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Please Touch Museum Rises As Thought Leader for Early Childhood Development

Trapeta Mayson was still a newcomer as Vice President of Education and Family Learning at Please Touch Museum (PTM) when she first experienced its famous end-of-day parade, a daily tradition at the museum's gargantuan Memorial Hall facility in Fairmount Park.

Mayson was advised to not venture into the middle of the large crowd -- which can sometimes number a thousand kids and grown-ups -- to distribute tambourines and other parade necessities. Mayson, however, got caught up in the moment and was compelled to join in. She quickly became a part of the giddy group, surrounded by laughter, smiles and tears, before an admissions attendant escorted her from the center of the excited crowd.

"You have to be a strange person for (the parade) not to affect you," says Mayson. "I always want to be in that parade, but sometimes we have a meeting."

When Mayson and the dozens of others who bring learning and fun to life for young children and their families aren't actively engaging in the fun, they are busy crafting it with a strategic and thoughtful approach. This past February the Please Touch Museum welcomed its 2 millionth visitor since moving to Memorial Hall in October, 2008. It would have taken 11 years for the museum to reach such a milestone at its former Center City facility off the Ben Franklin Parkway.

Even more impressive is the museum's rise as a thought leader for early childhood development and education. This is drawn largely from its Adult/Child/Environment Learning Model, which includes designing "purposeful play" and incorporating state educational standards for learning from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. Multiplying the power of this rare approach is its increasing accessibility. All schoolchildren in Philadelphia are able to visit PTM once for free through its School Voucher Program. These factors all contribute to PTM routinely being ranked among the nation's top museums for children and families.

On Jan. 19, Dr. Barbara Minzenberg, the deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning, visited PTM for a tour and discussion with its leaders and was left with a similar impression.

"I could not resist interacting with the amazing activities myself," says Minzenberg in an email. "Of greatest importance is the opportunity Please Touch Museum presents for children and family members to enjoy one another, play, and learn together."

Learning Comes First and Often
One of the biggest things happening behind the scenes at PTM right now is Exhibits 2013, its multi-pronged initiative to add and update exhibits, which currently numbers six exhibit zones and includes more than three dozen "experiences," like Rainforest Rhythm (River Adventures exhibit), CHOP Medical Center (City Capers exhibit) and the Hall of Doors and Mirrors (Wonderland exhibit).

Staff from nearly all PTM departments consider things like: Is it fun? Does it have educational value? Does it work for a 0-7 year-old audience? The several months-long process began with input from PTM's experience hosts, those purple-shirted individuals stationed at each exhibit to help facilitate fun and learning. There are more than 70 and include recent high school grads, retired teachers and education/early childhood majors.

Each exhibit experience is designed with a targeted age level, goal, education objective, reading list, and associated activities like art, music and other creative dramatics. The PTM Notebook is a 41-page guide to PTM content and learning standards, including ways to enhance the experience for children with visual, hearing/speech, physical, cognitive or social/emotional challenges.

"Often adults don't see the value of play and how it can enrich learning," says Mayson. "We looked at various local education standards and pulled out things that are connected across the board, and put everything together. When exhibits get tweaked or we create new exhibits, we update the document."

Teachers can easily ascertain how exhibits tie into current lesson plans and, in turn, more easily plan and get approval for visits. PTM's exhibits typically involve multiple standards for science, math and art, increasing the power of the experience for both children and educators.

One of the more powerful experiences here is the Please Touch Playhouse Theater, which is staffed by full- and part-time local theater professionals who create original performances specifically for children in a black box-like space that gives children an opportunity to experience professional theater without adult-driven conventions. Participation is encouraged and staffers review etiquette and instructions prior to performances. The theater stages more than a dozen 25-minute shows every week, like "Happy Birthday Moon" and "Scat Cat."

"It's important because it's a live experience," says Mayson. "Children generally aren't as welcome in the traditional theater world. We do call and response with kids, use a lot of puppets, and the artists are accessible."

Even PTM's Kids Store, also a gift buying destination on its own, reinforces the power of experiential education. The store is stocked with toys and games specifically chosen by experts inside and outside PTM to promote learning and fun at home, with all proceeds from purchases benefitting PTM programs and exhibits.

Outreach, Within Reach
These experiences and other PTM programs are only as impactful as they are accessible. That's where Leslie Walker comes in. As Vice President for Community Learning, it's up to her to make sure educators and parents are aware of the many opportunities to engage with PTM. Its Library PlayPass Program is a partnership with the Free Library of Philadelphia, where kids can go into participating branches, show their library card, and get a free pass to visit PTM. PTM also hosts Target First Wednesdays, which offers a steep reduction for per person admission between 5-7 p.m. ($2 instead of the normal $15 rate).

And when people can't come to PTM, PTM comes to them. Community Learning boasts eight specific initiatives that tears down PTM's walls and heads out into communities and settings where most children and families have never even been to a museum. The programs impacted 5,000 children last year. PTM partners with social service agencies like homeless shelters and residential treatment facilities to do six-week, play-based workshops that include both caregivers and children learning about literacy, science, math and art, wrapping with a trip to the museum and a free year-long membership to PTM that can be renewed.

"A lot of these families think it's out of reach to come here," says Walker. "To see the excitement on their faces (when they visit) is priceless."

Other initiatives focus on parents, kindergarteners, books and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). PTM's Autism Access Program has hosted more than 3,000 children and families from the region. The program trains staff to assist those with ASD, provides opportunities for portable play and visits to PTM and holds regular morning and evening sessions especially for ASD visitors and their families that also provide valuable networking opportunities for parents and children.

Stringing It All Together
That kind of accessibility holds the key to PTM's future.

"Our overall goal is to reach even more children and families from all communities and at every economic and ability level and to provide meaningful learning experiences that offer children the best possible chance of success in school and life," says PTM President and CEO Laura Foster, who has worked in many capacities for the organization since 1991, including shaping plans for PTM's move to Memorial Hall.

Later this month PTM will debut a new exhibit called Railway Play! that will span the entire west side of its Centennial Exploration exhibit. In addition, PTM is in the process of developing something unofficially referred to as PTM University, which would formalize its various partnerships and education initiatives with other institutions and agencies throughout the region. The idea is to also include workshops and seminars that would satisfy training for educators, like ACT 48 and continuing education credits.

It's another way PTM's vast experience over four decades extends the impact of its thought leadership throughout the region.

Says Foster: "Making this kind of difference in a child's life is why we work so hard every day and why Please Touch Museum will continue to maintain and expand efforts to bring our philosophy of learning through play to all."

JOE PETRUCCI is managing editor of Flying Kite. Send feedback here.


Trapeta Mayson and Leslie Walker

The End of the Day Parade at the Please touch Museum

Leslie Walker

View of the museum from the Avenue of the Republic

Trapeta Mayson

Please Touch Financial Literacy as part of Community Learning Outreach

Liberty arm and torch by Leo Sewell

Detail of elephant sculpture by Leo Sewell

River Adventures

City Capers

All photographs by MICHAEL PERSICO

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