Open Doors, Open Minds: Museums Provide a Place for Play

Even for the littlest among us, time constraints exist because of homework or other activities scheduled down to the minute. Electronic devices are a constant presence, their glowing screens tempting children to stay inside even on the sunniest of days. Competitive sports teams offer activity but often inside a rigid structure that make them seem more like work than fun.

It all adds up to an undeniable fact: children are not getting enough opportunities to play in the imaginative, open, self-guided way that scientists know to be integral to their learning and ability to develop problem-solving skills they will need as adults.

“Play is actually the ideal state for learning,” says Nichole Myles, executive director of the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry. “When you ‘take a break and play,’ you set yourself and your children up for the ideal learning experience. Our brains and bodies change when we are playing. Serotonin (a feel-good chemical in our bodies) goes up; cortisol (our body’s stress hormone) goes down. Through play, we prime the brain’s pumps and ready it to take in new information.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees. In September, a report from the organization stated that “play is not frivolous,” and a lack of it can lead to stress impeding the development of social behavior that benefits others—such as helping and sharing. The report urged pediatricians to write “a prescription for play” promoting the activity’s benefits and its importance in child development.

That can be easier said than done; writing on the website of the Brookings Institution, two of the report’s authors note that school recess has dropped 30 percent and the time children spent on electronic devices tripled between 2014 and 2017. “Home environments are increasingly confining children to the indoors and to screen time,” they state.

So where do you find a place that can provide the safe, imaginative, free-flowing play that children need? Museums geared specifically to children featuring hands-on exhibits allowing them to open the doors to their creativity are an ideal location. The nonprofit Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry, for example, offers an interactive water exhibit that helps children develop problem-solving skills and an art room that spurs their creativity.

“Play is central to everything we do,” Myles says. “Whether it’s teaching a coding camp or hosting a storyteller, we know that without an environment and framework of play, learning is often lost and experiences diminish. This model makes us a leader in the community in something so many take for granted—the essential role of play.”

The challenge becomes making that play available to all children and closing the “opportunity gap” that divides children born to more affluent households and their under-resourced peers. The gap “sets tens of thousands of children on a path that makes success difficult,” Myles says.

That’s why the Children’s Museum offers programs so everybody can play. The Museum was the first museum in the state of South Carolina to participate in the national Museums for All program, which grants admission for up to 6 people for just $1 when they show their EBT, SNAP or WIC card. The Children’s Museum partnered with the George and Anne Seignious Fund to provide Warm Welcome Memberships, offering families with EBT/SNAP, free/reduced lunch or WIC a 90% savings on a year-long membership. Additionally, the Museum works with the Charleston County Public Library to allow any Charleston County resident to check out a membership card at a local library branch to receive unlimited admission for up to 6 people in the same household for one week.

In order to continue these programs, the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry has begun the “Museums Open Doors” initiative, which encourages donors to cover free admission, sponsor a class field trip or sponsor two full weeks of summer camp for children in need. The goal is to allow every child, no matter their socioeconomic situation, to discover the rich and vibrant world an interactive museum offers—and help them experience the imaginative play so crucial to their development.

“We are committed to being a partner within our community,” Myles says, “and we will continue to deliver our unique play-based learning experiences to each of the Tri-County’s youngest citizens, regardless of status.”

Interested in helping to open a door and spark the creativity of an area child? Donate to the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry through their website at ExploreCML.org/donate. For more information, call (843) 853-8962, or visit at 25 Ann Street in downtown Charleston.