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  • Angela Allyn

Chicago Children's Museum Celebrates It’s Own Middle Age

Recently the Chicago Children’s Museum commemorated its 40th birthday with a gala. There was a lot to celebrate: according to their attendance records nearly 15 million children have gotten to experience the museum in its history, and my own babies were some of those.

Children’s museums, with a few exceptions, are a relatively new concept in the cultural landscape. Our region is blessed with several, but the true flagship is now on Navy Pier. The Chicago Children’s Museum, which began its life in 1982 in the hallways of the Chicago Cultural Center, was a reaction to cuts in Chicago Public School arts programs. Originally called Express-Ways it soon moved to a 6,000 square foot building in Lincoln Park. Three years later it tripled in size by moving to a purpose built space on Navy Pier, where it was renamed The Chicago Children’s Museum and hosted an astonishing 175,000 visitors in its first year. In 1995 the museum expanded again to 57,000 square feet, its current footprint which underwent a renovation in 2017.

The museum isn’t all art: in 2010 they rolled out an educator development program to provide preschool through second grade teachers play strategies for math: called Playing with Numbers it brings together all of what the Museum has learned about teaching and learning. The museum believes that children learn in an interdisciplinary way and thus joined the STEM/STEAM movement, supporting the emerging findings in childhood brain development with hands on, interactive process focused learning that supports the idea that learning is fun, and playing is learning. Makers are learners. Creating is education.

The museum attempts to engage all children: in 2015, CCM was the first cultural institution in the state to become part of the Museums for All program that offers steeply reduced admissions for food insecure families to include children from every income level.

More recently the museum has branched out into the community creating Playful Learning Landscapes by transforming everyday places around the city into math learning sites in Aurora, North Lawndale and a laundromat in Little Village. They are opening 10 Curiousity Classrooms in area schools.

CEO Jennifer Farrington, who purportedly began at the museum as an intern, helms an institution with a bright future. She maintains that the Children’s Museum is as relevant today as it was then: encouraging creativity, play and connection in a developmentally appropriate way for children and their families in the region. Now as then, the focus is on best practices and child centered environments, to create a place where the universal pursuits of childhood can flourish. It is also a space for developing relationships-- on any given day you will see families, classes, groups strengthening their bonds through play.

If you have not been to CCM, make it a must see, especially in early 2023 when Water City, a 1645 square foot water play exhibit will open. A reimagining of the former water area which was the museums all time favorite space, at least according to every field trip I ever chaperoned there, the new improved room will be an homage to Chicago. If you have kids or grandkids, or if you are just a big kid yourself, this is a place for your imagination to be nourished: there’s something delightful around every corner. My personal favorite exhibition is the Michael’s Museum– a room filled with collections of tiny objects that appeals to the collector in all of our souls. For all the information you need on hours, programs, admissions, go to

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