Children’s Museums - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education

Children’s Museums


The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) envisions that these institutions “bring children and families together in a new kind of town-square where play inspires lifelong learning.” Children’s museums over the past twenty years have been evolving into a respite of multicultural play spaces in an era of increasing efforts to quantify and assess children’s learning. With explicit goals to use play to stimulate children’s curiosity, motivate children to learn, and to enrich communities, children’s museums now work with multiple generations and reach across social class, racial and language boundaries to build community partnerships and extend their accessibility.

Children’s museums have changed dramatically since the first museum for children was launched in Brooklyn, New York, in 1899. For about the first 70 years, children’s museums served an audience of predominantly school-aged and young adolescent visitors. Exhibits and programming were largely focused on Americana, world cultures, natural history, science, and art. Many of the earliest children’s museums held rich collections of artifacts ranging from souvenir dolls, dollhouses and early American household objects, to stuffed birds, shells and rocks. To further their learning, neighborhood children participated in a range of club activities from bell ringing and bird watching to diorama making and stamp collecting. Then, in the mid 1960s, Michael Spock, Director of the Boston Children’s Museum, launched a new era in children’s museums with the introduction of hands-on and interactive learning. In addition to viewing objects in exhibit cases, young visitors could explore the insides of many household and neighborhood items from washing machines to manholes.

In spite of their long history, the growth of children’s museums is a relatively recent phenomenon. Over 75 percent of ACM member museums opened in just the past twenty years. In 1975 there were approximately thirty-eight children’s museums in the United States; eighty new museums opened between 1976 and 1990. An additional 100 have opened since 1990, with many serving as flagships in downtown revitalization projects. In 2001 over 31 million children and families visited ACM member museums. As of June 30, 2004, there were about 220 children’s museums in the United States with about eighty in some stage of development. There are children’s museums in 45 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Only Alaska, South Dakota, Idaho, Vermont, and Delaware do not have a children’s museum. Approximately 73 percent of U.S. children’s museums are located in urban communities, with 20 percent in suburban, and 7 percent in rural settings.

Young children have always visited children’s museum with their older siblings and families; beginning in the 1960s museums began to see an increase in the number of young children (ages 0-5) as the primary child visitor. In 1976, the Please Touch Museum opened in Philadelphia as the first early childhood museum designed for visitors aged 1-7. In 1978, the Boston Children’s Museum opened the nation’s first “Play Space,” a parent and child exhibit area especially for children four years and under (Quinn and Robinson, 1984). By the late 1990s, encouraged partly by research on brain development, there was a strong resurgence of interest in the development of an early childhood museum focus, with a number of new spaces, serving children from birth to three years, developed since 2000. Today 78 percent of the children’s museums in the United States have an early childhood space or program.

To accommodate younger visitors and their parents, the physical space of museums has changed significantly. For example, museum amenities now include family bathrooms, nursing areas, snacking, and respite areas. Information in the form of parent graphics, tip sheets and exhibit guides help parents introduce and share exhibit concepts with young children.

With sizes ranging from 500 to 5,000 square feet, content, budget and staffing for children’s museum programs vary greatly. For example, exhibits may introduce parents and preschoolers to literacy through special exhibits on “Clifford, the Big Red Dog” or “Go Figure,” an exhibit that brings five math-related picture books to life; both exhibits were created by the Minnesota Children’s Museum. PlaySpace, at the Boston Children’s Museum, encourages both parents and children to explore the world of play through special areas established to promote creative art experiences as well as gross and fine motor imaginary, discovery, and dramatic play.

As museum programming has shifted, there has been an increased emphasis on community-based partnerships for both families and professional early educators. During the weekdays, museum audiences are predominantly stay-at-home mothers or nannies and young children. Many museums provide significant outreach to the early childhood education community including preschools, Head Start and family or center-based child-care programs. Moreover, “the visit” is only one part of what children’s museums offer to the community. With professional early childhood educators on staff, many children’s museums also offer professional development training for early educators, resources and programs for parents, special family visits and free family memberships and passes. Outreach programs in ACM member organizations extended to over 3.9 million people in 2000 and to over 6.6 million in 2001.

With adults (most of them parents) making up nearly 50 percent of the visitors, children’s museums are in a unique position to provide information and support on child rearing and early education. Museum-sponsored parent programs, such as Families First in Boston and Houston, provide single sessions and series of classes led by experts in family and child development for parents who register and pay a nominal fee.

Even as museums take pride in their accomplishments, recent trends suggest new challenges and possibilities in the twenty-first century. There is a new interest in exploring multicultural and international environments, making the local and international communities a potent classroom. For example, Boston Black, an interactive exhibit (at the Boston Children’s Museum), allows children to explore the cultural, racial and ethnic diversity of the city. A second trend is tied to changes in museum attendance; as the museum audience has become younger, it is no longer dominated by six- to twelve-year-olds. When museums that traditionally served older children and adults, for example, science museums, began to adopt the successful hands-on, interactive techniques pioneered by children’s museums, they increased their appeal to older children. Children’s museums are also becoming more widely recognized as a “catalyst for intergenerational learning” and “two generation” programming, given their expanding willingness to provide opportunities for learning and sharing in a supportive environment (Crowley, 2000). In spite of the changing emphases, there is not a strong research base on child and adult learning in museums. Much of what is known comes from short-term problem-solving evaluations and surveys; very few studies have involved young children (Sykes, 1996).



Museums have clearly been transformed into dynamic learning environments where preschool children and their families are welcomed and embraced. In this transformation, significant outreach has occurred to bring museum experiences to children and families in the community. Museums are also increasingly recognized as learning tools for the professional development of early educators. These trends have quickly become institutionalized as part of the children’s museum identity (ACM).

Further Readings: Association of Children’s Museums. Available online at; Crowley, K. (2000). Building islands of expertise in everyday family activity: Musing on family learning in and out of museums. Museum Learning Collaborative Technical Report [MLC-05], Learning Research & Development Center, University of Pittsburgh, PA; Crowley, K., and M. A. Callanan (1998). Describing and support collaborative scientific thinking in parent-child interactions. Journal of Museum Education 17, 12-17; Quinn, P., and J. Robinson (1984). PlaySpace: Creating family spaces in public places. Boston: Boston Children’s Museum Publication; Sykes, M. (1996). Research review on museum-based learning in early childhood. Hand to Hand: The Quarterly Journal of the Association of Children’s Museums 10(2).

Jeri Robinson and Valora Washington