Content Front and Center: Minnesota Children’s Museum Talks about Racism

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

By Bob Ingrassia, Minnesota Children’s Museum

For more than forty years, kids and parents have appreciated Minnesota Children’s Museum as a playful place for fun, smiles, and laughter.

Millions of families have made joyful memories in our exhibits. Children who remember crawling through our mysterious ant tunnel have since grown up to watch their own kids confidently scale our four-story climbing tower and zoom down a giant spiral slide.

So why does our museum talk so much about the serious and challenging topics of racism and racial inequities? Shouldn’t we just “stay in our lane” as a place for family fun?

Here’s what our staff and board believe: Working toward racial justice is core to our mission and vision.

The organization’s strategic plan calls for us to “champion children’s healthy development.” We know there is no way to meaningfully advocate for the wellbeing of kids without acknowledging and addressing racial inequities that harm children in Minnesota—and everywhere.

So, yes, a children’s museum that speaks forcefully about racism—particularly its negative effects on children—and works toward a more just future is absolutely staying in its lane.

A Racial Reckoning in Minnesota

More than two years have passed since a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, touching off protests around the world. During this time, the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area has endured bouts of civil unrest, additional police killings of young Black men, tense trials of police officers, and a divisive election about the future of the Minneapolis Police Department.

The police violence against people of color sparked more urgency to finally take meaningful action to address broader racial inequities in the Twin Cities and throughout Minnesota—in housing, education, healthcare, and other areas.

Even before George Floyd’s murder, Minnesota Children’s Museum had joined other cultural organizations in a commitment to make progress toward becoming a more diverse and welcoming organization for visitors, staff, and volunteers. The museum has since doubled down on its diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, work that museum President Dianne Krizan detailed in a previous issue of Hand to Hand.

Our staff and board members have also asked and started to answer a tough question about the museum’s responsibility outside our walls: What role, if any, should the museum play in the racial reckoning happening in our community?

Thankfully, we knew we would not be starting equity and inclusion work from scratch. During the museum’s forty-year history, we have earned a reputation as a joyful and welcoming place for all families to experience playful learning. The museum’s audience has grown to be at least as diverse as the region we serve, and often more diverse. We have a robust access program in which about 25 percent of our audience each year enjoys the museum through free or reduced-price admission.

Still, we understood there was much more we could be doing, and that remaining silent as the #BlackLivesMatter movement gained momentum in the Twin Cities was not an option. But we also understood that simply stating we supported the idea of combating racial injustice was not enough. The museum decided to map out a course to publicly engage in the work to combat racial injustice and to build a more equitable future.

Why Talk about Racism?

We considered the risks and acknowledged that speaking publicly about racial inequity and social justice might upset segments of our audience. Advocacy on issues as challenging as injustice and systemic racism would be new to the organization.

We also anticipated that we might hear the question: Why is the children’s museum talking about racism?

The answer we developed tied this work to the core principles and objectives in our mission, vision and strategic plan. The future we envision, one in which “all families thrive in a happier, healthier and more innovative community,” cannot happen when racial injustice holds children back.

Our answer leans on facts.

We found reassurance in a timely survey that showed substantial support among our audience for the museum working to combat racism. When a group of adults who visit cultural organizations were asked if Minnesota Children’s Museum should join efforts to fight racial injustice, 51 percent said they “strongly agree” we should and another 29 percent said they “somewhat agree.”

Taking Action

In the weeks following George Floyd’s murder, the museum publicly declared on our website our commitment to supporting the #BlackLivesMatter movement, stating that “Black lives matter. They mattered yesterday. They matter today. They will matter tomorrow.”

In April 2021, just ahead of the anniversary of Floyd’s death, the museum hosted a panel event titled “Talking with Children about Racial Injustice.” More than 1,200 people registered and nearly 600 attended, with hundreds more watching the event recording.

In a post-event survey, many attendees said they appreciated the museum hosting such an important discussion and indicating they wanted more. One attendee stated: “That panel was outstanding: Direct, honest, specific, encouraging! I particularly appreciated the continual references to noting the historical context and legacy of race as well as the intentionality of conversations about race with children.”

