Richard Rende Ph.D.

Inside Parenting

Why We Need Children's Museums

Kids don't get enough opportunities for hands-on, unsupervised free play.

Posted Feb 19, 2016

When my daughter was a toddler, we’d always seek out a children’s museum when we were traveling. It seemed like a natural thing to do – they are fun places for kids, designed just for them – and it was always a great way to spend a few hours in a child-centric environment.

Back then children’s museums seemed to me to be something of a luxury, essentially a destination if you had a young kid. Now, I would argue that they are a necessity.

Why? Kids don't get nearly enough opportunities for hands-on, unsupervised exploratory play. Children’s museums not only provide that, but they also serve as a lesson for what we need to bring back to childhood, and what we need to limit.

I’m not anti-technology, but the availability of electronic devises has changed the landscape of childhood. It used to be we worried that kids were sitting in front of the TV too much. Then the availability of video upped the ante. Computers came into the mix and created a whole new set of issues. Now mobile technology means access to a device anytime, anywhere. Using devices at young ages is not inherently a bad thing to me (though others disagree) – it’s part of the world young kids are growing up in and can be a very cool thing. But it’s worrisome when kids spend so much time using technology that they aren’t doing what kids are supposed to do in their early years of life. Explore their environment. Manipulate things. Develop the motor skills that we know support brain development and directly promote that essential hands-on learning which can’t be achieved any other way.

Of course technology is not the only culprit. Young kids have plenty of opportunities to do interesting things these days. The thing is, though, that these opportunities are often scheduled and structured. Some organized activities are fine, especially if they are fun. But like technology, the problem becomes a lack of balance in a young kid’s life. The young mind and body needs to explore without too many boundaries and too many suggestions – and certainly without an overabundance of structure and critique. We talk plenty about a “creativity crisis” while at the same time note the importance of innovation and problem solving as 21st century skills. Yet we continue to squeeze out of a young child’s day the very activities that promote these skills – unsupervised, unstructured play with lots of opportunities to self-direct and physically explore.

We could go on and on. The safety issue always comes up – we all know kids don’t go outside and don’t explore the playground and the neighborhood like we did when we were growing up. The drive for promoting precocious “academic” development which leads to formal curriculum at younger and younger ages – with kindergarten being the “new first grade” and preschool offering instruction that used to happen in secondary school – is also a prominent theme, particularly as such efforts fly in the face of decades worth of research which document that academic readiness develops by letting kids play in a range of environments – including the playground – and play with a number of age-appropriate materials, like crayons, play-doh, blocks and the like.

So where, then, can we find all of what’s missing in the modern life of the young child? Go to a children’s museum. 

In researching Raising Can-Do Kids, I visited the Children’s Museum of Phoenix (CMP), and spent lots of time talking to CEO Kate Wells, who was highly involved in a fund-raising effort that resulted in the CMP being named one of the best children’s museums in the country. If you walk through the CMP, you will see evidence of what makes a children’s museum a special place.  There is a deliberate design to every room that facilitates what’s missing in young kid’s lives today – encouragement of fine and gross motor skills, opportunities to manipulate in order to discover, and no rules or roadmaps to follow. And lots of variety that can be found from room to room. Kids can create their own arts and crafts. They can build forts. They can climb things that are really high and make their way through a tunnel.

Courtesy of the Children's Museum of Phoenix
Source: Courtesy of the Children's Museum of Phoenix

As Wells said when interviewed for the book:

“Young children do not get enough opportunities to explore without interference or interruption … They spend too much time in prescriptive environments where they are told what to do and how to do it. We need to correct that unfortunate trend, giving them space and materials to let their instincts as learners take over as they physically explore their world. It’s what they do naturally and unfortunately what is being inhibited with increasing frequency.”

There are two other things you will observe if you visit a children’s museum.

You will notice that kids are very engaged in what they are doing. As in immersed. You don’t see kids who play for a minute or two and then walk away looking for something else to do. Kids who are building a fort spend a lot of time building the fort. Kids who are painting keep painting until they are done creating something they want to create. This is all, not coincidentally, achieved without adult instruction and supervision. You don’t need to “make” a kid do something they are wired to do, but unfortunately you can squelch those instincts with too much structure and critique.

You will also see that kids are playing with other kids. This is achieved without adults hanging around and orchestrating the interactions. Kids act like kids. They share and don’t share, cooperate and don’t cooperate, laugh and don’t laugh. They work through it and figure it out. It’s what we used to call “social development.” Adults are around if something gets out of hand. But really kids are encouraged to make due on their own. My favorite moment from my first tour of the CMP was when Kate Wells showed me the room where kids build forts. There was a platform (if kids wanted to build a fort that was up high) with one ladder. Why only one ladder? As Wells explained, kids would have to figure out how to take turns. Bear in mind that “collaboration” is another one of those 21st century skills that we think kids will need later in life to be successful. 

Therein is the genius of the children’s museum. There is intentional design to permit the spontaneous behavior that defines how young children should spend their time.

So I take away from all this three big reasons why we need children’s museums.

First, there’s the practical side of this. A children’s museum is a really fun place for a kid (which is reason enough), and it also provides an environment where kids can do all the things they need to do to develop foundations for academic and personal success. Even if your kid has lots of opportunities for exploration and free play, a children’s museum is a special place for them to go.

Next, there is the “remedial” need for these kinds of spaces. It’s my impression that a lot of kids really do need to go somewhere now and then where it’s all about them – where they have a range of activities available to them, in an environment that is designed just for them. It’s both safe and challenging at the same time, they can play with other kids, they can pick and choose what they want to do, they can use their brain and their body, and they can do what they are doing without instruction, or a clock. 

Courtesy of the Children's Museum of Phoenix
Source: Courtesy of the Children's Museum of Phoenix

Finally, spending time in a children’s museum can provide inspiration for bringing some of the elements there back into the home. In Raising Can-Do Kids Kate Wells has described how parents can recreate some of the magic of a children’s museum in their own home, by doing simple things like having pieces of felt available so kids can create their own make-believe pizzas that they can cook in an "oven" which is nothing more than an empty box. Maybe that’s the best reasons of all to visit a children’s museum. 

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