Chicago Children's Museum

Chicago Children's Museum

Chicago Children's Museum is a not-for-profit, hands-on museum whose mission is to “create a community where play and learning connect.”1 Believing that meaningful play is how children begin to learn, they have formed a safe gathering place where “families, educators, caregivers, and staff come together to discover, explore, collaborate, celebrate, inspire, and learn through play.”2

Designed especially for children from birth through age 10, they believe that “reaching children during their formative years forever enriches their lives.”3 Their child-centered, interactive exhibits utilize play to address children's cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development needs. They are committed to overcoming barriers for children of all abilities and resources and thus to “bringing play back to homes, schools, and communities.”4

When Chicago public schools experienced program cutbacks in 1980, a group of concerned citizens formed a planning committee to explore the possibilities of filling in the resulting gaps with a children's museum. The planning committee's vision led to the creation of Express-Ways Children's Museum on October 17, 1982 with the support of the Junior League of Chicago and representatives from Columbia College, Loyola University, and the Education Resource Center. They began with the Getting to Know Hue exhibit housed in two hallways of the Chicago Public Library, now known as the Chicago Cultural Center.

The following year Dianne Sautter became their first executive director and she would lead the Express-Ways Children's Museum/Chicago Children's Museum for the next 17 years. While the museum was housed in the public library hallways, they expanded by developing “exhibits-to-go” for use in schools, community centers, and in summer neighborhood cultural festivals.

After four years in 1986, Express-Ways Children's Museum moved to Lincoln Park where they continued to expand for the next three years. Then in 1989, they tripled their space by moving to a North Pier location. Two years later they officially became Chicago Children's Museum (CCM), and four years after that in 1995, they moved to their permanent site, a 57,000 square foot space on Navy Pier.5

CCM continued to expand in 1996 through their free aviation themed exhibit, Kids on the Fly, located at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. Another way they expanded beyond their physical location was the creation of national touring exhibits beginning in 1999 with Face to Face: Dealing with Prejudice and Discrimination.

CCM's local museum outreach program, CCM To Go, involves playful learning experiences for schools, daycare centers, and homeless shelters. Through over 400 community partnerships, they also host free museum days and evenings, heavily discounted memberships, free transportation, and subsidized school group visits for low income families. For teachers they offer CLIMB (Collaborative Learning in Museums and Beyond), a summer institute or yearlong course to assist them in utilizing play strategies and museum resources in the classroom.

Through interactive exhibits, CCM explores the arts, cultures, health, literacy, and STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Math. Children and infants with their families and caregivers might explore the properties of water through WaterWays, dig for dinosaur bones at Dinosaur Expedition, design a skyscraper in the award winning Skyline, climb a ship rigging in Kovler Family Climbing Schooner, put out a fire in Play it Safe, or role play daily life at a child sized Kids Town.6 There are also daily art projects at the Kraft Artabounds Studio and a specially designed preschool play area at Pritzker Playspace.

Believing that “play is the right of every child,” CCM's interactive exhibits are also inclusive to children of all abilities. Their Play For All program includes resources and assistive devices for children with physical and social-emotional challenges. They host periodic museum mornings with trained guides to assist students with disabilities and monthly early entrance days for children and families with disabilities. Other assists include The Autism Program Museum Kits, wheelchairs, sound reducing headphones, Universal Cuffs, and dynamic seating devices.7 These events and resources create a play space for children and families to “test their limits and try new experiences in a safe and welcoming environment.”8

Besides being a museum, CCM is a research center in the field of informal learning. With funding from the National Science Foundation, they created Partnership of Playful Learners, a project promoting science-based family learning. They have also collaborated with Field Museum, Lincoln Park Zoo, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, and Northwestern University to develop Early Elementary Science Partnership (E²SP), a program to create interest in science in the classroom.9

In 2005, CCM published Standards of Excellence in Early Learning after a two year study of the best practices in early childhood learning. At the time they were renovating their building and looking for a further definition of their approach to exhibits. The goal that emerged was to become the premier early childhood informal learning resource in Chicago. Their approach was defined in the formula “Exhibit + Program + Staff Interaction = Chicago Children's Museum Experience.”10

The Chicago Communities at Play Initiative was an eight month research project concerning play in Chicago, funded by the Marguerite Casey Foundation and conducted by CCM. Their findings were published in The State of Play in Chicago's Communities, which identified the barriers to children's play and outlined an action plan to “enhance play environments both within and beyond the museum's walls.”11

In 2009, CCM compiled a detailed conceptual framework for the future, Imagine Childhood, in which their main focus is on the importance of play. The following year they launched a position paper project from which they adopted eight papers, including one on Play, outlining institutional policies. With their research, reports, and position papers, CCM has assisted in furthering the national dialogue on the importance of play for children.

  • 1. “Chicago's #1 Children's Museum!” Personal correspondence from Chad Mertz to Playground Professionals. 6 Apr. 2012.
  • 2. “Our Vision Starts with Play.” Annual Report 2010. p. 11. Chicago Children's Museum. < > 6 Apr. 2012.
  • 3. “Why Chicago Children's Museum Matters.” Chicago Children's Museum. < > 6 Apr. 2012.
  • 4. “Annual Report 2010.” p. 1. Chicago Children's Museum. < > 6 Apr. 2012.
  • 5. History Timeline received from Chad Mertz. Personal correspondence to Playground Professionals on 6 Apr. 2012.
  • 6. “Mission & History.” Chicago Children's Museum. < > 6 Apr. 2012.
  • 7. Kreiger, Natalie. “Chicago Children's Museum's Play For All Program Receives Support From CVS Caremark Charitable Trust.” Chicago Children's Museum. < > 6 Apr. 2012.
  • 8. “Discovery Starts with Play.” Annual Report 2010. p. 5. Chicago Children's Museum. < > 6 Apr. 2012.
  • 9. “Learning Starts with Play.” Annual Report 2010. Chicago Children's Museum. < > 6 Apr. 2012.
  • 10. “It all Starts with Play.” Annual Report 2010. p. 3. Chicago Children's Museum. < > 6 Apr. 2012.
  • 11. Ibid.