Built to Learn: A Model Community Engagement Project
The Children’s Museum of Manhattan's focus is on communities and the best way to meet their needs. By working with the New York City Housing Authority to recreate exhibitions and educational programming in public housing, we are taking the museum experience and its educational opportunities directly to the communities that need it most.
–Halley K. Harrisburg, Chairman of the Board of Directors, CMOM
The Children’s Museum of Manhattan is partnering with the New York City Housing Authority to bring the museum learning experience into public housing developments. Built to Learn builds critical academic skills and promotes healthy habits in young children and their caretakers. Designed as a model for community engagement, the program includes early childhood literacy and health exhibits, along with educational programs for parents, caregivers, teachers and children. It also provides older adults and families with access to other community resources, serving as an anchor for community engagement in East Harlem.
To children in East Harlem’s Johnson House development, Built to Learn looks like pure fun – with a series of family health and literacy festivals; weekly classes that emphasize storytelling, music, art, and healthy movement; and a colorful indoor play space full of activities like a fruit/vegetable "green cart," a fire truck, a digital finger-painting station, and a talking dragon that helps children learn letters and build vocabulary.
In fact, the program, developed by the Children’s Museum of Manhattan and the New York City Housing Authority, is a replicable community engagement model to address dire educational, economic, and health issues affecting low-income families. The program was launched through a three-year Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) National Leadership Grant.
Breaking the grip of poverty hinges on giving its youngest victims a strong academic foundation and healthy start in life. In New York City, 50 percent of low-income children are not prepared for kindergarten, starting school with limited language skills and health, social, and emotional problems that hinder learning. More than 40 percent of Head Start children are overweight or obese, at high risk for a lifetime of serious health problems.
Serious - Yet Fun - Community Engagement
In the first project year, the museum completed a needs assessment with community members and parents to design interactive and educational program elements. It conducted two healthy-living family festivals for 130 participants, with a host of art, literacy, and movement activities; sing-alongs, and a healthy-challenge obstacle course. In fall 2012, the museum began weekly parent/child engagement workshops based on its effective EatSleepPlay childhood obesity curriculum, teaching through arts, science, music, movement, storytelling, and cooking.
Meanwhile, the museum designed and began fabricating 2,000 square feet worth of interactive components and graphics for the Johnson House’s daycare center.
Bilingual (English – Spanish) graphics are based on the museum’s IMLS-funded PlayWorks early childhood education exhibit. The décor includes a large mural, Evolution of a Conversation, which teaches adults how children develop language skills, and content that helps them understand the unique ways children learn.
When the daycare opened, the museum started a 25-week schedule of weekly family engagement programming, completed a professional development workshop for daycare teachers, and sponsored a family-healthy holiday festival for 300 attendees.
The interactive exhibits, including several based on the EatSleepPlay health exhibition, will be installed in June 2013. In addition to Built to Learn programming, the environment will support educational programs such as NYC Early Literacy Learners and the Partners in Reading After-School Program. Built to Learn will maximize program impact with an environment that enhances the process and dialogue around teaching and learning, and by creating professional development programs and community-building network strategies to help residents succeed.
Local Focus… National Impact
The immediate Built to Learn focus is local, with a goal of improving learning and health development for East Harlem children and families. Discussions are underway to consider similar programming in other New York City Housing Authority sites. However, the ultimate intent is to achieve national impact on several levels. The program will help assess and document the impact of museum-led community initiatives to address critical social issues. It will increase museum leadership capacity through a replicable model for community-based exhibit environments. The program will help spur other strategic partnerships between community organizations and cultural institutions. It will also provide access to new content, products, networks, and processes for effective early childhood and health education in low-income neighborhoods.