Getting Into the Guts of Children’s Museums
East Lyme (Google Maps location)
July 25, 2009
For the first few years of writing this website, I did my very best to retain my sort of anonymous integrity. By the summer of 2009, I began receiving more and more invites to events and museums, which I almost always politely declined. I don’t really know why – and I should have expected the inquiries.
Then it hit me: I don’t get paid for this and while my hobby is unbelievably cheap when compared to other things I could be spending my weekends doing… So why not take some of these places up on their generosity?
But this change in strategy came with some caveats. First and foremost, I needed these places to understand that by no means would their open door policy mean puff pieces on CTMQ. Not that I’m here to bash museums, but I do (I really do) want my visits to reflect YOUR visits. Oh sure, I’d love to see the secret backrooms and perhaps get the director’s ear a little bit more than “the next guy,” but I shouldn’t be treated like a king.
So when Christy Hammond, the Executive Director of the straightforwardly named Children’s Museum of Southeastern Connecticut reached out to me and offered up a free visit to us, it was rather difficult to refuse. I had come to realize that with Damian’s Smith-Magenis Syndrome, sometimes necessitating very abbreviated museum visits, I’d be a fool not to take the opportunities as they present themselves.
Great! We are looking forward to your Museum visit and beach trip this Saturday at 10 a.m. Michael will be the person at the front desk and he will be aware of the free admission for the whole family. A sunny Saturday morning can be a quiet time at the Museum. We will also reserve a beach pass for you for that day. McCook’s Beach Park is a great spot with trees, shade, lovely sand and water.
I think it is terrific that you made a quest of visiting each children’s museum in the state and I look forward to speaking with you after your visit. Having your perspective will help us to continue to grow and learn.
I’m pretty sure Christy knew I am actually attempting to visit every museum, not just every children’s museum, but whatever. I can forgive her slip up what with all the excitement an official CTMQ visit can bring.
And so we went. And it was indeed a sunny Saturday in southeastern Connecticut too. Michael was at the front desk as promised and upon introducing myself, Hoang, Damian and I were ushered in and given free rein. (Of course, so is every other visitor… After paying their 6 dollars each.) Alright! I just saved 18 bucks! How could I dare say anything bad about this place now!
Argh, you see why I’ve shied away from charity?
But, two important things to mention here: One, we were unable to use the free private beach pass due to – get this – Hoang having a hair appointment back in West Hartford at 2, so I wouldn’t be using ALL their charity. And two, Christy knew the score. After our visit she wrote:
Hope you had a good time while you visited the Museum on Saturday. I heard that you were not able to use the beach pass as you originally planned. I would love to have your feedback, negative and positive, so we can learn from your experience.
This Christy, she’s good people. She opened the door for potential negative feedback… Good.
But the thing is, I don’t really have any about the museum proper… I swear.
As promised, I provided Christy a thorough critique. You see, I don’t “take the money and run,” so to speak. Here is what you kindly executive directors will get for hooking me up:
Yes – my wife made an appointment late in the week for Sat afternoon. I can’t really blame her as keeping up with my schedule of “events” is near impossible. She and Damian are the real beach people anyway. : ) Please don’t feel we “took advantage” of the situation at all; your kindness was certainly appreciated.
We had a great time; nearly 2 hours at the museum. It was perfect for Damian and his skill sets. Most of the children’s museums we’ve visited skew towards slightly older kids and maybe have a single room devoted to younger kids. I felt that yours certainly targets younger kids – a demographic that isn’t really catered to much in our state. I’m not sure you market that aspect of the museum, but it couldn’t hurt.
I did read a few anonymous reviews on TripAdvisor or Yelp or something wherein parents sort of complained it was “too young.” Well, they have plenty of other options around the state!
As you know, Damian is 3 and a half but due to his special needs is more like a non-verbal 2 year old. He still likes colors and flashing lights and spinning things; so those items were particular hits. It sounds simplistic, but that stuff, coupled with the other hands-on displays in the room with the animals were great for him – and surely are for other kids 2-5 years old. Simple, straight-forward items with which kids can “create” – be it sounds (organ), ping-pong ball paths, twinkling lights or a “meal” on a magnetic board are great.
As much as I love my hometown children’s museum here in West Hartford, there isn’t enough of that stuff and what there is, is coupled with physics concepts far beyond my child.
The “tour of the world” (sorry, I don’t have my notes or pictures with me at the moment) area was equally excellent. Every kid there seemed to be having fun; being creative and engaging in imaginary play – something obviously every parent encourages in their kids. It’s a specific area we are working on with Damian. He really took to the Mexican cantina and serving us tacos and ringing us up on the register. It was really cute.
And as he (and other younger kids) begin to learn putting names/words with actual items (lobster, pyramid, wok, brontosaurus, etc), I found the museum a fun and creative place to learn that stuff.
And the bubble table? Forget about it. That was 20 minutes of fun (for him) right there! It didn’t matter a whit to him that it was 90+ degrees outside.
People often complain about museums like yours for being “old school” without too many electronic gadgets or bells and whistles. Ignore them. Kids don’t need that – kids need imaginative play in a variety of settings and they need compartmentalization. It’s funny, with Damian and his global developmental delays, we recognize the need for this stuff more than other parents. He needs the structure and compartmentalization and hands-on imaginative play that your place provides – even more than daycare where he can flit about from one activity to another every 2 minutes.
