Science Centers Offer Big Ideas for Little Learners

It’s your first trip to a museum with your toddler and you can already picture the chaos: Older kids are oohing and ahhing over exhibits and your little one is running through the gallery, climbing over barriers and possibly running up a bill for that experiment she just knocked over.

But today’s science centers aren’t the stuffy institutions you might be picturing. In fact, science centers across the country have become increasingly toddler-friendly over the years and are a great place to take even the youngest of children, says Lorrie Beaumont, the director of education at the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum. And, they aren’t just for kids either! Here are 10 reasons why science centers – just like the Michigan Science Center – are fun for adults, too.

“Very, very young children are just natural born scientists,” she says. “The way a young child learns is the same way a scientist works. Trial and error, persistence, experimenting, trying things over and over again.”

A little running or yelling is to be expected among the youngest visitors. “We don’t worry about them breaking things or being disruptive,” Beaumont says.

So whether it’s Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry or a science center here in southeast Michigan, parents should know that their toddler is very welcome.

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“We have children here at one year of age that are walking through these halls, looking, touching,” says Nancy Swords, deputy director at the Cranbrook Institute of Science. “I don’t think it’s ever too young to bring a child.”

Importance of informal learning experiences

Science centers fall into the category of informal learning experiences, which are activities outside of the classroom setting that are led by a parent, Beaumont says. Other examples include zoos, nature centers and art museums.

“All of these offer opportunities for kids to develop their skills of observing, predicting and understanding the world,” she says. “We know that curiosity is an important motivation for seeking information, so providing children with engaging resources and experiences allows them to develop real world connections and build their own understanding of how the world works.”

Many parents also bring their toddlers to the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum for socialization, including making friends and learning to share.

“It’s a great place for socialization,” Beaumont says.

Planning your visit in advance

Keep in mind the times of day that work best for your child and try to stick with their regular nap schedule. Also consider asking the museum in advance of your visit whether there are any field trips or other events that might make it a less ideal day to visit.

“We can always tell you if we’re going to be really busy or not,” says Meredith Gregory, public programs coordinator at the Michigan Science Center. She also suggests parents arrive to the center early for the best parking.

In advance of your visit, consider checking out which exhibits you’d like to see – like the early childhood gallery Kids Town at the Michigan Science Center. A full guide is available here.

“I always recommend that parents utilize this to make the most of the experience,” Gregory says.

Being prepared also means a change of clothes. Michigan Science Center and the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum both feature water table areas that toddlers will love.

When you arrive, be sure to ask for suggestions on what’s best for a toddler, Swords recommends.

“I would stop at any informal learning institution and stop at the desk and say what are your suggestions, what do you have for my child,” she says. “I think every institution realizes that we all want these audiences here, we want children to grow into these spaces.”

Let your child lead

You’ll probably find that your toddler has a hard time focusing on any one exhibit for very long at first, Beaumont says.

“Every age child goes through this flitting about period where they’re just darting from thing to thing. The parent is thinking, ‘Oh, they’re not interested, they can’t settle down,’ but if you watch you’ll see they will settle down and they’ll hone in on something,” she says.

It also helps to take your time; don’t try to see the whole museum in one day.

“That’s probably the most important advice we could give parents is let your child lead, don’t be in a hurry. Come back often,” she says. “They might roll a ball, put a ball into a hole over and over again. Well that’s the level that they’re at and that’s OK.”

Make it a habit

Kids from a very young age have a way of working through a science museum, Beaumont says.

“They might come in and splash water and that’s all they do, and they keep coming back and by the time they’re 10 they’re figuring out how batteries work, how to make a circuit. Now they’re really engaged in more complex things,” she says. “They take it with them and remember what they did which you can’t necessarily get out of them when they go to school.”

Swords says repeated experiences help build children’s curiosity and make them want to visit more often.

“The more experiences parents can provide the more connections children can make,” she says. “I think sometimes, parents might not be interested in something. As a child my mother collected more bugs in jars for me. I had no idea my mother hated insects. She didn’t care because she knew how much I loved them.”

Remember what’s developmentally appropriate

Swords says museum staff don’t expect toddlers to behave like older kids.

“I think we have big expectations on children’s behaviors and when you look at where children are developmentally, you can’t always expect that, I think the easier it is for everyone to fit into the programming,” she says.

Swords often tells students on field trips to be mindful of the younger children visiting. “We need to be looking out for the younger children and modeling for them how it works in the museum,” she says.

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