Intention and Resolve: Moving into a New Better

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 Kari Ross Nelson and Stephen Ashton, PhD, Thanksgiving Point


Events of the past eighteen months have created opportunities for children’s museums to become more resilient and to position themselves as significant advocates for children and families in their communities. Children’s museums launched new efforts and transformed existing ones to address unprecedented needs. Two surveys distributed as part of the Association of Children’s Museums’ (ACM) Museums Mobilize initiative documented these efforts, as well as some of the resulting transformations in children’s museums themselves. As we consider ways in which some museums have changed, and the impacts of this change on current and future planning in the field, we would do well to consider that many currently front and center community challenges will not subside when the pandemic or protests have ended. Moving forward, the good that children’s museums can do as advocates for children and families must continue with intention and resolve.

Museums Mobilize

ACM launched Museums Mobilize in November 2020, in the thick of the COVID-19 global pandemic. The initiative sought to highlight and amplify the efforts of children’s museums around the world to support children and families during the pandemic. ACM sent two surveys to their more than 300 museum members. The first produced a landscape view of efforts; a follow up survey was sent to the first survey’s respondents, exploring more deeply the efforts they reported and the resulting transformations of both the museums and their communities.

This landscape survey captured the big picture of how museums activated during the pandemic. Eighty-seven museums across thirty-four US states and foreign countries reported on 195 programs ranging from virtual learning to activity kits, to school and community partnerships, to parenting resources, to learning pods. ACM reached out to Thanksgiving Point’s Research and Evaluation team to help analyze the large number of responses. Thanksgiving Point is a member of the ACM Research Network, an IMLS-funded collaboration between ACM, the University of Washington’s Museology program, and fifteen children’s museums in the US and Canada. During its initial three-year grant period (2015-2018), the Research Network conducted four full-scale research projects on the learning value of children’s museums.

As described above, initial survey results showed how many and what kinds of programs were happening. But what did it all mean? How could the data be analyzed to illuminate children’s museums’ commitments to serving the needs and interests of children, and the unique and important ways in which these actions were being carried out? To facilitate this kind of analysis, we used ACM’s guiding document, “The Four Dimensions of Children’s Museums,” as a structure to sort and classify responses.

Evidence of The Four Dimensions of Children’s Museums

For many years, the field has been wrestling with the defining question, “what is a children’s museum?” In an attempt to come up with a succinct answer that would resonate both inside and outside the field, ACM articulated the key attributes of a children’s museum in a 2019 document. In short, they are much more than just places to visit. All children’s museums, they argue, function as local destinations, educational laboratories, community resources, and advocates for children.

Using these Four Dimensions as a coding scheme in the context of Museums Mobilize data, the survey responses began to illustrate a picture of the myriad ways children’s museums contribute to the wellbeing of children and families in their communities. The table {below} describes each dimension and a few examples of how each one was evidenced in survey responses. (The lines between the dimensions blur easily; many efforts fit into more than one dimension.)

When ACM drafted “The Four Dimensions of Children’s Museums,” they could not have anticipated how these roles would be challenged and magnified in the coming year. Nevertheless, we found evidence of all four in the Museums Mobilize survey responses.

Dimension Examples
Local Destinations

Designed exhibit spaces elevate child-centered learning and development while striving to reflect and address community needs.

Even when they were closed to general visitors, many children’s museums welcomed visitors to dynamic virtual spaces. Some were able to accommodate visitors in their physical spaces in the form of learning pods, highly controlled special group visits, and modified or expanded outdoor exhibits.
Educational Laboratories

Play-based pedagogies are developed and tested.

Staff used their expertise in learning theories, child development, and pedagogy to design and execute meaningful programs, testing the possibilities of play-based remote learning.
Community Resources

Helping to build child-friendly communities and places where parents and teachers can turn for information and training.

Children’s museums produced resources to help parents and caregivers recognize and foster developmental milestones during a time when professional services and evaluations may have been put on hold. They helped children process a new environment full of isolation, fear, and grief. They helped parents/caregivers connect and support each other as they navigated parenting in the pandemic. Others initiated outdoor community events such as farmers markets, sidewalk art, and socially distanced festivals.
Advocates for Children

Responding to current needs of children and families in their communities, while cultivating cross-sector partnerships for wide reach and high impact.

Many museums pivoted to online programming and creating activity kits and distributing them through food banks, schools, libraries, and other community organizations.

Perhaps most poignantly, we found children’s museums shining in the role of advocating for children. Merriam-Webster defines an advocate as “one who supports or promotes the interests of a cause or group.” This definition is reflected ACM’s explanation of the “Advocates for Children” dimension and how museums fulfill it:

  • • Children’s museums are constantly responding to the current needs of the children and families in their communities, from health to academics to social issues, as seen in their exhibits, outreach, and programming.