Little kids don’t need to learn how to use cell phones or computers – they need exactly what you provide.
As far as criticisms, I’m sure people balk at the $6 per head charge. Mind you, they’d not bat an eyelash at renting a movie for 6 bucks to plop their kid in front of a TV for 2 hours. (Full disclosure: We’re not above that.) Throw in the beach pass to what I’m sure is a perfect little beach for families and they are getting a steal.
I don’t know what your limit on beach passes is, but that’s certainly something to play up. And on days when the local history museums are having programs (like the Thomas Lee House and the Brookside Farm Museum), perhaps partner up with them to incentivize parents of older kids to “spend a day” learning in East Lyme. I visited both those places on CT Open House day last year and they were both excellent – period costumes and activities for kids.
Also, maybe even something with the wondrous Book Barn. Maybe 50% children’s books with a Children’s Museum receipt (or vice versa) or something.
You can tell I’m big into the partnership idea. As our smaller museums struggle, it boggles my mind how they don’t partner up with various passport or “go here and save there” coupon ideas.
If you’d like specific answers to any questions, just let me know. If you’d like to chat, I’ll make myself available to do so.
Thank you again for your generosity!
Steve (and Hoang and Damian)
Darn, now I can’t just boilerplate that letter for future free visits. Oh well. Before I go into a little more detail about the museum, it should be noted that Christy replied thusly:
Thank you very much for your lovely critique of our Museum. I appreciate the time you took to compose the note. We just finished a strategic plan that focuses on becoming a co-created museum, partnerships as you called it, so we are headed in that direction.
Thanks again and if you ever decide you would like to return, just let us know! The beach is lovely in the fall too, and there is a local spot for apples with freshly made cider donuts!
Hope to see you again,
Isn’t this wonderful? Isn’t this what it’s all about? The great thing about Connecticut is that even if you live in northern Salisbury, this place is only 100 miles away – and trust me, coupled with a stop at the Book Barn and an afternoon at the beach while chowing down on some lobster rolls from Johnny Ad’s down the street… it’s worth the effort. So stop saying there’s nothing to do in Connecticut!
Boy, this write-up is writing itself. Heck, I might as well let the museum’s website explain, in their own words, what they are all about:
The Children’s Museum of Southeastern Connecticut is an interactive, hands-on, educational place for children to try on new roles, let their imaginations soar and feel safe while exploring the world around them. 5,000 square feet and all on one floor, the Museum is accessible to everyone. We engage, encourage, and challenge children from 9 months to 9 years in the arts, sciences, health, and world cultures. Visit the Discovery Room featuring Kelsey’s Vision, live animals and science activities. Climb into the kids’ clubhouse. Pilot a fishing boat, then head to the Fish Market. Explore Toddler Land with your infants and toddlers. Don’t miss the Global Village, a celebration of diverse cultural heritage. Would-be builders create wonders in the construction exhibit. Open year ’round for the truly hearty, our 2 outdoor areas delight youngsters with giant chimes, whale drum, dino dig, climbing wall, performing stage, a real 2-person research submarine and more!
See our exhibits! Each exhibit is stocked with Imagination Sparkers for adults looking for a bit more and classic children’s books to read to their child. Older children will enjoy the scavenger hunt with all sorts of gizmos added to expand their learning. Come ready to play or ready to relax while your children do all the work!!
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Except I wouldn’t have mentioned “Kelsey’s Vision,” because I have no idea what that is – and some of the outdoor stuff is brand new too, so yeah, maybe we WILL have to revisit this summer and actually hit up the beach next time.
Just to touch on a few specific exhibits, if I may. The first room Damian enjoyed was filled with those “bells and whistles” I mentioned above. And wacky mirrors and all sorts of “touch” and “sound” stations. It was really neat to watch him create different things through new and inventive means. This large room is perfect for little kids – and it’s not all fun and games.
Here’s the guy responsible for the title of this post:
Damian loved feeding him food and diving into his innards. Okay, that last part wasn’t so much “learning” as it was my child being a nut, but it was still fun.
There were also a few choice live reptiles and amphibians in the corner of this room as well, which are always a hit with Damian for 4 minutes or so.
But the biggest hit of all here is outside. Ah yes, the bubble table. Despite the midday July sun beating down on his sweating head, Damian simply did not want to leave the giant bubbles. This gave me some time to check out the Benthic Explorer, a real two-person submarine at least.
Back inside (finally), we were pleased to find this museum’s green screen video technology in working order (a first!) and Hoang and Damian were able to give the news for once.
It’s easy to see in the pictures that Damian really enjoyed his visit. In fact, he enjoyed it a bit too much as that’s the reason we had no time for the beach… Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The museum offers a few unique touches beyond all I’ve mentioned that really make it special. They have changes of clothes in case your kid makes a wet mess of his! They are sure to offer stickers upon leaving to, “make leaving the museum a little bit easier.” Awww.
I should mention a few last things… The museum puts on a variety of different programs throughout the year and I must mention what they call, “Creative Nonsense Week.” How awesome is that? My whole life is creative nonsense. Oh to be a kid again…
For now, we’ll just enjoy a few more pictures of my son at one of the few museums he cried about having to leave!