January 2009: PlayWorks™ Provides Whole-family Learning In a Child-friendly Environment

Children participate in PlayWorks at the Childrens Museum of Manhattan

Children’s Museum of Manhattan, New York

2006 Museums for America

Children participate in PlayWorks™ at the Children's Museum of Manhattan

Web site:

Leslie Bushara
Deputy Director of Education and Guest Services
(212) 721-1223 ext 240


Children feed alphabet letters to a talking baby dragon, drive a New York City fire truck, paint on a six-foot art wall, and crawl through a challenge course in PlayWorks™ at the Children's Museum of Manhattan (CMOM) in New York. Manhattan’s largest public play and learning center for early childhood marries the skills that children need to succeed in kindergarten with fun stuff that kids love. The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) funded the project through a 2006 Museums for America grant to support the museum as a center of community engagement and lifelong learning.

"PlayWorks™ is a joyful place for learning science, math, reading and other things. We incorporate fun and learning into the whole design to create a scaffold of learning. Families come to the museum to supplement preschool experiences," said Andy S. Ackerman, CMOM’s executive director. The museum also offers parents, sitters, and other care-providers guidance on engaging their children with the exhibit.

Based on the concept that children’s learning and personal growth is rooted in play, the 4,000-square-foot space is divided into five learning areas: Language, Math and Physics, Arts and Science, Imagination and Dramatic Play, and Practice Play (for infants and crawlers).

To build literacy skills, the museum created a climbable, soft sculpture dragon named Alphie who lives in the Letter Garden. Children feed blocks inscribed with a letter and a corresponding picture to Alphie, who announces, "A is for Apple." Kids love Alphie’s silly behaviors, like when he sometimes sneezes and asks for a tissue. In the same area is a storytelling nook where parents and children can read, make up stories, and play with puppets.

PlayWorks™ offers a pint-sized neighborhood complete with the "Little Apple" market where they can pretend to buy, sell, and cook fruits and vegetables. Children learn communication, cooperation, listening, and role-playing on the fire truck where they can dress up like fire fighters and pretend to drive. Young visitors point a fire hose at screens dancing with fake flames. As the low intensity laser beam "douses" the flames, letters that spell rhyming words like "cat" and "hat" appear.

"We worked with the local firehouse to make sure the truck was authentic. Firemen talk to the children about being a fireman," said Ackerman. CMOM designed the truck so that children in wheelchairs can drive it too. The fire truck was dedicated to Firefighter Ruben Correa, the only firefighter at CMOM’s local firehouse who died in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Cultivating Cultural Literacy

The museum cultivates children’s cultural literacy by displaying classic art images such as the Mona Lisa with real hair that children stroke and Degas’s dancer with a touchable fabric skirt. At the StoryKiosk, parents and children record and email themselves videos talking about their museum experience. It’s also a great way for parents to track their child’s development, interests, and challenges over time.

The Movers and Shakers area focuses on movement and math. It includes a huge climbing structure with a peek-a-boo area, dioramas of animal habitats, and a bridge that helps children with their balance. There’s also a physics area where children connect a series of tubes to air sources and are rewarded with buzzing bees, a windmill, and floating balls. "In this area, you can engage a child from two years to five years and they can grow with the exhibit," Ackerman said.

Training for Caregivers

While PlayWorks™ is intended for young children (0-4 years), it is also designed for caregivers, including educators and parents of young children. Through PlayWorks™, CMOM staff provides a 10-hour hands-on training program to some of New York’s 26,000 unlicensed caregivers. PlayWorks™ handouts in English and Spanish teach parents and caregivers how children learn and how to support a child’s learning in the museum and beyond. CMOM also publishes the PlayWorks™ Guide for Families of Children with Disabilities with tips for a great visit.

PlayWorks™ is part of CMOM’s larger early childhood initiative. Other components include community-based programs such as:

  • The Shelter Program that provides single mothers in transitional housing with critical parenting, literacy, and life skills that empower them to create better lives for themselves and break the cycle of poverty. CMOM, in partnership with Homes for the Homeless, serves women and children living at the Clinton Family Inn Shelter during two 15-week sessions held in the fall and spring. Each week, an interdisciplinary team of educators, writers and social workers work with participants, along with their children, to provide them with the tools necessary for independent life as mothers and employees. This year-long early childhood program provides children with skills needed for preschool readiness.
  • The Bronx Family Initiative is a family-based Early Childhood Outreach Program that uses arts and literacy techniques to engage parents of young children in the learning process to strengthen children’s acquisition of essential language, math, sensory, social and motor skills. CMOM delivers year-round, 35-week family-based early childhood programs to three sites a week in the Bronx. Weekly hour-long workshops with parents and children center on a particular book and incorporate two creative activities, one related to the visual arts and one that is music-based. All families receive a free book each week to take home.
  • The Professional Development Training for Home-Based Childcare Providers. CMOM in partnership with City University of New York’s (CUNY) Early Childhood Professional Development Institute (PDI), has developed a10-hour training program for the 26,000 home-based child care providers across New York City, including both licensed as well as informal providers (license-exempt), and with limited educational credentials and levels of experience. The program includes guided exploration of CMOM exhibitions; free one-year CMOM memberships; and a joint CMOM/CUNY certificate of completion for participants to become eligible for pay increases.