In Search of Kindness: A Call to Action

This article is part of the “Communications 2022” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Mike Yankovich and Gretchen Kerr, Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus

For nearly fifty years, the Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus has been a gathering place where people in our community can share moments of wonder and joy. Our staff takes this mission seriously, and strives to help families create memories in a safe and welcoming environment.

The past two years have been trying for everyone, including our staff and the families we serve, and accomplishing our mission has become increasingly difficult. Our community has faced countless challenges, leading to uncertainty, fear, and anxiety. These emotions have spilled out in big, small, and unexpected ways, often affecting those around us.

In January 2022, as the pandemic continued and Omicron hit the scene, the museum continued to follow Denver’s public health guidelines, which included wearing masks in indoor public spaces. Regrettably, some guests who objected to the city-wide policy were inappropriately directing their anger toward our staff. With these incidents increasing in frequency and intensity, the museum made the decision to immediately close our doors for ten days to support our staff and bolster our policies with the hope of preventing this type of behavior in the future.

An email to our members and one social media post regarding the closure was all it took for the news to spread quickly through our community and soon, the country. In addition to the hundreds of comments of love and support that appeared on our post, phone calls and emails poured in from all over, many from children’s museums experiencing similar struggles. Unfortunately, the bad came in with the good—negative comments, indignant emails, and even cancelled memberships—all due to our call for kindness.

Disappointing, to be sure, but there was work to do. We met as a team to share the disheartening situations our staff experienced. The conversation was difficult, but vitally important to lay the foundation for the work ahead. Our staff voiced that they appreciated the time and space to work together to support each other and to develop strategies to make the museum a better place for our internal and external community.

As a part of this process, we reflected on our How We Play guidelines. These long-standing signs are posted throughout the museum and offer a simple reminder to share, be kind, and treat others with respect. We were looking for ways we could further embody this sentiment and encourage positivity and joy through all aspects of the museum.

So when we reopened, in addition to new and improved processes around guest orientation, de-escalation, and accountability, we employed some more playful options to encourage kindness. We installed a giant conversation heart at the entrance of the museum where guests shared simple acts of kindness they planned to engage in. Children and adults alike took part, and the ideas flowed: smiling at a stranger, helping an elderly neighbor, or calling mom… all small actions with potentially big impacts.

Next up for us: High Five Highway. Inspired by a similar activity developed by the Exploratorium in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, High Five Highway will live on our plaza and encourage strangers to interact and connect with one simple action.

Though the mask enforcement days are behind us (for the moment), something else has become abundantly clear: it was never just about masks. We live in a time where a little kindness can go a long way, although it seems many have lost interest in demonstrating this human-centered value. And unfortunately, as we learned from the conversations we had with our friends across the country, this is a shared issue that affects all of us, and acting alone won’t cut it.

As we look ahead, we ask the community of children’s museums for help answering the following questions:

  • • How can we support grown-ups in being positive role models for not just their child, but all children?
  • • What role can children’s museums play in fostering kindness in an increasingly divided and troubled world?
  • • How can the field of children’s museums boldly work together to support positive development in the children of our community?

The task at hand may feel daunting. But we are never stronger than when we are together. We look forward to working with you all to make the future a brighter, and kinder, place.

Mike Yankovich is president and CEO and Gretchen Kerr is COO of the Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus.

Helping Busy Parents Support Their Kids’ Brain Development

The following post appears in the latest issue of Hand to Hand, ACM’s quarterly journal. 

By Bezos Family Foundation

In today’s time-strapped world full of countless obligations and distractions, parents have their hands full. On any given day, they have to make breakfast, dress their kids, prepare lunch, get them to school or childcare, pick them up again, shop for groceries, cook dinner, bathe them, prepare for bedtime, clean the dishes, and do the laundry—and that’s often just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to attending to these basic needs, parents are exposed to a steady stream of prescriptive, sometimes scary, sometimes conflicting instructions on how to raise their children. They are bombarded with well-meaning, but often beleaguering, advice like, “You must do this or that or your child won’t do well in school, won’t get a good job, or won’t have the skills needed to succeed.” It’s no wonder that parents feel overwhelmed.

And yet, the science around early childhood development is clear. During your child’s earliest years, their brain makes one million neural connections every single second. These first three to five years especially are an opportunity to develop a child’s neurological framework for lifelong learning. Given their hectic daily schedules, are parents supposed to make extra time for “brain-building”?

Vroom, an early learning and brain development initiative, starts from a very simple principle: Parents already have what it takes to be brain-builders. They don’t need extra time, special toys or books to play a proactive role in their child’s early brain development.

About Vroom

Vroom was developed through years of consulting with early learning and brain development experts, parents, and caregivers. Science tells us that children’s first three to five years are crucial to developing a foundation for future learning. Even when babies cannot speak, they are looking, listening, and forming important neural connections. In fact, when we interact with children in this time period, a million neurons fire at once as they observe and listen to their environment.

