November 10, 2021 / News & Blog

Welcome Back: Our People Have Missed You

This article is part of the “Inside the Curve: Business as (Not Quite) Usual” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Kerrie Vilhauer, Children’s Museum of South Dakota

Following a fifteen-month closure, Dora Castano, custodian at the Children’s Museum of South Dakota, was looking forward to getting back to the little things—like cleaning fingerprints.

“I can’t wait to see little fingerprints on the windows again!”

Given the many tasks involved in a custodian’s work at a children’s museum, especially during a pandemic, it’s not often one would ask for more work to do. But, for Dora, those fingerprints aren’t just little messes.

They are a symbol of what was missing. They represent the unique role the people of the Children’s Museum of South Dakota play every day. They are the stories the museum learned to amplify, bringing our staff and volunteers to the world even when the world couldn’t come to us.

Health and Safety + Personal Connection

When it came time to reopen the Children’s Museum of South Dakota to visitors, it’s no surprise the bulk of the plan addressed health and safety. Messaging, talking points, and signage all focused on what guests would need to know when they came back to play.

As the team dug into the reopening communications plan, they quickly realized a more personal approach could go much further in reconnecting with visitors. After all, families had not been able to enter the museum’s doors—or connect with staff and volunteers in person—for over a year.

There’s precedent around this. The side effects of the pandemic—stress, developmental issues, and mental and physical health challenges—are real. Having a friend (or playmate) who is experiencing things in a similar way can be a comfort as society begins to move forward.

Which is why, when writing the reopening communications plan, we knew it was important to reintroduce the people behind the work—and the play—at the Children’s Museum of South Dakota. This strategy imparted empathy, showing how much a museum friend like Dora is ready to get back into the swing of things.

In a way, that set of fingerprints is a beautiful way to start a conversation.

 “I can’t wait to watch people connect and learn!”

Children’s museums are built for community. They are safe spaces for children, caregivers, and the surrounding area. As the only museum of its type in the state, this community space takes on an even more important role for the Children’s Museum of South Dakota.

Located inside a 40,000-square-foot repurposed elementary school on the edge of downtown Brookings, the museum takes on a more personal tone when guests arrive. Whether they are members who visit weekly, or  tourists from many states away, the open-ended, child-led, inquiry-based way of play invites people into a relationship.

For many guests, it’s like coming home. It’s not uncommon for children to walk through the door and ask for a specific staff member or play guide. Some arrive and immediately look for a special loose part or toy—the life-sized stuffed sheep, or the large plush border collie, for example.

But as we all know now, reopening a children’s museum in a pandemic doesn’t mean things go back to the way they used to be. The museum knew we had to share safety protocols and guidelines that might make the play experience look different. We also knew that some protocols, like masking or limited capacity, could be controversial for some.

Here’s where those people and that community came into play again: by sharing the human side, guests could see that not only was health and safety a top priority, but so too was the fun.

This personal approach happened in two ways, first with a project headed up by museum educator Lauren Dietz and second, with the Museum’s Kidoodle Council Youth Advisory Board.

What Are You Most Excited for?

Tasked with freshening up a documentation wall in an exhibit just outside the art studio, Lauren wanted to show how excited the museum staff was to reopen. She connected with each staff member and asked what they were looking forward to the most.

She took photos of each person in their favorite exhibits. Because staff would be wearing masks upon reopening, she made sure one photo was with a face covering, and one was without, creating a balance of friendly smiling faces and safety protocols.

The project not only resulted in an inclusive, on-site display, but it also drove content for a digital campaign that spanned Facebook, Instagram, and the museum’s email list.

Amid messages about safety protocols, limited capacity, and adjusted hours, were the museum’s friendly faces—faces excited to reconnect, spark imagination, and learn through play. These faces belonged to long-lost friends who were ready to play again, even if it might look or feel a bit different at first.

And if engagement on social posts and guests sharing their excitement online and on-site is an indication of success, this was exactly what the museum’s audience was looking for.

Welcome Back! We Missed You!

The Kidoodle Council Youth Advisory Board is a volunteer group of nine six to twelve year olds who work as ambassadors for the museum and help generate ideas for programs and exhibits.

Throughout the museum’s closure, the board continued to meet through a combination of video conferencing and in-person meetings.

The Kidoodle Council had the honor of experiencing the first run-through of the exhibits prior to the indoor exhibit reopening. The council saw firsthand how to open and turn on exhibits, getting a behind-the-scenes sneak peek. In return, the museum staff could not only confirm everything worked as expected, but they also had a glimpse of how children would re-engage with the space following the closure.

The meeting resulted in a YouTube video that gave a time-lapse tour of the museum and shared what each board member was most looking forward to when they came back to play.

The video was shared with the public and used for staff training purposes. It offered new hires and those who haven’t visited in quite some time a chance to see the museum in action through the eyes of a child.

Some Things Have Changed, Some Things Are the Same

The pandemic put a hard stop to paid advertising. Even today, as the museum operates at limited capacity, advertising is on hold since play space continues to fill organically. However, the museum continues to look for ways to stay top of mind.

Whether it is offering ways to play along at home on the blog at, continuing conversations on social media, or playing along in person, the museum will continue to focus on taking a personal approach. They know it’s these people—the ones who are excited to clean up fingerprints—who will help bring the museum back to life.

To stay in front of people. To follow the child. To be a resource. And to spark imagination that is as big as the sky.

Kerrie Vilhauer is director of marketing at the Children’s Museum of South Dakota in Brookings, South Dakota.