When people think of history museums they often think of places that are geared toward adults and older children but that absolutely does not have to be the case! Young children are fascinated by objects, and spaces that are designed with young children in mind can become big pretend play opportunities that bring history to life for them! On December 9th the National Museum of American History (NMAH) will open Wegmans Wonderplace, a space designed for the museum’s youngest visitors– children under 6 years of age. I was fortunate enough to be part of the amazing team that designed this space and I am here to tell you that it breaks new ground for early childhood and history museums! The space combines developmentally appropriate play opportunities that mirror some of the exhibitions found around the NMAH, with real objects from their collection displayed in ways that are both accessible to children and interesting to adults. A mini Julia Child’s kitchen is reminiscent of the one found in the museum. An interactive wall of portraits allows children to carefully look at pictures of other people while putting themselves in the picture.
There is a space for babies not yet walking and an area for building with different types of blocks that features a sensory wall of building materials for little ones to touch. But the central feature is a large tugboat climbing structure with a clock tower that mimics the Smithsonian castle!
All of these play experiences do much more than give children a place to play—they introduce children to the world of museums at the same time. Each area has real objects placed at the children’s levels to allow them to explore them not only from the front, but from the back, from underneath, and from over the top of them! Signage that hangs in each area will help parents know what their infant, their toddler and their preschooler are each getting from the experience.
Museums can provide young children and their families with rich learning experiences from the very beginning. For babies, there is a kaleidoscope of color and objects to catch their eyes and the opportunity for adults to name objects and characteristics of objects, exposing their babies to language that is rich and deep. Toddlers can be directed to look carefully at objects—to find the eyes on the Kermit puppet, to look for the wheels on the train, or to count the pans in the kitchen. Preschoolers can go deeper – sharing what they see, what they think about what they see, and what questions they have about what they see. And places like the new Wegmans Wonderplace introduce families to the idea of coming to the museum in ways that are gentle and non-threatening. This early introduction can lead to a lifelong love of museums and to seeing museums as a place to search for information in ways that are fun and interactive—even when there are a lot of things behind cases.
If you are in the DC area and have a young child please come visit Wegmans Wonderplace and share in their delight and curiosity as they explore. Afterwards go visit one piece of the larger museum and watch what your child does as you guide their explorations! You will be developing a sense of curiosity, a love for learning and a connection to the world around them. As the sign hanging in the entrance to Wegmans Wonderplace states—“Knowledge begins with Wonder.”