This article is part of our Museums special section about how art institutions are reaching out to new artists and attracting new audiences.
Connor Carey, 15, a sophomore at Fort Lauderdale High School in Florida, has a reading disability known as dyslexia. When he started as an Everglades EcoExplorers intern last summer, he said, he didn’t have a lot of self-confidence or social skills. A job with the Museum of Discovery and Science, a children’s institution in downtown Fort Lauderdale, gave him the opportunity to gain both.
He has now learned about the state’s water system and the threats it faces because of pollution. Currently, he spends his weekends at the museum educating visitors about what he knows.
“The internship has taught me public speaking skills and helped me feel better about myself,” Connor said. “It’s made me want to study marine science and maybe even become an environmental lawyer. I really enjoy being there.”
Welcome to the new face of children’s museums in the United States. Once venues for younger children that provided rainy-day entertainment through exhibits and a scattering of hands-on activities, they’re expanding their scope by offering a breadth of learning and support for a broader age group. The most prominent examples include teaching concepts around STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and STEAM (which includes arts), opening spaces dedicated to teenagers and helping with communication skills and mental health.
The museum in Fort Lauderdale, which opened in 1977, is revamping its exhibits and activities to meet these new goals, as are other long-existing ones. Many new children’s museums that are opening around the country are making them a priority from the outset.
Children’s museums got their start with the opening of Brooklyn Children’s Museum in 1899, according to Arthur Affleck, the executive director of the Association of Children’s Museums, a group of 300 members. The museum still exists.
“With a mission to educate the youth about natural sciences, the museum had a STEM focus,” Mr. Affleck said. “The ones that opened over the next several decades, however, had more traditional exhibits and weren’t as interactive.”
Children’s museums also were focused on a younger age group — infants to 8-year-olds, Mr. Affleck said. “The shift to creating more meaningful experiences began in the last decade,” he said, “with the most significant changes happening in the wake of the pandemic.”
The Great River Children’s Museum, in St. Cloud, Minn., scheduled to open in 2024, will offer a camp that integrates STEM with mental health practices. For example, participants can work on expressing their emotions in conjunction with learning math and science concepts, according to the program manager, Kylie Conover.
They may take part in a group experiment with invisible ink, where each of them can reveal a message that the ink hides by solving puzzles. “They’ll be asked to give feedback on the other kids’ ideas in a productive and supportive way,” Ms. Conover said. “We set the expectation that the children have a responsibility to be kind to their peers while also getting their point across.”
Port Discovery Children’s Museum, in Baltimore, started its Ted-Dy Talks last year in collaboration with the University of Maryland School of Social Work’s Institute for Innovation and Implementation, a division that focuses on early childhood mental health.
The monthly 20-minute sessions are presented in puppet shows, said the museum’s vice president of education and innovation, Rachel Demma, each with different themes, such as self-confidence and self-care. In a talk on anxiety, for one, Seth Adam Kallick, an education specialist at the museum who developed the program, teaches children coping strategies.
Some museums are offering mental health outreach to parents. The Louisiana Children’s Museum, in New Orleans, started First 1000 Days last fall, monthly breakfast workshops that aim to help see parents through the first three years of their child’s life. They are led by mental health professionals who talk about milestones that parents should look for. Parents are invited to ask questions and voice their frustrations, too.
Jazmin Roberson, a nanny and doula, is a regular attendee. She said the sessions had been instrumental in helping her navigate the stresses related to her 8-month-old daughter. “I have so many questions about how to care for her, and First 1000 Days has given me answers and peace of mind,” she said.
“The pandemic was a disaster mental health-wise for children, who were cut off from their peers,” said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University who works with the Association of Children’s Museums on research. “Children’s museums are a safe haven for them to deal with their emotions as they re-enter the social world.”
Many new museums are devoting most of their spaces and activities to teaching children about STEM and STEAM through hands-on, play-based learning.
The Magic City Discovery Center, in Minot, N.D., opening May 5, is a 28,000-square-foot space that will have more than 150 interactive STEAM-based exhibits, said Wendy Keller, the executive director. There will be a pattern place where children can use elastic bands to make geometric shapes on boards with pegs. And the museum will be home to a SparkLab, in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution, where young people can engage in math and engineering challenges, such as building a bridge that can withstand weight.
The Bronx Children’s Museum, which opened in December near Yankee Stadium in New York, has 10 STEAM-related installations that are presented in English and Spanish, including an indoor garden that teaches children about local flora and fauna.
KidSTREAM Children’s Museum, in Camarillo, Calif., near Malibu, opening late this year, has STREAM in its name as an acronym for science, technology, reading, engineering, arts and math, said the executive director, Michael Shanklin. “Our goal is to ingrain these concepts in children’s lives in creative ways,” he said.
A geometry exhibit will give children a chance to create a 3-D geometric quilt, for example, and an outdoor agricultural exhibit will showcase soils for them to play with that grow local crops. An educator will be on hand to explain their different compositions and the diversity of produce that thrives in the area.
Part of the children’s museum evolution includes the effort to attract teenagers, Mr. Affleck said.
The Explora Science Center and Children’s Museum, in Albuquerque, opened the X Studio for teens in February. A co-director of the museum, Kristin Leigh, called it a place for teens to “hang out, experiment and create.” They can do their homework or engage in STEAM-centric activities, such as meeting with employees from a local credit union who help them sign up for their first debit cards and share budgeting strategies. Most of these programs are free.
Fiona Fay, Connor’s mother, said the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale had changed her son’s life for the better.
“Connor’s dyslexia had him in a separate program at school that kept him away from his peers, but the internship has gotten him to interact with other kids and get excited about working,” she said. “He’s like a regular kid now, and there’s no bigger blessing than that.”