Child's Play

 

As the father of two elementary-school boys, I have frequented many of the children’s attractions across the state over the past decade. I have visited mini golf courses, puppet theaters, amusement parks and more chaotic pizza joints filled with creepy animatronic robots and video games than I care to remember. I have also been to numerous museums, science centers and planetariums, education-centric places where it never gets old watching the joy of discovery wash over my sons’ faces.

I don’t presume to speak for the employees of the Children’s Museum of Southeastern Connecticut in Niantic, but after spending a few hours there, I suspect it’s that same kind of positive feeling that drives their long days.

“You do get a little bit wedded to the museum,” says Executive Director Christy Hammond, who joined the staff in 2005 as program director. “Once you’re here, it seems to seep into most parts of your life.” She jokes about how people begin “just helping out here and there” with the museum and then sort of “get sucked in.” Her own three daughters, for example, are among the 400 volunteers who annually spend better than 4,000 hours here. Support also comes from inmates on work-release from nearby Gates Correctional Institution as well as participants working off community service hours through the AIC (Alternative Incarceration) program. As a matter of fact, Hammond and museum exhibits associate Michael Neville are the only full-timers; seven to nine other part-timers fill out the professional staff, depending on the season. The museum also employs per-diem educators, who help in providing some of the 1,600 off-site programs that serve 10,000 children each year.

I visited the museum a decade ago with my then 2-year-old son for our December 2000 issue (10 years already?!) and some of the same exhibits are here—obviously updated. “We did a big renovation in 2006,” says Hammond. “I call it our ‘Botox’ injection. We only had $3,000, so many of our improvements were cosmetic.”

The place does look inviting—5,000 square feet dedicated to imaginative playscapes and hands-on exhibits, targeted for kids from 9 months to 9 years old. Children can clamber aboard the near life-sized fishing boat in the middle of the seaside village or dig in the sandbox that’s located inside a pyramid; they can also watch bees in a glass hive or play a pipe organ in the Discovery Room.

When things get a bit too chaotic—and on a busy Saturday, that certainly can happen—the little ones can take it outside and either climb down into the Benthic Explorer, an actual mini submarine, or climb up into the tree house situated in the middle of an outdoor playscape that also features a stage, sandbox and water table. “Kids get wet here, they get dirty, they get dramatic,” says Neville, who returned to the museum after having graduated from Temple University’s Tyler School of Fine Art; he had started out at the museum’s front desk, but like others, got “sucked in” and is now responsible for fabricating exhibits, among other tasks.

Neville explains to me how the tree house was a collaborative effort between the museum’s staff and its patrons. A volunteer who is a contractor offered to donate time to build a tree house, so Neville organized a committee of kids aged 4 to 13 to brainstorm ideas. Designs were discussed, models were made, plans were drafted and finally, construction commenced. “A process like this takes us out of the role of ‘expert’ and lets us give it back to the visitor,” he says of the way the museum is continually trying to increase interaction and participation from patrons. “We then use our expertise to help provide what they want.” 

A turning point in that effort came when a space for an off-site workshop for Neville to build exhibits was donated by a local merchant. Only a few miles down the road in a strip mall, the workshop is full of scrounged and recycled building materials and former displays that have been cannibalized for current exhibits. It was here that sections of the tree house, the fishing boat and even the front desk were built before being transported (often in Neville’s father’s truck) back to the museum. It’s clear why having an area like this is critical—almost all of the floor space at the museum is dedicated to exhibits. Hammond and a few part-time administrators have desks in a finished attic above the Discovery Room, and there’s only a small office and storeroom on the main floor.

The staff meets every morning before opening to go over the schedule. At least 10 programs are scheduled each week, plus a toddler class on Saturday mornings, birthday parties throughout the weekend and a ’tween group that meets monthly. The museum welcomes between 35,000 and 40,000 visitors annually, an impressive number considering the scale of the building, staff and resources—unlike some other museums, there is only a small endowment so operating funds come mainly from admission, membership and program fees.

“I was recently talking with one of our board members, and they referred to us as ‘the little museum that can,’” says Hammond. “I think that sums us up perfectly.”

For more information, call (860) 691-1111 or visit childrensmuseumsect.org.

Child's Play

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