The museum also collaborated with the panelists to create a one-sheet for parents and caregivers with tips for talking with children about race.

In November 2021, we hosted a second panel event about how play can help overcome inequalities. Three child development experts detailed the urgent need for action in addressing the negative effects of racism and inequality on children’s health. They made a case that playful learning, in the home and in the classroom, is a proven driver of every child’s growth and development.

We also continue to use our own channels, such as our blog and social media pages, to share resources and information that support this work. We’ve found that our followers and subscribers heavily engage with this content in meaningful ways. For example, in February 2022, the museum shared a blog post about how to celebrate Black History Month with children. The post was one of our most popular ever, getting more than 10,000 pageviews in just a few weeks and driving traffic to our website from all over the world.

Some of the museum’s other equity and access work includes providing free or reduced cost admission to income-qualified families. More than 4,000 families currently have a scholarship membership to the museum. In addition, nearly 12,000 people have visited the museum during the pandemic with steeply discounted day passes available to lower-income families.

Knowing that many families are either not able to visit or are still not comfortable visiting, the museum has provided free play kits to families in need. Using a state grant, the museum has packed and distributed more than 1,000 “tinker kits” featuring a variety of loose parts and materials.

Looking Ahead

Combatting systemic racism is difficult work. The museum has made strides toward becoming a more inclusive organization. We have publicly called out inequalities in Minnesota and taken initial steps to help erase them.

Still, we know that we are still establishing our voice and our path forward. We have not yet fully defined what it means when we say we want “ally” to be a verb, not just a noun—but we feel like we are on the right path.

We also know there will be more challenges ahead as marginalized communities press for equity and work to preserve rights that may come under threat.

Whatever lies ahead, we will remain committed to supporting parents in raising happy, healthy children, publicly advocating for the powerful role of play in growth and learning and furthering the movement for racial equity so all children thrive.

Bob Ingrassia has led the marketing and communications team at Minnesota Children’s Museum since 2014. He is a former journalist who lives with his spouse and two children in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Photos by Bruce Silcox for Minnesota Children’s Museum. 

Defining Play: Practical Applications

Led by the Association of Children’s Museums and the University of Washington’s Museology Graduate Program, the Children’s Museum Research Network (CMRN) formed in 2015 with funding from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services. For the past year, CMRN has contributed an article to each issue of Hand to Hand to disseminate their findings with the field. The following article was shared in the Summer/Fall 2017 issue, “History & Culture Summit.” Stay tuned to the blog for more articles from CMRN! 

By Kari Ross Nelson and Alix Tonsgard

In the previous issue of Hand to Hand, Suzy Letourneau and Nicole Rivera described the Children’s Museum Research Network’s (CMRN) study of how children’s museums conceptualize play and its role in their missions. This study showed that while children’s museums strongly value play as important to their missions and as a mechanism for learning, few defined play or how it leads to learning in a formal way within their institutions. Sharing these findings at InterActivity 2017 in Pasadena, California, sparked discussion about defining play and how a definition might impact our work.

The purpose of this article is to explore the practical application of a clearly-stated and understood definition of play. To this end, we spoke with staff from two children’s museums that have their own definitions of play to see how this plays out on a day-to-day, practical level: Barbara Hahn, vice president of development at Minnesota Children’s Museum (MCM), and Jessica Neuwirth, exhibit developer at Providence Children’s Museum.

Both Minnesota Children’s Museum and Providence Children’s Museum built their definitions from studying the research on play. Importantly, each museums qualifies its definition of play with specific adjectives that distinguish it from other types of play, place it in a position of respect, and convey the importance of play as related to learning. Providence specifies “free play”; MCM calls it “powerful play.”

As Hahn says, “You can ‘play’ soccer or you can ‘play’ a video game—both are very achievement-oriented. Our term, ‘powerful play,’ refers to play that is captivating and fun, active and challenging, and self-directed and open-ended. In action, that means children are having a good time, showing interest, moving and thinking, and exploring freely—choosing what they want to do and how to do it. Crafting this definition was a necessary exercise to get clear on what we’re all about, what we’re proposing, and how it’s valuable to children.”

