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First-time moms and dads welcomed in new children’s museum program

Wisconsin State Jounral

BY GAYLE WORLAND

It might be self-evident, but — kids like to play.

And the younger they play, the better. It’s with that concept in mind that the Madison Children’s Museum is launching a program this summer called First-Time Parents, which grants a free museum membership to families with their first baby. The goal: to get more parents with pre-toddler children — yes, even infants — in the door to experience the hands-on joy and critical development that play can provide.

“We get sad when we have families who come with a 3-year-old for the first time and say, ‘Oh, I hadn’t realized there was anything here for my baby,’ ” said Deborah Gilpin, the museum’s executive director. “We realized that — being that the 0 to 3 (age) range is so critical developmentally, and that we have so much for it — finding a way that takes away one more barrier gives one more enticement for families to come while they’re young, while we can have great influence,” Gilpin said.

A First-Time Parent membership, available to families regardless of income and valid until the child reaches 18 months old, provides unlimited visits to the award-winning museum, a special early-morning playtime before the museum opens one Saturday a month, and visits to the new weekly playgroup called “Early Explorers” run by the museum’s early-learning manager, Heather Davis. The museum’s longstanding Wildernest play area also is designated for children through age 5.

The nonprofit museum came up with the idea because “we noticed there was this gap between when people had kids who could use the museum, and when people actually started bringing their kids to the museum,” said MCM development officer Gabriella Gerhardt, who formerly served as membership manager. “I’d be talking to people on the phone who said, ‘Oh, she’s 3 now, maybe we can start coming to the museum,’ and I’d say, ‘Yes, now is the time!’ Actually, two years ago was the time,” Gerhardt said.

“Some people don’t recognize that this is a place for very young kids. I think they don’t think of museums as a place where young children belong, and we wanted to change that perception.”

The museum offers many sensory experiences — loads of things with buttons and levers, a wall to paint, things to touch, plants to smell, structures to climb and slide down, and more.

Scientists know the two sides of the brain become “wired up” through sensory experiences during the first three years of life, Gilpin said.
“So by the time you’re learning to read, that ‘wiring up’ is critical to reading,” she said. “We know that the physical learning becomes the intellectual learning in children.”

About 200,000 visitors came to the Madison Children’s Museum last fiscal year, Gerhardt said. More than 4,000 families hold annual museum memberships, a quarter of those through the museum’s Family Access program, where low-income families pay a $10 yearly fee, or more if they choose. Earlier this year, the museum eliminated its documentation requirement for Family Access. “People used to have to show that they were part of WIC, or something like that,” Gerhardt said. “We thought it was a burdensome requirement.”

Yet social as well as economic barriers can keep some parents isolated from opportunities such as the children’s museum, said Dr. Dipesh Navsaria, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

Navsaria, who works directly with many low-income families as a pediatrician at Access Community Health Center, served on the advisory board for MCM’s First-Time Parent program, and said he encourages the parents of his patients to give the museum a try.

“I think this really pays off for parents, and it pays off for kids,” he said. “One, it gives them an opportunity to do an outing together – to someplace that’s not just about entertainment alone, but is really built around learning and education, and helps build those strong relationships that are important between a parent and a child.

“A place that facilitates that, like a children’s museum, is fantastic, because it’s not just about the kid,” he said. “It gives parents a scaffold. The exhibits, the interactive aspects – if a parent isn’t sure, ‘How do I teach my child something, how do I work with them?’ ” the provided exhibits at the museum can help.

Navsaria pointed to other community efforts as well. The Parent-Child Home Program of United Way of Dane County, for example, sends early literacy experts into the homes of children ages 2 to 4 to help their parents prepare them for kindergarten.

“All these things pay off in terms of a child’s development,” he said.

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Alexus Hunt, 21, regularly brings her 4-year-old daughter Egypt, left, to the Madison Children’s Museum for activities with the Madison school district’s SAPAR program for school-aged parents. A first-time parent who went through the SAPAR program herself, Hunt says she emphasizes a lot of playtime for her daughter. “when they’re playing, they’re learning,” she said.

That’s also the idea behind the children’s museum’s longtime relationship with SAPAR, the Madison school district program for school-age parents. Through the program, students who become pregnant during high school are encouraged to continue their studies and, along with regular academic classes, take courses in parenting and other life skills. The new moms take regular field trips to the children’s museum, where they are encouraged to use the facility to play with their babies.

“There’s so much you can do here, because different kids have different personalities,” said Alexus Hunt, 21, who has brought her daughter Egypt to the museum regularly since participating in SAPAR. Today, Egypt is a bright, talkative and energetic 4-year-old much more interested in playing in the museum than sitting for an interview.

“It’s not really play, they’re actually learning,” Hunt said she learned as a first-time parent. “When they’re playing, they’re learning. When they’re playing, they’re working. I encourage her a lot” to play.

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Chris Johnson and his 17-month-old daughter Clio participate in the low-key Early Explorers playgroup for children through age 4 at the Madison Children’s Museum. The playgroup was started recently as a precursor to the museum’s First-Time Parents program, which will grant a free museum membership to first-time parents until their child reaches the ages of 18 months.

MCM launched its Early Explorer playgroup at the request of members, and as a precursor to the First-Time Parent program, Gilpin said. Children up to age 4 are welcome with a parent, grandparent, babysitter or other adult.

At a recent gathering, Early Explorer kids and parents chatted and played in a brightly colored room set up with early-learning activities – separated from the rest of the museum’s active hubbub by a baby gate.

Rebecca Brady, her husband, Zack, and 10-month-old son Xander attend the group regularly so Xander can socialize with other children his age, “and we get to meet other parents,” his mother said. After the group, the Bradys often head out into the rest of the museum to explore some more.

So does Chris Johnson and his 17-month-old daughter Clio, who also attend Early Explorers.

“There’s a lot of different experiences packed into a small area that allows us to do what she needs to do that day, and allows us to go with the flow,” he said.

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Heather Davis, early learning manager at the Madison Children’s Museum, often provides parents of very young children visiting the museum’s play groups with tips for activities, songs and hands-on ideas they can try at home.

Gilpin said she is not aware of any other children’s museum in the country offering free memberships to first-time parents as MCM will do this summer, with 100 families in June and unlimited sign-ups starting in August.

“We kind of made it up, and said this is something we just want to do here,” she said. “It’s such a rich environment. Parents are so hungry to learn when they’re a first-time parent. We know we can be a place that brings them resources.”

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