What’s a Children’s Museum?

Excited ChildrenBy Jayne Griffin
Director of Education

What’s a children’s museum? I ask this question every time I present information to college classes and educators about how programs and exhibits at Creative Discovery Museum are designed. Answers to this question typically include that a children’s museum is fun and hands-on. I heartily agree with both of these descriptors – Children’s museums ARE fun, and the exhibits invite children and their caregivers to touch, play, and explore. But what makes a children’s museum different from other educational institutions like zoos, science centers, and even great classrooms?

The short answer I give to that question is, “In a science center the staff research science. In a children’s museum the staff research children. We certainly research content before we design exhibits and programs and even run that content by experts to make sure it’s accurate, BUT we’ve also researched how children learn and use exhibits.

We look at what children need for optimum growth and success and what they like to do. Interestingly enough, those two approaches usually intersect. In other words, what is good for a child’s growth and development is usually what the child would choose to do. That’s why exploration, innovation, and discovery are such valued words at the Museum. We know that children learn best in environments that allow them to safely explore at their own rate as they take the lead in the activities they choose. When environments and programs are fun, emotionally safe, invite engagement, and allow children to explore in a stress-free, no expectation kind of way, learning is rampant! Children (and adults) are born to learn, and the trick to educating our children is to encourage and guide their natural curiosity and wonder without directing it.

Children’s museums take the lead in knowing how to do this well. When children leave the Museum, they don’t have to take a test about what they learned, instead we measure our success by how the Museum visit has inspired children to explore,innovate, create, and play as well as how that inspiration continues once they leave the Museum. Do children want to know more after they leave and/or do they want to return to explore, innovate, create, and play some more?

I was a classroom teacher for 20 years before I became the Director of Education at Creative Discovery Museum 19 years ago. I’m an advocate for classroom teachers and formal education, but after spending almost as much time in the educational field of children’s museums as I did as a formal classroom teacher, I see the value that children’s museums add to any community in the education of its children. Children’s museums are invaluable partners for the formal educational settings (i.e classrooms) giving us educational balance by reminding us there is more to the education of our children than test scores might indicate.

We opened our doors in 1995 and just celebrated our 21st birthday! Though the Museum is now officially an adult, my hope is that as an institution, we will continue to have that child-like wonder that comes from the freedom to explore, innovate, create, and play as we design exhibits and programs for the children we serve. I am so grateful to the Chattanooga community for its support of the Museum in the past and look forward to all that is to come. In the words of Robert Browning (sort of) I invite the children and adults served by the Museum to “Come grow [young] along with us, the best is yet to be…”

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