts Studio at CMA allows children and teens to collaborate with the museum’s experienced teaching artists on painting, drawing, textiles and sculpture projects that they can take home with them. (cmany.org)
The Montreal Biodome is part of the largest natural science museum complex in Canada, Space for Life, which also comprises the Botanical Garden, Insectarium and Planetarium. Though none are strictly for children, kids of all ages will definitely be delighted in their myriad offerings. The Montreal Biodome in particular has earned its kid-friendly bona fides by being named to Parenting magazine’s “25 Best Children’s Museums” in 2011.
Visitors are able to travel through five distinct ecosystems found in the Americas, and nature interpreters offer explanations of natural phenomena and point out specific flora and fauna. The environments include Tropical Rainforest, Laurentian Maple Forest, The Gulf of St. Lawrence, Labrador Coast and Sub-Antarctic Islands.
“Monkeys and penguins are among the favorite animals for the children,” notes Space for Life Executive Director Charles-Mathieu Brunelle. “They also love the Naturalia Room because they can play, read and touch. It’s a great way to learn and have fun at the same time. The 10,700-year-old beluga skeleton of the Fossil Affair also fascinates children.”
Space for Life is the most visited paying attraction in Quebec. The complex’s newest addition is the Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium. While the Montreal Planetarium opened as part of the complex in 1966, it closed in 2011, and the new Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium opened its doors in April, an eco-friendly building featuring a rooftop garden, two immersion theaters and an interactive exhibit which explores the search for life in the universe, plenty to intrigue children and adults alike. (spaceforlifefoundation.ca)
Wherever you live and wherever your travels take you, the many kid-friendly museums that dot the North American landscape add wonder and discovery to your adventure. A visit will surely delight your children and open their eyes wide with pleasure and surprise as they learn through discovery.