Kid Kurator: A Kid-guided Tour of The Children’s Museum of Eau Claire

Jacqueline Van Hemert, Director of Programs and Events at The Children’s Museum of Eau Claire is making a power play – for the power of play.

“As a Children’s Museum, a big part of our advocacy concerns the power of play. Today, kids are increasingly overscheduled and overworked with homework, structured extracurricular activities and academic prep. However, research continues to suggest that kids who spend the most time playing are the ones most likely to become happy, healthy and successful.”

For over a decade now, the Children’s Museum has been kid central in downtown Eau Claire. “The Children’s Museum of Eau Claire opened its doors in 2005. Last year, we actually hosted a giant 10th Birthday Party to celebrate our double digits!  Patrick Rebman (one of the Museum’s founders) would often take (his daughter) Morgan up to the Children’s Museum in Minneapolis. It wasn’t long before 3-year-old Morgan asked, ‘Daddy, why can’t we have a Children’s Museum in our city?’ That question prompted Patrick to ask, ‘Why can’t we have a Children’s Museum in our city?’ and the dream was born!”

Since its opening, over 600,000 visitors have played and learned at the Children’s Museum. “We are hoping to welcome our one-millionth visitor within the next few years,” Van Hemert said. And a vital museum is like a child in at least one important way; it has to grow to thrive. “Within the next year or so, we’ll be introducing several new Museum features and program spaces—a private ‘Nursing Nook’ in the Toddler Park Exhibit, a fresh new ‘Art Café’ that will feature local artists-in-residence along with some creative new paint and project spaces, and a STEM-friendly Learning Lab that will be home to the Museum’s 3-D printers, spectacular science shows and all sorts of exciting new programming for our future scientists and engineers. On top of that, several signature exhibits will be receiving updates and tweaks. You’ll definitely want to ‘dig in’ to a new feature in Kid-Struction and brush up on your theatrics for snazzy additions to Show Business. Looking forward to 2017 and beyond, we are up to our elbows in ideas and grants for brand new, interactive exhibits that will eventually make their way to the Museum’s top level.

“Although you’ll find similar exhibits in other Children’s Museums, each one of our exhibits has been individually crafted and designed for our city and our space,” said Van Hemert. As examples she lists the “Bitty City Credit Union,” the Family Farm tractor, and “Oreo our very own milk cow.”

Because the energy outputs of children don’t quit, neither does the Museum. Activity and program rooms on the lower level of the Museum are always open. The art projects and prompts change out each week and unlike other museums, are available whenever the child is. According to Van Hemert, favorites include play dough, painting, and the “Trash to Treasure hunt” hands-on maker space that lets kids tinker, build and create.

The most popular draws at the Museum? “By far, BodySmarts (the giant digestive system) and WaterWorks are two of the most popular and well-loved Museum exhibits. The homemade play dough table probably takes a close third.”

Psychologists and educators have long argued that play is essential to children, and not just for physical development.

“Although formal academics and structured activities are important, child-directed play (the kind where kids lead and adults follow) is critical for healthy emotional, cognitive and social development. In other words, it might look like a child is “just playing,” but under the surface she is actually solving problems, learning language, developing empathy and strengthening self-regulation.

“I believe it was our very own Mister Fred Rogers who said, ‘Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.’ Now more than ever, Children’s Museums are some of the only places that continue to protect and nurture hands-on, unsupervised, exploratory play.”

Steve Betchkal

Chief Videojournalist