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With the PlayHouse about to open, its director explains how its unique character will complement Peoria’s existing cultural institutions.

In the fall of 2013, soon after I moved to Peoria, I heard the Peoria Park District and the Junior League of Peoria were building a children’s museum. I was thrilled to hear that! Before living in Peoria, I had lived in New York City and Washington DC, and I know from my experiences in these cities how important museums are to a community—and how much they can contribute to the lives of children and families.

I have spent my career working in museums, focusing on how they can enrich the lives of visitors. At the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, I managed a program that sends artists into public elementary schools, where they collaborate with teachers to plan and lead year-long art projects. Research demonstrates that this program improves children’s critical thinking skills, and I spoke with numerous teachers whose classrooms were transformed through their partnerships with the museum. Later, at the Noguchi Museum, I worked with visitors of all ages across a wide range of programs. Families vied for spaces in our family programs; teachers raved about our professional development workshops; parents and babies traveled 30 or more minutes to attend early-morning infant and toddler classes.

When I arrived in Peoria in 2013, I quickly explored and became a member of the Peoria Riverfront Museum, Peoria Zoo, Luthy Botanical Garden and Wildlife Prairie Park. These institutions are all very special. I love going to the Riverfront Museum and watching adults play in the IHSA area. Or going to the schoolhouse at Wildlife Prairie Park and learning about education in the early 20th century. Or spending the day in Glen Oak Park visiting the giraffes and spider monkeys, then basking in the warmth of the Luthy conservatory.

The PlayHouse will add to all of this. For over a decade, dedicated Junior League volunteers and Park District staff have been working with knowledgeable consultants to create world-class, interactive exhibits that include areas dedicated to Peoria’s history and science community, the Illinois River, the local construction industry and our farming economy. My challenge has been to figure out how to give programming at the PlayHouse its own character, one that complements these wonderful exhibits as well as Peoria’s existing cultural institutions. As soon as I started this job, I began asking: What is it that will make the PlayHouse special? What does Peoria need from its brand-new children’s museum? Here are a few of our answers to these questions.

The Importance of Play
Mark Twain said, “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” In the United States, founded on a Puritan work ethic, we do not take play very seriously. But as Howard P. Chudacoff, Brown University historian and author of Children at Play, writes, “Play has functional, utilitarian qualities related to a child’s development and learning. An individual… acquires vital social, emotional, physical and cognitive skills through play, thereby learning how to prepare for a future role as a productive adult.”

Despite what we know about the importance of play, in recent decades schools across the United States have cut back on play time, replacing recess and free time with lessons in math and reading. A recent Education Week article noted that “the American Academy of Pediatrics found that many schools had lessened recess time to comply with increased academic demands, and that children attending high-poverty and urban schools are less likely than their peers in middle- and upper-income schools to receive adequate playtime.”

The Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum provides a space for children to play. It is also a place in which we can visibly demonstrate—and thus advocate for—the importance of play. We are collaborating with Bradley University’s Department of Cognitive Psychology to engage in ongoing research into how children play in the museum, and how they benefit from this play. We look forward to sharing this research through our website, teacher workshops and programs for parents.

A Collaborative Mindset
In a 2013 post on the Whiskey City Collaborative blog, artist Josh Cox wrote that Peoria needs more collaboration among art groups: “Too often in Peoria, artists and arts organizations cluster together in their own studios and venues, rarely venturing out to other ‘rival’ spaces, creating a really unhealthy us vs. them attitude in the process.”

In 2013, I taught a class at Bank Street College on collaboration in museum programming. Collaboration is difficult, but highly productive. As infrastructure consultants AECOM note, it “can yield strategic advantages and a value offering from the team that goes beyond the sum of its individual components.”

At the PlayHouse, we are building programs collaboratively, with the conviction that by working together, we can not only build better programs for the museum, but can support initiatives city-wide. With this in mind, we are collaborating with social service providers to serve low-income families in Peoria; we are collaborating with area teachers to create a PlayHouse field trip program; and we are collaborating with engineers, artists and other “makers” to infuse the museum with a “makerspace” philosophy.

The Power of Imagination and Creativity
Children’s museums have the potential to engage the imagination in unique ways. In the PlayHouse exhibits, children can become astronauts, train conductors, construction workers, veterinarians or scientists. They can create moonscapes from sand or imagine a deep-water dive in the Illinois River. They can imagine new ways to use play spaces—ways that I cannot begin to predict.

We see the mission of the PlayHouse as supporting this imaginative and creative work in as many ways as possible. For this reason, we are working with a nine-member team to infuse our programs with a makerspace philosophy that encourages innovation and promotes making new things as part of daily life.

For those new to makerspaces, these are sites created by and for communities of people committed to invention, learning, collaboration and shared resources. They vary in the audiences they serve and the tools they house, but they all promote the creative and imaginative ability of the individual to transform and improve our world. The PlayHouse makerspace philosophy will be evident in our family workshops, kid workshops and transformation events—all of which we look forward to launching this summer.

Outreach to New Audiences
Nearly 400,000 people live in the Peoria Metropolitan Statistical Area. The “Heart of Illinois” area has around one million people. However, only a small portion of this population visits museums regularly. For some, museums hold no interest. For others, museums are inaccessible because of their cost.

The PlayHouse can grow new museum visitors, enriching people’s lives beyond the children’s museum and supporting the central Illinois economy. We can partner with the Riverfront Museum to ensure that young visitors understand that both the PlayHouse and the Riverfront Museum are museums, and that visitors who enjoy the PlayHouse might also want to visit other museums. We can encourage visitors to explore the neighboring Luthy Botanical Garden, and return to the PlayHouse with their ideas for projects in the plant area on our Sand Porch. We can attract school groups to Glen Oak Park during the winter, where they can visit the zoo and then spend time, and eat lunch, at the PlayHouse.

The PlayHouse is also reaching out to families that cannot afford museum admission. In partnership with nearly 20 local agencies, the PlayHouse will distribute a number of Explorer Passes to low-income families during 2015. These passes have a variety of benefits, which will make it possible for these families to access the PlayHouse. It is our hope that the Explorer Program will help make the PlayHouse a museum for all Peorians. iBi

Rebecca Herz is director of the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum. For more information, call (309) 323-6900, email [email protected] or visit peoriaplayhouse.org

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