The Story of the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum at 15 years and going…
The Grand Rapids Children’s Museum is celebrating their 15th Birthday in 2013. Since 1997, they have been providing cherished memories and innovative play experiences for children (and their adults).
The museum started as an idea of four women; Georgia Woodrick Gietzen, Alyce Greeson, Carla Morris, and Aleicia Woodrick. They were inspired by their children and grandchildren and they intuitively knew that regular, creative, hands-on play was inherently good for children. Founded on the beliefs that children learn best when they direct their own learning, these women set about to create a place with a sole focus on young children.
The prequel to the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum, a “Museum Without Walls,” debuted in August 1993 at Woodland Shopping Center. Several exhibits which demonstrated the concept that play is a child’s work dotted the walkways between stores. Children looked forward to accompanying their parents on shopping trips. The “Museum Without Walls” was such a success that the founders imagined the next step; housing the museum in a more permanent location in downtown Grand Rapids.
The four founders knew it would be difficult to convince the community that a special place dedicated to play would be worthy of the substantial charitable contributions needed to make it a reality. They envisioned an environment in which children would learn, develop and grow through the activity of playing. For a community, like many others, facing problems of economic development, poverty and homelessness, convincing people of the value of play was a challenge. Their passion and very hard work, carried the day.
Near the eastern entrance to downtown Grand Rapids, the Monument Square building was built in 1916 from a design by Osgood and Osgood, Architects. These architects had designed several other significant Grand Rapids structures. The building was known for its exterior walls of white glazed brick laid in black mortar joints. Tenants had included Daane and Witters Grocers, a stationary and fine gifts shop, the Steele Shop selling the latest fashions from Paris, London and New York, the W.T. Moore Sporting Goods Store and Oosterhof & Company, tailors. In 1980, the building was gutted by fire, leaving only the architecturally significant white exterior intact. The building remained vacant for 17 years.
In the winter of 1994, the Monument Square Building at 11 Sheldon Avenue was purchased and generously donated by Bob and Aleicia Woodrick and Jim and Shirley Balk to become the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum. After much renovation, the Museum opened its doors in July 1997. The journey was documented through the perspective of a displaced pigeon, in “Penrod’s New Home”, a children’s book written by the four founders.
In 2009, a mosaic mural entitled “Imagine That” was added to the outside exterior and won second place in the first Art Prize competition. The mural has become a familiar Grand Rapids icon.
The Grand Rapids Children’s Museum is celebrating their 15th year anniversary from July, 2012 through July 2013. In these 15 years, over 2,288,000 people have played at the museum or in one of its outreach events, making it one of downtown GR’s leading attractions.
The museum has been awarded the Art Serve Michigan’s Governor’s Award, the Service to Children Award from the Child and Family Resource Council and was recognized by the Association of Children’s Museum as one of the most innovative Children’s Museums in the country.
This award for innovation underscores probably the most important asset that the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum has brought to West Michigan. All museums bring valuable culture and learning opportunities to a community, each in their special and characteristic way. The Grand Rapids Children’s Museum is unique in that it concentrates entirely on the activity of play and the rich cognitive, social emotional and physical benefits which are derived through play. Play nourishes the mind, the body and the spirit. Abilities learned through play build skills critical to success as adults. The museum’s exhibits and programs are hands on, interactive and open ended. It is a one of a kind space in which children can safely be in charge, imagine without limits, discover and learn.
In a period in our culture where schools are increasingly cutting recess time in favor of class time, outdoor play areas are disappearing, and parents are overscheduling their children into structured activities, the message of the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum is ever more important. Free play diminished in our society by 25% just between 1981 and 1997 according to a study by the University of Michigan. At the same time examples of bullying, childhood obesity, depression and anxiety are on the increase. A recent Newsweek article warned of a loss in creativity among our nation’s workforce. Many blame the decline in play for the rise of such problems.
The Grand Rapids Children’s Museum is the expert in play. We closely follow the emerging scientific research on brain development and the positive impact of play. We turn this research into captivating exhibits and programs which engage children. The findings are conclusive that play can lead to the development of thinking skills, problem solving, improved interpersonal skills, communication, impulse control, creativity, and planning abilities, to name just a few of the beneficial outcomes. These are all critical skills of the workforce for tomorrow. The impulse to play is inborn to most animals. Now, it turns out, that play is remarkably beneficial for those who take the time to do it and for the communities which foster it.
The museum has followed the original vision of the four founders for these 15 years. Visionary founders, a historic building, generous philanthropy and a critical mission – that’s what made the first 15 years of play happen in Grand Rapids. Written by Bob Dean, Executive Director.