One of our (Learning Pods) program participants lost access to his classes in March when his school went virtual. He did not have wifi or a device to use at home to connect with his classes. In August he was provided a Chromebook from his school, but he still did not have access to wifi. When he arrived at the museum he had pages of overdue assignments. He came in, took a deep breath and immediately relaxed when he saw he could access our Internet. He opened up his breakfast and began eating while he logged in, for the first time to join his class. And in two weeks of being in the program he was able to catch up on his work.

–Fort Worth Museum of Science and History (TX)


  • • Children’s museums cultivate deep and wide-ranging relationships with partners from all sectors to best serve all children and families in their communities and address critical social issues affecting them.

The kits are designed to meet the needs of young children who are missing out on interactive learning experiences during the pandemic. There is a particular focus on children who are low-income, underserved, and at-risk. The inspiration for the kits was sparked early on in the pandemic when the Family Support Center asked the museum to create free learning kits to provide homeless children with enriching activities while quarantining at a hotel. The success of these early kits triggered a wave of similar requests that continues to grow. To date, we have distributed nearly 10,000 free kits to schools, libraries, and community organizations, with support from grants and individual giving.

–Hands On Discovery Museum (Olympia, WA)

One of our initiatives involved distributing Play Packs to children and families encountering difficult situations – from food insecurity to homelessness to not having access to places to play and learn. One partnership involved the distribution of a series of three Play Packs to children involved in area Judy Centers (which provide early education services via area Title I Schools), plus lunch, and live programming with Port Discovery educators. Judy Center staff and families regularly expressed their gratitude for the program. One participant told us how the Port Discovery program was the one thing that she would get excited about participating in; others expressed appreciation for the chance to continue live, early enrichment programming.

–Port Discovery Children’s Museum (Baltimore, MD)


  • • Children’s museums share a commitment to equity and inclusion, with subsidized attendance programs such as Museums for All, programs for children and families with special needs, multicultural programming, and more.

We created 4,000 ThinkerPlayerCreator Boxes for an entire school district’s Title One kindergarteners because the families and children were REALLY struggling with online work. The district told us that when the kids got their boxes, the dropout rate among the families slowed dramatically. Also, one of the parents told the district that the materials in the box were the first time the child ever had their own book, scissors, and crayons.

–Children’s Museum of Phoenix (AZ)

The Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum opened the Poughkeepsie Waterfront Market in summer 2017 to connect city residents and families with fresh, affordable and locally-produced food. In doing so, it became the first children’s museum in the country to open and operate a public farmers’ market as a strategy for fighting urban food insecurity and advancing community health. The market is a certified SNAP market and participates in the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Programs to ensure the affordability of fresh produce and farm products for low-income individuals and families. In spring 2020, in response to the near total disruption of the local food system in Poughkeepsie due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the market rallied its vendors and opened one month early to help bring fresh healthy food to downtown Poughkeepsie during the public health crisis. Support for this pre-season opening came from multiple private and public organizations. Due to the continued COVID-19 crisis, for the first time, the market extended its season through October 2020.

–Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum (Poughkeepsie, NY)


In reviewing the results of the landscape survey, the Thanksgiving Point team wanted more details that could show, beyond numbers, the impact of programming during the pandemic. This second survey more deeply explored transformations to museums themselves and to their communities as a result of these many new programs and practices.

Bear in mind that all responses are self-reported and may be deemed subjective. While about half of respondents indicated they did collect evaluative information beyond numbers, they were asked only to provide key findings, not methods of measurement or data-based evidence.

As seen in Graph #1, the 51 respondents to the second survey reported eight distinct impacts (plus a ninth “other”) on their museums:

Along with the stories included in the discussion of the “Four Dimensions of Children’s Museums” above, other stories shared by the respondents provide concrete examples of some of these transformations.

An elementary school in Chicago reached out to us who had seen our videos on YouTube. They asked us to put together a virtual field trip for their students to teach the art of shadow puppetry. It was a wonderful experience to reach new audiences and gain a new opportunity for meeting our mission!

–The Woodlands Children’s Museum (TX)

The owner of our local Chik-Fil-A franchise purchased 100 kits to distribute to foster families in the area. This was a new partner for the museum, and we have since been able to partner again with them on future projects. The museum was thrilled to be able to provide these fun family kits to a new audience as well.

–ExpERIEnce Children’s Museum ( PA)

With help from a local funder, the museum was able to provide two sets of PAL kits to a fourth grade class last year when they had to quarantine at home for two weeks. The school was incredibly grateful for an opportunity to provide hands-on learning and we were able to reconnect with a funder to not add a financial burden to us. The experience was amazing for the museum and for the students.

–Mid-Michigan Children’s Museum (Saginaw)

Additionally, museums recognized the impacts their work was having in their community, as seen in Graph #2, and reported seven distinct community transformations (plus an “other” category):

Again, more stories from the respondents show what these transformations look like in the community.

A social service agency was able to use our boxes as part of their therapy sessions now that they were doing them virtually. It allowed children at home who were not in therapy something to do while another child/parent had therapy. Families could engage after the therapy together.

