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  • Sarah Rhen

Fostering Community by Welcoming Children

Photo by cottonbro studio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/girl-in-red-dress-playing-a-wooden-blocks-3662667/
 

When they saw us

they might have thought we were two friends

and had come to the museum together,

a planned playdate for our littles.


If they had observed more closely,

they might have noticed our happenstance meeting,

as I approached the cafe host asking for directions to the art lab,

“The kids zone?” a voice from behind me, also pushing a stroller, “we’re going there too.”


And in the art lab, our littles playing with colored blocks,

they might have overheard our conversation,

slowly getting to know each other:

Whether we’re “full-time moms,”

What other work we do / or did, before

Whereabouts we live

Where our families are from

What our partners do

What we do for ourselves

How our babies are developing


And when the littles simultaneously decided it was time for lunch,

and we strolled together back in the direction of the cafe,

they might have heard the “do you mind if we join you for lunch?”

as though it was not already planned (it wasn’t).


And so there we sat,

moms across from each other,

eating lunch and continuing conversation,

spoonfeeding the littles purees and soft solids,

as they sat next to us in modern-design high chairs

communicating in their own way and making faces at each other,

across the museum cafe table.


 

Last week, I took my toddler for a day at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. We had a great day, in part boosted by one of those magical moments of museum connection that we professionals in the field aim to foster and love to see.


We serendipitously met another mom with her baby, and as our kids played together, we got to talking, and had a very friendly day together. We sat together for lunch, and then exchanged contact details before going our separate ways. The museum brought us together in a way that likely would not have happened organically (especially because I was visiting from out of town), and fostered between us what very well could be a lasting connection. This is building community.


Let's take a closer look at what factors in the museum specifically brought us together, and consider what others might do to foster more of such connections.


Kids Art Lab

I specifically chose to go to MoMA that day because they have a designated space for kids to play and explore with art-related toys and crafts. When I'm taking my toddler somewhere, I want there to be some way for him to be actively engaged. I looked at other museums around midtown Manhattan, and no others had relevant programs happening the day and time we would be there, nor regular ongoing activities for kids my son's age. MoMA's Art Lab is open daily for most of the hours the museum is open, so even if there is not a scheduled program, the Art Lab offers a way to engage children. As a bonus, you can actually access the Art Lab as part of MoMA's free spaces (along with the gift shops, cafes and restaurants, and sculpture garden), without paying for a gallery ticket.


Why is this important? If there is something for kids - especially for free - parents will bring them. And speaking as a mom of a child below school-going age, I am constantly looking for places to take my toddler to meet other kiddos and play somewhere new outside of our house. There is a substantial lack in general of such spaces. (Local libraries provide wonderful spaces, resources, and programs, but other baby-friendly socialization spaces are often few and far between.) This is a gap that museums could step up to fill. Make space for the babies, and parents will follow; and parents will tell their other parent-friends, come back on play dates, and bring older children for a family outing. There is so much potential for welcoming families, who are a core part of community, into museum spaces.


Beyond creating space for babies and toddlers to socialize, such opportunities are likely to bring parents and caregivers into connection as well - as happened for me on my visit to MoMA last week. Parents of young children, especially if they are the primary caregiver and mostly or completely stay at home with their kids, are also craving socialization. Two moms coming together with kids of similar ages are often eager to talk to each other and connect. (Did you know that there are apps designed to connect moms at similar life stages to socialize among themselves and arrange playdates for their kiddos? They're like dating apps for connecting mom friends. That's how much of a need there is for primary caregiver socialization.)


The woman I met at MoMA, we were in adjacent fields of work, and similar motherhood stages, which made conversation easy. But we're otherwise very different people, from different places in the world, and different political opinions (we realized, as our conversation deepened throughout the afternoon). And yet, because of our shared experience with our kids at the museum, we were brought together. This idea that art connections have the power to do this - bringing diverse people together in community - is what inspires me in my work.


Child-Friendly Staff

Another factor at MoMA that really made our visit was the genuinely kind, friendly, and helpful front-end staff. When we went to the cafe for lunch, two moms with two kids and two strollers in tow, the host helped us get set up with high chairs at a nearby table; directed us to where we could park the strollers; and arranged for another staff member to come and take our order, rather than sending us for counter service, while we got situated with the kids. They promptly replaced the water glasses on the table in front of the babies with plastic cups and dropped off two packs of colored crayons - restaurant-quality service I would not have expected in a museum cafe. Other staff who walked by waved and cooed at our babies on their unplanned lunch date.


After lunch, we exchanged numbers, and our new friends left to go visit the public library. My toddler and I proceeded to roam around the galleries. I let my kiddo lead, toddling through the art spaces, while I followed pushing the stroller. To be honest, he wasn't very interested in the art at all, but, as a mom, I was happy to have a new place for him to roam around and get his energy out while I got to take in the art. He would get close to some pieces and I would kneel down behind him, my hands around his waist, instructing him not to touch. He was very well behaved and the gallery guards were smiley and friendly, allowing him to explore.


My only complaint of the day was the bathroom with a changing table located on the fifth floor was not very clean at all. I don't want to have to deal with a wiggly baby in a dirty bathroom.


Looking Forward

So, overall, how can this experience inform our practice going forward?


Making spaces welcoming for our youngest community members will make spaces welcoming for families as a whole; which can foster bonds between families and help to build community connections that extend beyond the museum walls.


Now, I'm not at all suggesting that museums should start setting up daycare services. But, setting aside a designated safe space for children to play with relevant toys, games, and/or clean crafts under their own adult supervision can on the one hand, fill a need among parents, and on the other, serve a museum's mission of fostering community.



@ parents & caregivers: what spaces have you seen in museums that have welcomed you and your (younger) kiddos to engage in the space?


@ museum professionals: what other types of spaces have you designed to welcome families (especially with younger kids) and build community connections?

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