As the children's museum movement matures, it's taking on more civic responsibility.
At this year's annual convention of the Association of Youth Museums, the theme was "creativity in civil society." Much attention was placed on exploring opportunities to partner with other organizations, from housing projects to libraries to YMCAs, in order to build social capital.
One example of community building involves the under-construction children's museum in Lowell, Mass., where residents of a neighboring seniors complex will be given the run of the facility on designated nights.
In Seattle, the Children's Museum provides after-school programs in conjunction with the Seattle Housing Authority. It also has a program called Experimental Gallery, which reaches out to young people in prison or hospitals.
One of the most innovative initiatives is Families Together, a project of the Providence [R.I.] Children's Museum that facilitates visitations of court-separated families.
Since 1991, the museum has collaborated with the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families, which deals with families in crisis. Because of various forms of abuse or neglect, the children have been removed from parents who face a range of difficulties, from lack of education to lack of financial resources to drug and alcohol problems.
"The dilemma for many of these families is how to learn to be involved in each others' lives while separated from one another," says Heidi Brinig, who founded and continues to direct the program. "Most traditional visitation situations between parents and children take place in a sterile institutional environment, perhaps a room in a community mental-health center."
This is hardly an atmosphere that encourages interaction, especially among people who may see each other for only an hour every week or two. But at the museum, parents and children are drawn together in a nonthreatening, participatory environment.
The parents are given a thorough introduction to the museum before visiting their children, who are in foster care or living in group homes. Goals are established for each visit by the museum's family therapists, who supply supportive guidance.
"We find that many parents [whose children have been removed from their custody] don't have realistic expectations for their children," Ms. Brinig says. "Their understanding of what is typical for a child of three is not well developed, so we try to teach them through their play together."
A children's museum is ideal, Brinig says, because it gives parents and children an opportunity to practice being a family in an environment that is safe, respectful, and nurturing.
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