The world’s first children’s museum opened in Brooklyn, New York, in 1899. Over the next several decades other cities across the United States followed suit, and children’s museums opened in urban centres such as Detroit, Indianapolis, and Boston. These institutions often displayed collections of natural history specimens, such as minerals, birds, insects, shells and plants – customary museum objects. However, these items were presented in a totally unique way. Through creative programming and activities, children were encouraged to interact with these objects, as opposed to just look at them.
As the 1900s progressed, children’s museums became more and more common. However, it was not until the 1960s that these institutions really began to resemble the modern-day children’s museum. At that time, with Michael Spock as director, the Boston Children’s Museum began to develop innovative interactive exhibits. Spock’s exhibits also catered to the different developmental stages children go through as they mature. Around the same era Dr. Frank Oppenheimer established the San Francisco Exploratorium. This institution was developed with and continues to encourage a hands-on participatory approach in exploring nature, science, art and technology. The designs of today’s children’s museums often resemble the prototypes established by Spock and Oppenheimer.
Since then children’s museums have continued to grow in popularity: every year new institutions ‘pop up’ in urban and rural centres around the world. And children’s museums continue to receive praise, far and wide. In fact, several of today’s well-known educational theorists, including Harvard’s Dr. Howard Gardner, commend modern children’s museums as ideal learning environments for youth.