That clarity works on multiple levels for the museums, both internally and externally. Within the museums, the definitions of play provide filters and focus—criteria against which they can evaluate everything they do. Their definitions of play are front and center in the design of museum experiences. For example, Providence’s “free play” definition describes play as freely-chosen, personally-directed, intrinsically-motivated, and involving active engagement. Neuwirth compares program and exhibit design concepts against these standards throughout the exhibit or program development process. Can a child immediately figure out what an exhibit is about and jump into it without adult intervention and without signage? Is the play personally directed? Is the child actively engaged, or is an educator teaching something while the child sits and passively receives information? Realistically, not every component will meet every criterion for every child, but across the museum, they can all be experienced.

A well-articulated definition of play also helps communicate the institution’s deeply held values to new staff. “When we have interdepartmental meetings about developing new programs, new exhibits, or other integrated projects, the definition is central to talking about what these new initiatives will look like,” says Neuwirth. “This helps to get everyone on the same page.”

Neuwirth points out that with small budgets and limited resources, practitioners need to be able to direct themselves and their museum in the most effective way and use what they have well. “Our definition (of play) deploys our resources well, all in the name of a big idea.”

Because Providence’s definition of play centers the child as director of their own play, self-motivated and active as well, Neuwirth believes that “our exhibits are designed to have multiple entry-points, many ways to proceed with playing, and no set outcome. This allows all users to follow their own interests, work at levels that feel appropriate to them, and define their own outcomes. Our exhibits tend to be more process-oriented, and less about teaching specific content.”

Definitions of play further serve an important role in communicating outside the museums. Not everyone understands or shares the passion for the power of play. MCM describes what goes on in their museum as “Powerful Play.” According to Hahn, the use of the word “powerful” serves to “call attention to play and gives it the respect it deserves and doesn’t always get.” Not only is this an important distinction to communicate to funders and media, but also caregivers. By placing special emphasis on communicating their definition of play with parenting adults, MCM shares tools and language for thinking about the different types and values of play.

Both Hahn and Neuwirth see benefits to an institution-specific definition of play, without feeling that a definition limits what they do. “When we’re designing exhibits or programs, as museum staff, we want to be able to speak from one place,” says Neuwirth, “and that’s what this definition is about. We’re not telling people what they have to believe, we’re saying this is what we do here and what why we do it.”

A field-wide, shared definition of play may not be reasonable, considering the variety of community-specific children’s museums responding to different audiences and needs. Some worry that a definition of play could stifle creativity, which is contrary to the essence of play. In some circles, the word “play” itself implies the trivial, unimportant, or superficial, and is avoided. Nevertheless, the two museums mentioned here demonstrate that having a clear definition of play, on an institutional level, can strengthen a museum’s work and facilitate communication around play to stakeholders. In turn, as more children’s museums establish clear definitions, their work can contribute to the broader, field-wide understanding of play as it relates to learning in all children’s museums.

DuPage Digs Deeper
An agreed-upon definition of play may also carry an impact beyond the field of children’s museums. Two studies completed by CMRN inspired the development of a study at DuPage Children’s Museum called Parental Perceptions of Play and Learning. Focus groups and surveys were used to gain an understanding of parents’ beliefs about play and learning. Of particular interest in this process were the focus group discussions about the tensions and pressures experienced by both adults and children as a result of academic and social stressors—a tension widely experienced by early childhood educators as well. In the current climate of our education system, the association of the word play with “fun” seems to devalue its power to support learning and development.

With work underway on behalf of CMRN as well as within institutions such as Providence Children’s Museum, Minnesota Children’s Museum, and DuPage Children, which are conducting research and positioning themselves as champions for play, there may be potential to stimulate a broader level of conversation and action, both within the children’s museum field and beyond.

Kari Ross Nelson is research and evaluation associate at Thanksgiving Point Institute. Alix Tonsgard is early learning specialist at DuPage Children’s Museum.