–KidsQuest Children’s Museum (Bellevue, WA)

 One parent expressed that she did not know anything about our museum but when her child received a take-home kit he immediately recognized our logo and began telling his mom all about the fun times he had at the museum during monthly field trips with his kindergarten.

–Lynn Meadows Discovery Center (Gulfport, MS)

One single mother was a loyal kit user and requested eight different kits. She messaged us several times that the kits were “lifesavers” and that she especially appreciated that her special needs teen son and her two-year-old daughter could both find activities to enjoy. Another time she wrote that her daughter put together her first sentence talking about the balls and tubes in our Infant/Toddler kit.

–The Children’s Playhouse (Boone, NC)

In open-ended questions, respondents expressed that while there is no replacement for in-person programming, they learned to stretch, adapt, and practice new skills. They stayed connected with existing audiences and even reached new ones both local and remote. They recognized that partners were an important part of making an impact. All of this helped museums feel validated in their work and bolstered their commitment to understanding needs and serving children and families everywhere.


In the past year and a half, children’s museums have stepped up—and continue to step up (the pandemic is not over)—with responsive and caring work in service to children and families. Although we will remember the pandemic as one of the most stressful times in recent history, Museums Mobilize findings serve as an inspiration to move forward with intention and resolve, magnifying our role as advocates for children and fostering a new, better normal in the years to come for our audiences and for our museums.

With media focused on social, political, and pandemic unrest, are children being lost in the agitation? Last fall, one Washington Post op-ed writer surmised, “American children are out of school, out of food and increasingly getting chucked off their health insurance. Yet somehow, they seem to be an afterthought in [the November 2020] election.”[1] Children bear a disproportionate share of the hardships caused by the pandemic. The August 2021 online tracker from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities[2] shows that households with kids report higher rates of food insecurity, housing instability, and other metrics of financial insecurity. Add to this inadequate or uncertain health insurance, childcare, and schooling and the picture becomes even more dire.

Children’s museums cannot be the solution to all of these hardships. However, we are uniquely positioned with facilities, expertise, creativity, and a dedication to children that can be leveraged to make children’s lives better. This deeper perspective, hard won in the past year and a half, could form the foundation for a more meaningful approach to advocacy, but also challenges us to take a look in the mirror. Most children’s museums, known as joyful spaces for learning and play, have promoted those concepts in fun, positive ways. Does “learning and play” need to be reframed as surviving and thriving, and perspectives shifted accordingly? Has the pandemic expanded our answer to the question, “what is a children’s museum?”

Kari Ross Nelson is research and evaluation associate and Stephen Ashton, PhD, is the director of audience research and evaluation at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, Utah.



Reflecting on One Year of the Pandemic for Children’s Museums and the Communities They Serve

Association of Children’s Museums’ “Museums Mobilize” Initiative Highlights Efforts from Past Year

ARLINGTON, VA (March 18, 2021)—By March 19, 2020, all children’s museums in the U.S. had closed their doors to the public in response to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tomorrow, March 19, commemorates one year of transformation within the children’s museum field, with museums creating new programs to support their communities and fill critical needs all while facing unprecedented operational crisis. Through its Museums Mobilize initiative, the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) is documenting these programs in service to children and families, and this effort currently counts 167 programs from 78 children’s museums in 34 states and four countries.

“Currently, 61% percent of children’s museums around the world are open to public visitation—a percentage that is currently at its highest point over the past year,” said ACM Executive Director Laura Huerta Migus. “As educational innovators, advocates for childhood, and community anchors, children’s museums have always offered more than the physical visit alone. The past year has put this fact into stark relief as we continue to serve our communities.”

Immediately following their initial physical closures in March 2020, children’s museums began pivoting to serve their communities in new ways, and more than 70 percent of ACM’s museum membership was offering virtual programming by June 2020. In addition, children’s museums have pursued other innovative strategies such as partnerships with schools and activity kits to help close the digital divide. At the same time, the pandemic has had a major effect on children’s museum operations, resulting in lost revenue and reductions in staffing. In summer 2020, 75 percent of children’s museums reported only 28% of the attendance they received during the same period in 2019. A survey from the American Alliance of Museums found that individual museums lost on average $850,000 as a result of the pandemic.

In an upcoming webinar on April 6 at 2:00 p.m. ET, ACM will highlight specific children’s museum efforts to offer support to parents and caregivers. Leaders from Louisiana Children’s Museum, Pretend City Children’s Museum, and DuPage Children’s Museums will engage in a fireside chat with their community partners on projects from expert parenting webinars to text message programs. Register here.

As the world looks to reopening, it’s clear the pandemic will have consequences on museum operations for years to come. ACM’s Museums Mobilize initiative highlights the need to invest in children’s museums as community responders. Learn more about the efforts of children’s museums worldwide the hashtag #MuseumsMobilize and by viewing the Museums Mobilize dashboard with key stats at

About Association of Children’s Museums (ACM)

The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) champions children’s museums worldwide. With more than 460 members in 50 states and 19 countries, ACM leverages the collective knowledge of children’s museums through convening, sharing, and dissemination. Learn more at