Tuesday, February 2, 2010

discovering the bay area discovery museum

Two weeks ago I visited the Bay Area Discovery Museum on a chilly, rainy day. The museum is made up of many small buildings and is well known for its outdoor playspaces, all within full, breathtaking view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Having forgotten my umbrella, I focused on indoor exhibits and caught glimpses of The Bridge through the rain.

Because the museum is just as much about the indoor exhibits as it about the grounds, the museum doesn’t seem to experience the rainy-day influx that other museums do. Even though the museum wasn’t packed, I had a great time watching the few families that were there enjoying the exhibits. Each exhibit space is small and set apart from the others, so exhibits are quieter and inspire a more contemplative kind of play than some of the larger museums I’ve visited. Exhibits were full of tubes of seashore artifacts to examine, tunnels to explore, glass walls to paint on, and beautiful costumes to wear. These are examples of the open-ended kinds of play that encourage creativity. For the museum’s philosophy on nurturing childhood creativity, check out their website.

The traveling exhibit in Discovery Hall, Animal Secrets, was all about animal habitats. Something I appreciated about this exhibit was the care that was taken to actively include caregivers in their children’s play.

Some signage spoke to families directly:
The tone was encouraging:
And sometimes the invitation was more subtle:

In this last instance, the chipmunk costumes came in adult sizes, so grown-up chipmunks could join their little chipmunks gathering acorns and storing them in a big hollow tree. I couldn’t help but smile to see a boy and his parents exploring the exhibit hall, all wearing matching chipmunk vests with tails.

Museums like the Bay Area Discovery Museum know the importance of a grown-up’s involvement in their child’s play, but they also know how important it is for that play to be child-directed. It’s a difficult balance to strike. Offering open-ended activities like exploring a cave or following animal tracks are less likely to encourage parental take-over and prompts like the above examples reassure parents that they’re welcome.

As much as I enjoyed each exhibit hall, I stayed in Tot Spot the longest. Specifically for infants and toddlers, it was the most popular exhibit hall that rainy weekday afternoon. I sat on one of three vinyl waterbed ponds under a tank full of goldfish with a family of four. We counted the fish, jumped on the waterbed, and played with big green vinyl lily pads. There were lots of fun costumes to wear, structures to climb over, under, and through, and lots of fun textures to experience.

The next sunny day I have available to me, I’ll be going back to the Bay Area Discovery Museum to check out all the outdoor playspaces. I’m looking forward to it!

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