Young girl and young boy playing on tires.

Play, pandemic and pivot: How the Children’s Museum of Richmond got creative

Play can take many shapes and forms. Sometimes, it looks like climbing and running, other times it looks like imagination-fueled storytelling and pretend. It even can mean honing and refining a variety of spatial and tactile milestones without even knowing you’re learning.

The best part of the Children’s Museum of Richmond (CMoR) is that all this learning and development is happening, and the most active players don’t even realize they’re learning because of all the fun they’re having.

For an overly cautious parent, a hands-on, immersive experience like CMoR could have been intimidating pre-pandemic, but can you imagine all the changes that needed to happen for the museum to adapt and keep visitors of all ages safe?

Leadership in a time of crisis

Danielle Ripperton couldn’t have predicted when she started her new job as CMoR’s executive director in December 2019 that a global pandemic would be added to her onboarding list.

In that period of time when coronavirus was becoming an everyday vocabulary word, Ripperton and her team were watching the news, reacting to guidelines and doing as much as they could to alleviate the worries that were starting to spread throughout the community.

“I can vividly see the pieces of the pandemic,” Ripperton recalled. “The first couple of weeks it was in the news, people were getting scared. We were trying to get hand sanitizer, then when we couldn’t do that, we set-up portable hand washing stations. Our team filled their aprons with cleaners and gloves. We started to see attendance drift off and on March, Friday the 13th, we made the call to close for the safety of the community.”

And of all the calls CMoR made related to the pandemic, that might have been the easiest one to make.

At the time, the museum operated four locations: its flagship downtown location, one on Hull Street in Chesterfield, one in Short Pump and the fourth in Fredericksburg. While the organization owns its downtown location, rent was due at the other locations, and guests weren’t allowed in the building.

Given that guest traffic is a major source of funds, CMoR held on as long as it could but ended up terminating leases for its Fredericksburg and Short Pump locations. As luck would have it, those closures came with some silver linings.

Team effort, letting skills shine

CMoR was closed for several months during the pandemic given the nature of its exhibits. Where museums like the VMFA were able to mitigate closures, CMoR’s very principles of interactive play were countered by CDC guidelines.

What many folks may not know is CMoR’s downtown location serves as one of two learning spaces for the Sprout School, a program of YWCA Richmond. The museum was closed, but early childhood providers were allowed to remain open during the pandemic. And as early adopters to COVID protocols, Sprout’s staff became de facto advisers and counselors to the museum.

“We learned a lot from the team at Sprout,” Ripperton said. “They remained open the whole time, and they figured out how to make play safe. Turns out a doll that is a total hard surface is really hard to find, but finding elements to our exhibits that were able to be totally sanitized was critical.”

Sourcing sanitizable materials and exhibit elements took some creativity, but that’s where CMoR’s team thrives. When the Fredericksburg and Short Pump locations shut down, the exhibit team saw an opportunity to repurpose and move exhibits at those locations and incorporate them into the exhibit landscape at the remaining two locations. And if you’ve experienced the museum before, you’ll know that you can’t really clean a dig pit of sand, so there was a need for a total reset.

“Our exhibits team is incredibly creative and really good at what they do,” Ripperton said.

We asked her to describe one of the most creative exhibit transformations, and she hit on a subject near and dear to our stomachs.

“Harvest is an exhibit at Chesterfield, which goes farm to table, showing how food is processed and gets to our daily lives,” Ripperton said. “Food is a vital part of what we are and just the way the exhibit team did it was so creative and fun. I mean, who doesn’t love to turn a crank and watch a ball move up to the ceiling? Or to sit on a tractor? This exhibit space was totally transformed.”

40 Years of Play (for all)

The museum celebrated a major milestone, 40 Years of Play, this year. And what is so brilliant about CMoR is that it isn’t just celebrating play for those who can physically run, jump, sing and shout, but it’s truly celebrating play for all – thanks to a variety of partnerships.

Sacred Heart, for example, has helped with its book distribution program during the pandemic, while an ongoing relationship with VCU’s Occupational Therapy program brings in a doctoral student every year to help advise on exhibits and spaces. The OT students help devise inclusive practices and tactical adjustments and map out sensory triggers for families with children who have processing disorders. These partnerships and relationships help ensure accessibility is at the forefront of CMoR’s mission.

“Play is how children learn; it’s fun for kids, but for adults, we should all be taking it really seriously,” Ripperton said. “Children are learning from these interactions. Those neurons in the brain are making all kinds of connections, all through play and engagement. We’re part of a special time in a child’s life when brain development is at its peak. And play is a central part of that.”

Let’s all get serious about play, shall we? Now excuse me while I pull out a bucket of Paw Patrol figurines and get serious about vehicles, teamwork and the how recycling works with my kiddo.

To become a member of Children’s Museum of Richmond, register online or consider a day visit to try out the space. You can help low-income and at-risk families access the museum by giving a tax-deductible donation directly to the museum. You also can follow CMoR on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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