Hands-On Learning at Children’s Museums


Hands-on, please touch. Busy brains, curious minds. Sandbox, playhouse, stepping stones. These words – along with the often-used word discovery – are some of the terms found in the names of children’s museums listed on the website of the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM).

Behind the fun and the play, children’s museums are actually engaging in a serious endeavor – educating the youngest generation. As Jean Piaget put it, “play is the work of childhood.”

I remember visiting the Capital Children’s Museum, at the time located near Union Station in Washington, DC. As a kid, my favorite parts were the caves and the giant bubbles. Especially the caves.

The Capital Children’s Museum later rebranded itself as the National Children’s Museum and opened its Launch Zone at National Harbor in Maryland. Unfortunately, I never made it to the Launch Zone during its run from 2009 through 2012. (Today, the website hints at a future DC location for the museum.) I have briefly visited National Harbor, which currently has other offerings that may appeal to children, including rides like a carousel and the Capital Wheel, and the Awakening sculpture-cum-climbing structure.

The hand of the Awakening is trying to lift the National Harbor Christmas tree off the ground.

The hand of the Awakening is trying to lift the National Harbor Christmas tree off the ground (2011)

One children’s museum I did visit as an adult was the Hands-On Museum in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Among the interactive installations, children could build an arch, see themselves on screen in the MediaWorks gallery, and learn about that beloved subject among youngsters: toilets.

Toilet exhibit at the Hands-On Museum in Ann Arbor, Michigan (2005)

Toilet exhibit at the Hands-On Museum in Ann Arbor, Michigan (2005)

ACM’s website points out, “Many children’s museums are located in major travel and tourism destinations,” and emphasizes that a trip to a museum designed especially for children can be an important and memorable part of a vacation. For families with little ones, visiting a children’s museum should perhaps be right on that checklist along with the destination’s art museums, historic buildings, and national parks.

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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