How Interactive Exhibits and a Local Focus Are Transforming Children’s Museums

Children’s museums, which attract more than 30 million visitors annually, according to research conducted by the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) in 2007, are places of wonder for the youngest among us.  These museums are also a growing industry.  According to ACM, in the mid-1970s, there were 38 children’s museums across the nation.  That number grew to 118 between 1976 and 1990, and, since 1990, an additional 125 children’s museums have opened in the United States.
Beyond this growth, there have been dramatic developments in the focus of exhibits at these museums in the past decade, thanks to the proliferation of technology and interactive play, which has grown in popularity and necessity.  As Kathy Fischer, executive director of Kids-n-Stuff: An Interactive Experience for Kids in Albion, Mich., said, “We lead much more structured, busy lives now, so the need for interactive space and creative activity for children to learn has increased.”  Children’s museums fill this gap by providing unstructured space and a plethora of activities that promote and require creative thinking, imagination and initiative.
Time-tested examples of these activities include pint-sized grocery stores like My Market at the Children’s Museum of Denver (CMD), which last year served 308,000 visitors from the Denver metro area.  At My Market, kids shop for real (but empty) food boxes, push small shopping carts, scan bar codes and make change.  Zoe Ocampo, manager of Marketing and Communications at CMD, called My Market a “classic children’s museum experience.”  “It’s an environment that is very familiar to children, and they are able to relate it to their own life and create a community with their peers,” Ocampo explained.  My Market and other exhibits, like Corner Clinic, at the Creative Discovery Museum in Chatanooga, Tenn., where children can dress like doctors or nurses, call for role-playing, which is popular among children.
In the last decade, however, new trends are mingling with old favorite approaches, like role play and dress-up.  For example, over 240,000 visitors annually to the Creative Discovery Museum can experience Buzz Alley.  This exhibit, featuring live bee hives, gives children the chance to dress up as beekeepers, but also incorporates science education as children observe bees in their natural environment and learn the benefits of beekeeping, the stages of bee development and pollination of flowers.   Museums nationally are launching science and STEM (Science/Technology/Environment/Math)-related exhibits, like Conservation Station at Kids-n-Stuff, an exhibit that, as Kathy Fischer said, “brings the outside inside so kids can explore the plants and animals of Michigan.”  Baltimore’s Port Discovery Children’s Museum, one of Forbes 2011 Best Children’s Museums with 260,000 visitors annually, partnered with Nanoscale Informal Science Educators (NISE) to bring nano science into the museum as part of its STEM Center of Learning.   In this exhibit, children can play “nanoscale scientist” in a mock “clean room.”  In 2011, the Children’s Museum of Denver launched an air-play and rocket science exhibit called 3, 2, 1…Blast Off.  According to Zoe Ocampo, both exhibits have a heavy science component focusing on physics and STEM, and are “100 hundred percent hands-on and unique to the Children’s Museum of Denver.”  Other science exhibits at the museum include Just Add Water, a sensory, outdoor exhibit and “hands-in” water laboratory, and, opening in fall 2012, Kinetics, a city of kid-powered kinetic sculptures, giant marble towers and controllable chain reactions.  Ocampo noted the central importance of science to the experience of children, and said, “We know that children develop firm attitudes toward learning, very specifically science and math, in their early learning years. Exposing them to positive, creative, open-ended science and STEM-based experiences at an early age increases the likelihood that they will enjoy STEM subjects and even pursue STEM-related careers.”
Another interesting children’s museum trend involves the expression of community in exhibits.  This summer, Port Discovery will launch “Kick it Up,” an interactive, physical fitness destination for families sponsored by United Health Care.  The exhibit, which will include a soccer stadium, dance, spin bikes, obstacle courses and street games such as jump rope and hula hoop hopscotch, grew out of the Healthy Families/Health Communities initiative at Port Discovery.  Jennifer Bergantz, Education and Community Enrichment liaison at Port Discovery, view this exhibit as expressive of the close ties between children’s museums and the communities in which they are located.  “Children’s museums make a commitment to their communities to fulfill their missions, so our primary goal is to be a learning lab and a community resource rather than edutainment,” Bergantz explained.
Shannon Johnson, Exhibit Development manager at the Creative Discovery Museum, echoed Bergantz’s view regarding the connection between museum exhibits and communities, noting that exhibits now deal with current issues, such as diversity, the environment, obesity, nutrition and wellness.  “Interpretations in museums of current issues are different,” Johnson noted.  “Children’s museums are now more reflective of their communities.”
At the Children’s Creativity Museum in San Francisco, Calif., the focus on community is expressed through the Community Lab exhibit, part of the museum’s Artist-in-Residence program.  The Community Lab allows kids to create the exhibit through prototyping workshops conducted in conjunction with the artist-in-residence.  Creatura, the newest Community Lab component, allows visitors to collaborate with the artists to define the Community Lab experience.  “Creatura is an interactive experience that allows children to finger paint their own characters on iPads and then brings them to life in surround-vision, projected on walls,” explained Cathy Barragan, the museum’s Marketing and Public Relations manager.  “Kids can also create the environment in which the creatures live, controlling the climate, landscape and other aspects.”
Creatura also is an example of a new trend towards using technology in creative and different ways at children’s museums.  Exhibits at the Children’s Creativity Museum, such as Animation Station, an old favorite that allows guests to create and film their own clay figures, and the Imagination Lab, which includes a do-it-yourself studio for kids to collaborate in a make-and-take activity with workshops facilitated by community artists, an immersive building area, a puppet theater, and green screens, use technology as a foundation for learning.  Barragan said this approach is “transforming the way kids learn.”  “We move from the conventional approach to play to one of invention,” Barragan explained.  “We shift the focus from media consumption to media production.”
The 240,000 annual visitors to the Creative Discovery Museum will soon experience a new computer program-based exhibit that will allow kids to select backgrounds similar to well-known paintings, and decorate and manipulate the backgrounds and add their own images to the work.  This intersection between art and technology, according to Shannon Johnson, uses children’s familiarity with technology to educate through a medium not easily accessible to kids, rather than using technology simply for the sake of technology.  She noted, “Children’s Museums cannot ignore that technology is part of a child’s world and there is some wonderful uses of technology to deliver education content.  However, technology should be chosen when it is the appropriate medium for the education content and when it is something that kids cannot do at home or at school.”
Whether through the use of science or STEM activities, innovative applications of technology, traditional role-playing or dress-up, or community-focused issues, children’s museums are expanding their horizons beyond the predictable “edutainment” approach.  These places of make-believe and imagination now blend high-tech with hands-on to educate, engage and inspire their young patrons.
The leaders of children’s museums have different ways of characterizing the work and missions of their institutions: Shannon Johnson called the Creative Discovery Museum’s approach “immersive,” while Cathy Barragan said the Children’s Creativity Museum builds the “3Cs of 21st-century literacy – Creativity, Collaboration and Communication.”   However described, the complexity of exhibits at contemporary children’s museums is light years from those of the past.  Yet one core element remains: Children’s museums teach through unstructured play.  As Kathy Fischer of Kids-n-Stuff said, “Children’s museums are where fun and learning come together.” –

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