Getting From Child's Play to Graduation Day

When participants applied to participate in the Leadership Exchange, they probably didn’t expect to end up riding on a carousel or playing with string during a lesson on photosynthesis as part of the program, but the Please Touch Museum takes seriously the idea of learning through play for all visitors, adults and children alike. 


Around 30 business and civic leaders visited the museum during one of six Regional Explorations offered as part of this year's Leadership Exchange. Beyond carousel rides, participants were there to learn about the thriving partnerships the museum has cultivated to serve children and families in the surrounding Parkside neighborhood and the larger region. The theme of this year’s Leadership Exchange was innovation and collaboration around shared agendas, and we chose Please Touch because it provides a great example of successful institutional partnerships addressing a crucial need – early childhood education and school readiness.


Please Touch Museum’s mission is to enrich the lives of children by creating learning opportunities through play. They do this through an array of programs, events, and of course, interactive exhibits. The museum was founded in 1976 as the first-ever museum dedicated to serving children ages 7 and under. In 2008, the museum relocated to historic Memorial Hall in the city’s Parkside neighborhood. Originally built to serve as the city’s art museum as part of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, the building provided an opportunity to vastly increase the size and capacity of the museum. In 2012, more than 590,000 people visited.


As we’ve explored before, it is crucial that children have access to high quality early learning experiences and develop the social/emotional and early literacy and math skills to be ready for school. For this reason, the Economy League is intently focused on increasing access to high quality early childhood education as part of our World Class Greater Philadelphia agenda.


While it is families and schools that take the primary role in preparing kids for school, museums, libraries, and other “anchor” institutions are increasingly taking an active and intentional role in helping to fill the need for high quality early learning by providing the type of learning opportunities - self-directed, experiential, and context-rich – that contribute to children’s school readiness and life success.  This is particularly important for children who do not have access to high quality preschool programs and need support beyond what their families can provide. Please Touch is deeply engaged in working with these children in our region and provides a great example of how partnerships and collaboration should work in these kinds of efforts.


During our visit, the group heard about museum partnerships with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia that help babies and young children get off to a healthy start in life, with the Federation of Neighborhood Centers to help older youth build entrepreneurial skills and bring fresh foods to the Parkside neighborhood through the Teens for Good program, and with the School District of Philadelphia to help children be successful in school.


The museum provides early literacy programing for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers as part of their School Readiness Initiative and partners with neighborhood schools on specific lessons and curricula, helping teachers of young children infuse learning with play. Beyond direct programming, the museum works with the Pennsylvania Department of Education to ensure that exhibits and activities are aligned with state learning standards helping kids get ready for school and succeed once they arrive. The museum works with other institutions and corporate partners to remove the barrier of cost for Philadelphia public school children and others.  


A particularly successful event we learned about is the annual “Kindergarten Mixer,” another component of their School Readiness Initiative. Held at the museum in partnership with the School District, it helps to ease the transition to school for children and their parents and to build excitement about kindergarten. Children get to meet teachers, register for kindergarten if they haven’t yet, and get a backpack filled with supplies and books.

Ideally, children and their families begin preparing for school well before the first day of kindergarten. However, in some cases, children aren’t even pre-registered, making it difficult for the district to plan for the coming school year and for children to have a smooth transition and positive start to school. By partnering for this event, the museum and the district are able to reach more than 1,300 people including around 400 future kindergarteners annually.


While the mixer is just one step in preparing children for school, it’s a great example of a community institution identifying and embracing their piece of a complex puzzle – in this case, school readiness. Working with partners, Please Touch identified a need that, utilizing their strengths and resources, they could help address, providing a model for other institutions to think about how to maximize their impact, contribute to bigger goals, and drive better outcomes for the region.