Unleashing the Power of Play with the Children’s Discovery Museum

By Children’s Discovery Museum May 26, 2021

Congratulations to Kendra H, the winner of up to 6 free admission passes to the Children's Discovery Museum ($48 value)! Look for an email from us!

Over its 26-year history, the Children’s Discovery Museum (CDM) has become a community staple for families with kids, “inspiring the love of learning through the power of play.” The Museum builds custom hands-on exhibits and professionally designed curriculum for field trips, learning labs, home school programs, and public events. Not only is the CDM an affordable outing for families, it’s also a key tourist attraction and economic driver in the heart of Uptown Normal.

The Museum is part of a family of offerings in the Town of Normal Cultural Arts Department. Cultural Arts Department Director Beth Whisman explains, “We have an older sibling in the Normal Theater and many cousins that make up the annual Town festivals and concerts. The Parks & Recreation Department also offers programming. We partner with organizations and schools across the region every year to serve more than 140,000 people with playful learning.”  

The Museum building was built with the health of its visitors and employees in mind. The Children’s Discovery Museum was the first children’s museum in the country to achieve LEED Silver Certification honoring green building practices. And the reopening process this summer will see even more safety and sanitation enhancements, including medical-grade air filters, increased hand sanitizer stations and a new child-sized hand-washing experience in the “Healthy Me” exhibit.  

The journey to the current three-story fun center included years of initial planning and fundraising before launching in a small storefront in 1994. Since relocating to Uptown Normal in 2004, the Museum has hosted more than two million visitors. Through all its iterations, the goal has remained to provide “hands-on exhibits, classes, and programs that actively engage the visitor in experiences that stimulate imagination, curiosity and wonder.”

Shelly Hanover, Director of Museum Experiences and Engagement, feels every day is fun at the Children’s Discovery Museum, but she and the Museum staff especially enjoy Family Fun Nights and public events, when families come together to play and create lifelong memories. “The window for early childhood is much shorter than people realize. You have to invest time and energy in these early years to build the foundation for healthy, strong kids of the future,” she says.

The effects of the Museum can be lasting. For example, 16 years ago, a young boy visited the Museum’s Luckey Climber exhibit. He is now a professional engineer who was charged with the plan for tearing down the popular exhibit to make way for a new climber. Given his fond memories of the space, he was a little sad to receive the assignment at first, but was excited to see the new drawings for the next generation Luckey Climber. He plans to bring his own family to the exhibit when it opens later this year.

Kids like this local engineer are the Museum team’s biggest inspiration. Shelly explains, “They are quick to share and imagine together as we fulfill our mission every day. They are a joy to serve. We can see the immediate impact from the power of play by simply observing our kids in action.”

The Children’s Discovery Museum also has a nonprofit Foundation that supports the Museum’s mission and vision. Volunteer board members raise funds for exhibits and programs. Beth explains, “You don’t necessarily have to be a kid or a parent to enjoy Foundation events. For instance, the annual Craft Beer and Jazz Festival in Uptown Normal is a great way for adults to support our important work while they enjoy a big party. This July, Craft Beer BINGO will return at local breweries for socially-distanced summer fun. And a new adults-only event called the Playla is planned for Sept. 9 at the CDM.”

Even while shut down over the past year, grants and donations helped the CDM continue safe outreach and serve more than 40,000 children and their families. According to Beth, “Children in our community need the Children’s Discovery Museum now more than ever. For the past year, children have been coping with trauma, illness and household disruption. Staff have engaged in community conversations and are prepared to assist with challenges related to the pandemic, such as children’s social-emotional health, educational achievement gaps and developmental delays.”

Imaginative and interactive play at the Museum can help kids and families heal emotions and restore feelings of positivity. As the Museum staff preps to welcome guests again, they’re most looking forward to inviting visitors into their new “Healthy Me” exhibit and their updated “AgMazing” and “Imagination Theater” play spaces. They’re also focusing on outreach to families in need of play through new and existing programs, such as Prescription for Play and Museums for All.

The Children’s Discovery Museum re-opened its doors with limited capacity in May. Check or social media for updates on how to register for play times!