Squealing with delight, Bobby Chazen, 2, hops into a miniature 1957 Corvette and leans on the horn. Then he spins the steering wheel, flips on the radio and, giggling, steps on the gas pedal. Bobby has become an expert at putting his motor skills through their paces in the candy-red car, having been to its home, the Creative Discovery Museum in Chattanooga, Tenn., "nearly 100 times" since he was 5 months old. "When he knows we're going to the museum," Bobby's mom Candace Chazen says, "his eyes light up, and he puts on his little shoes and starts singing."
In 1990 there were only about 50 children's museums in the U.S. with programs specifically designed for kids up to 5; today there are more than 200, and nearly 50% of the 20 million children who visit these museums each year are under 6. They--and their parents--are being wooed by exhibits that reflect the latest thinking on how to help children develop cognitive and physical skills. "Studies show that learning doesn't start at 5 but as soon as a baby opens her eyes," says Alison Gopnik, author of The Scientist in the Crib. "The very idea of having early-childhood museums is a consequence of that research."
Studies support the notion that kids learn best through play. "Some visitors assume it's all about fun and games," says Portia Hamilton-Sperr, who founded Philadelphia's Please Touch Museum, "but behind this there's a lot of serious research about how kids learn." Accordingly, museums are devising exhibits to build the motor skills and stimulate the creativity of their littlest visitors.
In St. Paul, the "Habitots" exhibit at the Minnesota Children's Museum has a crawling section for babies up to 9 months old. The early-childhood center at the new Miami Children's Museum offers programs like Dilly Dali, for small Surrealists, and Funshine Band, in which tots can make their own music. And one of the highlights at EdVenture in Columbia, S.C., which opened last November, is a simulated indoor jungle. Toddlers can fish, hunt for bugs and climb mini-trees in an engrossing exhibit that engages their senses with the sights, sounds and even smells of the outdoors. Similarly, the Children's Museum of Atlanta, which opened in March 2003, has a forest in which preschoolers can don multicolored raincoats and play under a 250-gal. waterfall as they learn the basic scientific properties of water. "It's very difficult to get kids to leave," says Kathleen Reese, as she watches her daughter Alexandra, 2, happily making sand castles in the "Let Your Creativity Flow" area.
Another factor shifting attention to small kids is that youngsters between 8 and 12 are too busy to attend children's museums, which some consider "kids' stuff." "Kids 8 and up are doing so many activities, from arts to sports, that many just don't have time or interest in children's museums," says Bryn Parchman, CEO of Port Discovery in Baltimore, Md., which recently shifted its focus from tweens to the under-5 set. Its new programs include a petting zoo with parrots, llamas and potbellied pigs, and a cooking area where toddlers help a chef whip up treats like Seussian green eggs and ham.