How Playtime Creates Community

by Stacia Whitmore, Vice President, Institutional Giving, Chicago Children’s Museum
Chicago Children's Museum

The Chicago Children’s Museum knows that playtime isn’t just fun for kids, it’s also an invaluable way to bring families and communities together in a safe and nurturing environment.

Children learn through play. It’s an important part of their cognitive, physical, language, and social-emotional development. Play is thinking creatively, solving problems, trying and failing, and trying again – it’s how children make sense of our world. Play has been shown to increase school readiness and comprehension within academic settings. And when families play together, it helps create happy and healthy relationships and instills memories that last a lifetime.

However, in a time when childhood experiences are increasingly structured and adult-facilitated, children are losing out on opportunities to play – and more importantly, may not be developing essential skills as a result. And for the many children in Chicago who struggle with the reality and threat of violence, poverty, homelessness, and more, there are a range of barriers that severely limit their access to meaningful play experiences. These barriers include a lack of recreational areas in their communities, safety concerns that limit outdoor activities, and the reduction of recess and recreation time during the school day.

What I feel is important for foundations and community leaders to know is that there is value to investing in play. There’s value to children – play is how children learn and develop crucial skills. There’s value to families – play nurtures the bonds between children and their caregivers. And there is value to our city – places to play bring communities together and are safe, nurturing environments for families.

Chicago Children’s Museum is an engaging place committed to play. We believe children will become healthy, engaged, lifelong learners when they are given opportunities, support, time, and a truly wonderful place to play. When kids walk in, they make their own choices – they take risks, try new things, and discover for themselves what they can do.

We’re the only cultural institution in Chicago that’s solely dedicated to young children and the important adults in their lives. We are a vibrant gathering place where families from every Chicago community come together to explore, learn, and share. Our experiences are designed with children in mind, but we get the whole family playing together. Because we believe that when children see adults at their sides – trying something new, working through challenges, or learning from each other – it inspires collaboration, illuminates minds, and brings families and communities closer.

We work very hard to bring everyone here – regardless of financial, physical, cultural, or geographic challenges. Our focus is on engaging those who are most in need of playful learning experiences. That’s why every year, 30% of our visitors receive free or reduced admission. It’s why we partner with over 700 Chicago schools and community-based organizations that represent Chicago’s North, West, and South sides to reduce barriers and expand opportunities to visit the museum.

We use a community engagement model to build and sustain partnerships throughout Chicago. The Museum has dedicated staff responsible for developing partnerships – they attend neighborhood meetings, sit on neighborhood councils, and participate in local activities. We also build relationships with leaders in community-based and faith-based organizations, neighborhood associations, child care provider networks, and other educational institutions. Our goal is to understand the needs of the families in our city and be able to respond with full access to programs.

At the heart of all we do is the belief that investing in the well-being of all children and families will positively affect our city. The Field Foundation made its first grant to the Chicago Children’s Museum in 1989 and since that time has supported our work to provide access and support to low-income and underserved families. Our most recent partnership with the Field was providing buses and free visits for families, students, and educators. That important support of free buses and field trips removes the financial barrier to visitation so that more kids and families from Chicago’s low-income communities can experience the museum.

Teachers have been reporting that the Illinois state budget crisis has continued to cause staffing and program cuts throughout Chicago Public Schools, making it a challenge to book field trips. Our partners at social service agencies and other organizations report similar financial pressures, forcing them to make difficult decisions about how to serve families with scarce resources. The Field Foundation’s ongoing support has made a transformative impact on the lives of the children and families who visit on field trips. For many of these families, safety concerns limit their ability to make use of recreation areas and gathering spaces in their own neighborhoods. These trips allow families access to a much-needed safe place to play, learn, and grow together. For many families, a field trip is their first visit to the museum. For many kids, it’s their first museum experience ever and first visit downtown.

Having a focus on underserved populations in Chicago, the Field Foundation brings both funding and awareness to programs like ours and to key organizations that serve populations in need throughout the city. What’s significant about the work and impact of the Field Foundation is that it both encourages organizations to share new and innovative ideas, but it’s also willing to consider funding those new ideas for multiple years. So, in addition to the important “seed money” the foundation provides, the foundation also encourages sustainability by allowing organizations to request renewal funds. And to boot, the foundation staff have been extremely helpful to work with through the years. Mark Murray [Program Director] has always given us honest, constructive feedback. In a time that many foundation staff no longer conduct site visits or calls, we have always appreciated the chance to talk and meet with Mark at the museum, introduce him to staff, and show him our newest exhibits and programs.

I think a great way to share the impact these programs funded by the Field Foundation have made is through the lens of our partners. Here are a few words from three partners about how a free field trip or free bus service has caused so many positive ripples within their school and/or communities...

“Last year, our 71 students attended a field trip to the Chicago Children’s Museum, and over half of the students were able to bring a parent or adult relative along with them. This experience marked a turning point for both my classroom and the early learning childhood department at the school. Parents and families began to trust staff members more, attending classroom literacy events and staying after school to discuss their child’s progress. The success of that field trip engendered a common culture of support for students between parents and school staff.”-- Partner School
“We took part in a parent and child trip to the Chicago Children’s Museum where children were able to make necessary connections to classroom content through play-based exploration with their parent. This experience was intended to support the additional aim of parent education around the power of play and how young children learn. We absolutely satisfied this goal, with many parents joining us on our trip, and children demonstrating the connections made to classroom topics and learning objectives. However, through generous partnership with the museum we were also able to provide the additional opportunity for parents to learn about the power of play through a workshop on-site at Dvorak before embarking on the trip – thus preparing parents for the things that they would see and do with their children. We were able to provide classroom learning experiences that they would not otherwise have had access to. As shown in our performance and growth reports, students demonstrated marked growth in the areas of language and cognitive development from the periods before and after this trip. The experiences at the museum and the parent workshop had a true impact on the pre-k program, the results of which, in the applicant’s opinion, are still to be fully shown in years to come.”-- Dvorak School of Excellence
“Our students are from an economically suppressed area. To be able to drive by the lake, dig like archeologists, play like boat captains...exposes them to a world a book or video could not. The Museum lets them have these experiences hands on, watching the results of their own decision making. When will they ever have room or equipment to launch foam into the air? The experience has shown them that their world is bigger than the eight blocks they travel in and that our city has so much to offer.”-- Ortiz de Dominguez Pre-K

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© 2016 Field Foundation
All photos by Olga Lopez