Future Kids' Museum Is Put to the Test

By Jessica McFadden
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 15, 2009

I worry that my children's summer schedules are as hectic and strategically planned as political campaigns. The high cost of most day camps is also a big worry. I'm not one to park the kids in front of cartoons with a snack and call it a day, but I would like my kids' summers to be the unhurried, casual holidays that I remember as a child.

There has to be a way to keep kids learning June through August, yet give them a break from the endless parade of appointments that clog the school year calendar.

The new National Children's Museum Launch Zone at National Harbor fits the bill. It's free, fosters discovery and is open for kids' unforced learning every day -- no planning required. The Launch Zone opened last month as a place for children to test the exhibits and influence the content of the National Children's Museum when it opens in 2013.

My two kids and I decided to explore the prototype and headed to the Launch Zone on a preschool-less May weekday. We found it in a sunny storefront on the National Harbor's promenade along Waterfront Street. The colorful displays in the floor-to-ceiling windows and the Launch Zone's proximity to water taxis, toy stores, restaurants and the giant sculpture "The Awakening" gave it a mini-vacation vibe.

Immediately we were met by Jay Bruce, a project coordinator at the Launch Zone who greeted the kids and proceeded to divine their ages, interests and favorite subjects and animals. She led them to a large arts and crafts area with bins full of materials and let the kids' ideas lead the crafting.

"The staff's enthusiasm, as well as the activities, provide a much-needed resource that is important for this area," says Rachel Allmont, 35, a mother of two from Alexandria. "I think it's rare to find a museum where the experience is not solely parent-led for children, and I was impressed with what the museum has available in just a temporary space."

While my 3-year-old daughter, Eve, remained engrossed in her glue-and-puffball creation, my 5-year-old son, Charlie, left the crafting area to check out the rest of the Zone. Bruce suggested some interactive exhibits on gemstones and reptiles, and with magnifying glass in hand, Charlie was off on his own exploration. He worked independently to identify stones, scales and skeletons, and emerged full of pride at his accomplishment.

"The National Children's Museum belongs to kids, and we hope that they'll dive in and give us feedback, so when the museum opens it will really reflect kids' needs and interests," says Ariel Moyer, director of communications for the museum.

Designed as a place where children can drop in and create art, explore hands-on nature exhibits, make an eco-friendly craft or catch a weekend performance, the Launch Zone has exhibits that rotate among the six core areas of the future museum: the environment; health and well-being; play; civic engagement; the arts; and the global neighborhood. Currently featured in the Launch Zone are exhibits that seek to help children understand the importance of green building and recycling, become a "kid hero" by helping out at home, experience the legislative process and observe summer insects.

During the week, drop-in, child-led explorations are the focus of the Launch Zone. Some of the staff have an early-childhood-education background, others art and communications, but all are selected and trained to foster learning in all the children who walk through the Zone's doors.

In the summer, parents and caregivers of children ages 2 to 3 can preregister for nature-learning "Wee Wonders" programs for preschoolers on Tuesdays. Activities include stories, games, art, music, experiments, drama and movement, all developed around animals and elements little ones can find in their back yards. Another boon for the preschool set: If there is no special event on the Launch Zone calendar Monday through Friday, play groups of 10 or fewer can meet in their creative space.

Frequent visitors to many a frenetic Washington museum and packed moon bounce, my children were deliciously relaxed at the Launch Zone. After two hours, there were no tantrums or tears borne of over-stimulation as we bid Bruce goodbye. Both kids expressed sincere desires to come back again, proof that the experience wasn't one only a parent could love.

As we walked around National Harbor, Eve talked about the rain barrel display and Charlie the beekeeper costume, and they compared votes in the election of the National Children's Museum mascot. To all the learning we added an ice cream cone and a game of tag around "The Awakening" giant and properly lauded our summer of slack.

National Children's Museum Launch Zone 112 Waterfront St., National Harbor, Oxon Hill Contact: 301-686-0225 or http://www.ncm.museum Admission: Free; some programs require registration fees or materials fees. Hours: Through May 31, Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; June 1-Aug. 31, Monday-Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sundays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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