C ostumes, games, puzzles, puppets, playhouses. Bugs, drums, wheel barrows, Lincoln Logs, a maze. Toy planes and trains and trucks and cars, toy toolboxes, a toy piano. And stuffed animals. Oh, the stuffed animals. Elephants, giraffes, mice, frogs, monkeys. Bears and bees and butterflies and birds and bunnies.
That’s the stuff of a child’s dreams, and you’ll find all of it within the interactive exhibits of the CT Children’s Museum. Located in The Children’s Building on the corner of Wall and Orange in New Haven, the museum lets kids touch, play and explore their way—with help from a stuffed monkey or a toy piano or a piece of chalk and a little freedom—to mental development.
“Our goal is to teach kids without anybody really thinking you’re teaching them,” says museum director Sandy Malmquist, “because, after all, that is how we learn best, when we’re just experiencing things.” And that little bit of educational sleight-of-hand comes into play everywhere in the museum.
Its eight permanent exhibits were designed around the developmental psychologist Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, which argues that our cognitive abilities can be broken down into a series of discrete modalities, that we each excel (or don’t) in certain ways of interacting with or understanding the world around us. Likewise, the rooms in the museum are named according to specified modalities, like “bodily-kinesthetic” or “intrapersonal” or “logical-mathematical.”
Not that the theory itself matters much to the little ones. Take the Spatial Room, for instance, which facilitates interacting with and mentally representing dynamic spaces; for kids, it’s just the building room, the one with the dump trucks and the building blocks and the hard hats, with the chalkboard playhouse—a large, black structure where every surface can be written on with chalk, inspired by the classic children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon.
Or take the Naturalistic Room, which is designed to nurture a more intuitive grasp of nature. Kids will remember it as the room with the sea shells and the seahorse—the room with the butterflies in glass and the real, live honeycomb where they watched thousands of bees working to make honey to serve their queen.
Then there’s the museum’s most famous exhibit, where, dark and quiet, a few beams of sunlight carve the shapes of the moon and the stars into the red carpeting. It’s called the Linguistics Room, but really it’s the great green room from Margaret Wise Brown’s classic picture book, Goodnight Moon, reproduced utterly faithfully. (It’s got the telephone, the red balloon, the two cats, the bowl of mush—even the fireplace. Every detail from the book except one—and I won’t give it away—is there.) The museum uses Brown’s well-known words to focus on language. There’s a station for learning braille and sign language. There’s a magnetic wall where children can rearrange magnets of the just 130 words in Goodnight Moon to try to tell their own story. There’s also a collection of books which includes a number of non-English versions of Moon from around the world.
In fact, the museum, which is geared toward kids aged 3 to 9, is brimming with children’s books. “We’re literacy-based,” says director Malmquist, and she’s not kidding. Each room has dozens and dozens of books, and they often serve as inspiration for the exhibits. Meanwhile, storytime programs are offered on Saturdays at 2pm for the general public and weekday mornings for elementary school groups and family childcare providers. And the museum gives away more than six thousand books to kids who attend its programs and the providers who bring them each year. “We know that how many words [kids] hear every day really matters, and what kinds of words. And we know that children’s picture books have more unusual language in them than the conversation of college graduates,” she adds, citing a line from Where the Wild Things Are and words like ‘wolf’ and ‘mischief’ that adults use rarely, but that kids learn from seemingly simple children’s literature.
That playing-vs.-learning duality exists in Malmquist too. She’s an academic—her background is in both anthropology and early childhood education—and she can spout factoids about the language in picture books or figures from studies concluding that a child needs to understand a vocabulary of 35,000 words before s/he turns six to avoid falling inextricably behind her peers. She serves on the board of New Haven’s Early Childhood Council. But as soon as kids are around, she morphs into something like a model kindergarten teacher: She squats to talk to children at eye-level. She plays with toy elephants and chicks with them. She starts races to see who can roll a ball through a tube the fastest.
“I love this town,” Malmquist says, having lived in New Haven for nearly fifty years and worked at the Children’s Museum for almost twelve. “I love this city. They’re all my kids.”
CT Children’s Museum
The Children’s Building, 22 Wall Street, New Haven (map)
Open to the public Fri-Sat 12-5pm
(203) 562-5437 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Written and photographed by Jonathan McNicol.