By Reagan Moore and Helen Wechsler

Neuroscientists tell us that the type of learning that occurs in museums – self-directed, experiential, content rich – promotes executive function skills (PDF, 256 KB) that can shape a child’s success in school and life. IMLS believes that museums can play a strong role in early learning for all children.

Over the past five years, IMLS’s museum grant programs have awarded $21,777,581 for projects aimed at our nation’s youngest learners and their families.

These projects support museums in their role as charging stations, or places that provide opportunities to power-up children’s learning, with activities focused on STEM, family engagement, school readiness, early literacy, financial literacy, and connections with nature. While children’s museums, art museums, and science centers receive the majority of IMLS early learning support, art and history museums, nature centers and gardens, aquaria, and zoos all form an extensive, diverse infrastructure of informal learning.

The National Leadership Grants for Museums (NLG) program allows museums to take the lead by addressing a need arising from across the museum field and in response creating tools and resources that benefit other museums. Many NLG projects have resulted in early learning resources for museums.

Participants in Leap Pre-K at the Walnut Street Library, Philadelphia
Participation in Leap Pre-K at the Walnut Street Library, Philadelphia.

The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia developed a pre-K version of a program called Leap into Science, which integrates children’s literature with hands-on science activities. It began as a partnership with the Free Library of Philadelphia with each partner contributing what they know best – informal science education and great children’s books with science concepts. With IMLS support (LG-30-12-0702-12), Leap Pre-K was implemented in nine sites nationwide, each made up of a partnership between museums, libraries, and other community-based organizations.

The project created six pre-K Leap workshops and also embedded pre-K content into 11 Leap family-based workshops that cultivate parent participation.

Franklin Institute’s Tara Cox and Julia Skolnik currently steer Leap Pre-K. They explain how it works beautifully for the tiny audience members who “usually cannot explain or verbalize scientific phenomenon but can very much experience them.” They also report that the “evaluation shows children demonstrating scientific behaviors and parents appreciating their children as learners. Families are seeing libraries as places where science could happen and science museums as places for literacy.” The science museum–library partnership has been a perfect way to disseminate the program as libraries have an enormous pre-school audience.

The program has been successful at the nine expansion sites, tapping into large pre-school populations already served by public libraries and providing new programming opportunities. The Queens Library in New York, for example, used Leap Pre-K to reach beyond its walls to local Head Start sites. Cuyahoga Public Library in Cleveland, Ohio, used Leap Pre-K resources in its kindergarten readiness program.

Dale McCreedy, at the Discovery Center, an expansion site in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, began the project during her years at the Franklin Institute and remains one of its leaders. At the small rural children’s museum, McCreedy has used the program to incorporate science into the museum’s activities, including professional development offerings. She will add aspects of it into both a mobile bus that goes to schools in rural communities and into this summer’s pre-K camp. 

The Franklin Institute is expanding the network of sites and has made available resources for other museums.

What’s available for you?

Family visiting the USS Constitution Museum
Family working together at the USS Constitution Museum.

The USS Constitution Museum in Boston focused its National Leadership Grant project (MG-10-13-0074-13) on identifying characteristics of family programming that result in intergenerational learning in museums and libraries. The museum used iterative prototyping to create a flexible set of guidelines for broad dissemination.

As museum executive Sarah Watkins explained, “Often family programs were child-centered and caregivers just watched. We wanted to get to a program where they laugh and learn together in a social and positive learning experience. We wanted to get adults off the sidelines.”

The project has led to the discovery of the “secret sauce,” she said, that creates this type of engagement. Watkins told of one family’s response to a program: after a father noted with wonder that his son was so creative, the boy responded by saying that it was the nicest thing his father had ever said about him. How great to have that realization in a museum!

Now considered leaders in family engagement, the USS Constitution Museum provides other museums an online clearinghouse of resources, and invites colleagues to come and learn about the “secret sauce.”

What’s available for you?

  • Engage Families is a rich website that offers useful definitions and resources, tested guidance on family learning in exhibits and programs, as well as tools for evaluation and prototyping.
  • Upcoming workshop in September 2017. Contact 
EC-STEM at the SLSC Grandstand Booth
Learning about EC-STEM projects for under $1000 at the SLSC Grandstand Booth.

With IMLS funding the Saint Louis Science Center formed the Early Learners Collaborative (LG-30-12-0724-12), a partnership of 21 science centers and children’s museums from the international Science Beyond the Boundaries network. The collaborative works to enhance science literacy and school readiness programs for children ages 0-4. It disseminates best practices and research, as well as materials, curriculum, and activities to all 270 member museums, ultimately benefiting 83 million visitors. In addition to the online resources, the collaborative assists individual museums by linking them to knowledgeable colleagues and helping them to customize materials.

Christian Greer and Christina Carlson of Science Beyond the Boundaries say that the “museums are re-inspired by each other” and that through collaborative work with partners, “different flavors” of how to present science for early learners have emerged.

What’s available for you?

  • Science Beyond the Boundaries is a website that offers experiments of the month, activities to share, the Early Learners Handbook, a directory of projects and partners, a monthly newsletter, and the ASTC Grandstand
  • Upcoming half-day workshop and Grandstand booth at ASTC 2017

As museums become increasingly involved in early learning networks, they can use the approaches and tools mentioned above to undertake this important work more efficiently and with greater benefit to the smallest of their visitors.

Do you have an innovative approach for serving early learners and their families? Contact OMS staff to discuss applying for a National Leadership Grant for Museums.

Helen Wechsler

Helen Wechsler is a Supervisory Grants Management Specialist in the Office of Museum Services. She manages a portfolio of National Leadership Grants and Museums for America grants in the learning experiences project category. Her portfolio focuses on early learning, STEM, and digital media and learning. Helen can be reached at


Reagan Moore

Reagan Moore is a Program Specialist in the Office of Museum Services. She manages the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards and focuses on early learning, family programming, and K-12 in-school and out-of-school time projects across all museum programs. Reagan can be reached at


National Leadership Grants for Museums
National Leadership Grants for Libraries