A couple of years ago, Cara Lesser quit her job in health policy and took a leap of faith toward creating something that she felt was badly lacking in Montgomery County: a place where elementary school-aged students can experiment, create and play outside of school.
There are already the Smithsonian museums downtown, of course, as well as public parks, private museums, embassies and myriad other cultural and educational entities in the region.
But Lesser has found that when she identifies events that might interest her children, then venues are usually sold out in advance or mobbed when they arrive. Smithsonian attractions bring not just neighbors but tourists from around the world.
“There is this incredible hunger for these types of activities for kids,” she said. “Even when there is a sort of one-day event, they get booked up right away.”
When Lesser began drawing up plans for a children’s museum, she found other parents who shared her frustration; although Montgomery County is one of the most highly educated and diverse counties in the country, with more than 1 million residents, it has nothing akin to children’s museums in other major metropolitan areas.
Indeed, the Association of Children’s Museums, lists the Chesapeake Children’s Museum in Annapolis, Port Discovery Children’s Museum in Baltimore and the Children’s Museum of Rose Hill Manor Park in Frederick.
But the only Maryland listing inside the Beltway is the National Children’s Museum, which made the curious decision years back to move from H Street NE in the District — a neighborhood booming with young families — to National Harbor, in Prince George’s County. No Virginia museums are listed inside the Beltway.
“It’s sort of amazing that we don’t have this kind of resource in our area,” Lesser said. “Most major metropolitan areas have multiple children museums, but we don’t have this sort of resource in the greater educational ecosystem.”
The collective parental frustration bred the Kids International Discovery Museum, a concept for inspiring 6- to-12-year-olds through the “three C’s,” of creativity, curiosity and compassion. Lesser and other volunteers envision the museum as a place to learn international culture and social responsibility alongside science, technology and math.
With schools growing more focused on what can be measured on a standardized test, Lesser argues that the need for a place to experiment and imagine has grown. “We see this as an important place to complement what people are getting in schools, because more than ever we also need someplace to inspire kids,” she said.
Museum volunteers, with funding from the county, corporations and private donors, held a “Mini Maker Faire” last month, where she said some 12,000 people came to downtown Silver Spring to sculpt, build, carve and generally create, whether trying their hand at 3-D printers or making wallets out of playing cards and packing tape.
On Oct. 20, the museum’s backers will co-host the World of Montgomery international festival in Wheaton.
All of the events support the effort to find a permanent home. Lesser has begun inquiring with developers who own property near Red Line Metro stations for 30,000 square feet of space, an effort made easier by a letter of support Leggett provided in May. “I am writing to express my enthusiastic support for the initiative to establish the Kids International Discover Museum,” the county executive wrote, calling the idea a “critical resource enabling children to explore the world and spark the curiosity to learn.”
Lesser said a review of the museum’s potential suggested it could attract between 200,000 and 250,000 visitors annually, employ 35 to 45 people full-time and, because she plans to charge admission, museum spending of between $900,000 and $1.3 million annually.
Watching Congress shut down the federal government rather than address the nation’s problems, she said, was further evidence that the next generation will need a healthy dose of creativity.
“We need to do so much more to break out of the box and have creative problem-solving to address some of the problems in our health care system, but also so many other parts of our society,” she said.
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