Children and museums. Oxymoran, you say? Well, perhaps, if you think of them using mere conventional definitions. “Museums” are often thought of as cultural or scientific institutions that carry collections of precious art and/or other artifacts that beautifully display and document past or current history and events. Immediately coming to mind are dim-lit spacious floor plans with finely dressed security guards strategically and transparently situated to ensure that expensive exhibits are left undamaged and intact. Not somewhere parents, other guests, and museum administrators want kids running around.
“Children’s Museums”, on the other hand, couldn’t be any more different. The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) defines a children’s museum as an institution committed to serving the needs and interests of children by providing exhibits and educational programming that stimulate curiosity and motivate learning. They are considerably more client-centered than their traditional product-based counterpart in that the audience takes precedence over the exhibits, with great emphasis in the process of learning through hands-on, and often times, full-body interaction. Greatly influenced by Michael Spock’s leadership at The Children’s Museum in Boston in the 1960s, the modern children’s museum recognizes the power of play in getting children to better understand new concepts and new ways of thinking.
The Children’s Museum Segment
With a great understanding of how to effectively engage with children and families, children’s museums have prospered as a significant resource in the local communities that they reside in. The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) has over 300 children museum members in the US. The most recent figures obtained from the ACM show that over 30 million children and families visit these museums annually. Another 70 museums are in the planning stages, with approximately $1 billion in capital campaigns underway for new or expanded facilities. Children’s museums are the fastest growing segment in the overall museum industry, according to the AAM, with a 135% increase in membership within this segment in the last two years.
Benefits to Children
Children’s Museums are thought of by some museum professionals as a distinct educational genre. They facilitate uninhibited creative educational play in a non-judgmental environment, removing pressures from children to perform. These quality experiences typically focus on important skills and subject areas not adequately addressed by our public education system, including the ability to adapt and thrive in a rapidly changing world. Often perceived by kids as similar in entertainment value to “pure-play” venues such as theme parks and jump houses, these innovative resources house exhibits purposely built to mimic realistic settings, which is in stark contrast to school where knowledge is frequently disseminated without adequate context and more so in preparation of standardized tests. These museums provide meaningful foundational benefits that are necessary in rounding out the child’s development.
Benefits to Parents
Children’s museums provide parents with a wonderful alternate leisure time activity as affordable and accessible facilities that support key development areas of their children, all while having fun. Visits to the museum offer much-needed reprieve from everyday life, where families can spend quality moments together in a safe and supervised environment.
Benefits to the Community
With regard to the community, children’s museums act as valuable resources for numerous reasons. More and more, families seek out children’s museums when visiting the region as tourists. Combined with attendance from local visitors, children’s museums contribute significant revenue. According to the ACM, more than 30 percent of children’s museums are part of a downtown revitalization project. The ACM estimates that the total economic activity of its children’s museum members is $448 million annually. Finally, these institutions add to the available resources in the community, including an active focus on disadvantaged populations.
A Hub for Change
While children’s museums have different identities and forms, what they all have in common is the ability to be utilized as hubs for change. Whether it be healthy family initiatives, early childhood education, STEM, or common core, children’s museums have become respected enablers that can successfully promote and extend any movement relating to children and families.
All of these critical benefits have contributed to the rapid growth and acceptance of children’s museums in the US and other parts of the world. They have well-established benefits for children, families, and the communities, and yet, they are still evolving and finding new ways to contribute to society.
 Collective Vision: Starting and Sustaining a Children’s Museum, Edited by Mary Maher. Association of Youth Museums. Washington. 1997