Vroom’s early goal was to determine how to best support early learning and development by fostering the types of parent/child interactions that help build brain architecture and help ensure that children will have strong and resilient brains. Vroom applies the science, translating complex early learning and development research findings into free tools, tips, and activities that are simple enough to fit into daily routines and are right at parents’ fingertips.

Vroom Tip 1

The simple activity of washing hands in the bathroom is enhanced by a Vroom tip posted on the wall to the right of the sink.

For example, a Vroom tip can turn laundry time into what we term a “brain-building moment” by suggesting that a child help sort clothes by size or color. The scientific background behind this tip is based on research that shows categorizing by letter or number develops a child’s flexible thinking, memory, focus, and self-control—all skills that develop a solid foundation for lifelong learning. So, by connecting a simple task to a fun activity with a child, the child can learn and develop their understanding of the world.

Vroom tips are available to parents and caregivers across many different channels: on the Vroom website, the Vroom app, the Vroom texting program, and in print materials. Vroom creates age-appropriate tips, so a two-year- old and a five-year-old won’t get the same tips. Tips are written in clear, accessible language that celebrates the work parents are already doing to support their children’s growing brains. The tips are also available to parents in both English and Spanish.

Additionally, Vroom’s partnerships with brands such as Baby Box, Goya, Univision, and now the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM), reflect the desire to meet parents where they are. Rather than expecting parents and children to make space for something extra in their already busy lives, Vroom identifies ordinary moments like mealtime or bath time, or visits to places like museums or libraries, as opportunities to engage in valuable, shared brain-building activities.

Vroom’s Partnership with the Association of Children’s Museums

Vroom’s mission to highlight the brain-building opportunities in everyday moments inspired a pilot program in 2015 between Vroom and the Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus. “The Children’s Museum and Vroom came together in 2015 and brainstormed the best way to translate the hard-hitting science of Vroom into a physical space; and in this case, an institution dedicated to creating platforms for discovery between parents and children,” said Sarah Brenkert, senior director of education and evaluation at the museum. “We wanted to design a concept that would be simple, yet vibrant and coherent, and one that other institutions could mirror.”

Together, Vroom and the Children’s Museum of Denver reimagined the role institutional spaces can play in supporting families and enhancing the moments they spend together. The goal was to transform underutilized amenities and spaces within the museum, places like bathrooms, water fountains, stairs, lockers, cafés, and hallways, into fun opportunities for brain building. This initial pilot program with Vroom and the Children’s Museum of Denver provided many valuable insights. The lessons from the pilot helped refine the strategy as well as the specific Vroom tips so the tips could be seamlessly integrated into diverse yet universal physical spaces and environments.

“Our partnership with Vroom continues to inform many of the communication decisions we make and the events we create,” Brenkert added. “These all carry the message to parents that they already have what it takes to turn every moment—whether in a museum, at the grocery store, or in the car—into an opportunity to nurture young children’s minds.”

The success of the pilot set the stage for a new partnership with Association of Children’s Museums to apply the lessons learned from the pilot into a set of tools that can easily be deployed and integrated by any children’s museum. Vroom worked with ACM to develop a complete set of easily produced, low-cost resources, including decals and professional training materials tailor-made for children’s museums.

“We know that parents and caregivers can greatly benefit from proactive support to help them understand their children’s development,” said Laura Huerta Migus, executive director of ACM. “Vroom’s resources offer accessible, fun ways to support early childhood development, reflecting children’s museums’ innovative approach to learning. We’re so excited to share Vroom’s resources with the millions of children and families that visit children’s museums every year.” ACM’s role as a thought partner and a conduit for this work has been critical in helping bring Vroom’s vision into focus as well as to scale. Acting as an intermediary for Vroom, ACM will help bring these innovative tools to any interested member museum, no matter their location, size, or budget.

The Future of Vroom

Through valuable partnerships, like this one with ACM, Vroom offers unique opportunities to advance early childhood outcomes by delivering actionable, brain-building messages in ways that easily integrate into parents or caregivers’ busy lives. The partnership will serve as an additional step forward in supporting the Association of Children’s Museums’ vision of fostering a world that honors all children and respects the diverse ways in which they learn and develop. Over time, and with the help of partners like ACM and their member museums, Vroom aims to catalyze the adoption of a common language around brain development—across geographic boundaries and socio-economic divides—so that every parent sees themselves as someone who already has what it takes to be a brain-builder.

The Bezos Family Foundation supports rigorous, inspired learning environments for young people, from birth through high school, to put their education into action. Through investments in research, public awareness and programs, the foundation works to elevate the field of education and improve life outcomes for all children.

To read other articles in the “Brain Research and Children’s Museums” issue of Hand to Hand, subscribe todayACM members also receive both digital and printed complimentary copies of Hand to Hand. ACM members can access their copies through the Digital Resource Library–-contact to gain access if needed. 

ACM members interested in participating in Vroom can apply here