Thursday, September 24, 2015

Museum Schools ...and Museum Preschools

RMSC Preschool (Photo credit: RMSC)
The Center for the Future of Museums followed up on its popular session on the future of education at the annual meeting in Atlanta with a pair of blog posts on museum schools. In Trending Now: Museum Schools Laney Tillner, graduate student at Middle Tennessee State University, wrote about the rise in museum schools and their variety drawing on her thesis research and experience at the John Early Museum Magnet Middle Prep in Nashville (TN).

There are more than 30 museum preschools at history, art, science and children’s museums, zoos and nature centers across the US which contribute to the bigger picture of museum schools and the current and future learning landscape. Museum preschools:
are both well established and growing;
• have a relatively easy alignment between informal learning and formal learning methods;
• fit into the larger educational ecosystem of their communities; and
• are part of the early learning field that is increasingly viewed as critical to closing the achievement gap

In museum preschools, children spend their days in an extraordinarily rich and remarkable learning environment: the museum. Located at the museum itself children enjoy easy, usually daily, access to hands-on exhibits, immersive environments, dioramas, collections, program carts, gardens, nature areas, and sometimes a discovery room or a planetarium. Naturally curious and with a propensity for learning all the time, young children explore interactive models and objects from collections. They look at art, do observational drawings in exhibits, and measure dinosaurs using standard and non-standard units of measurement. They visit multiple museums in SEEC (Smithsonian Early Enrichment Program), use outdoor nature areas, and work with artists. Museum educators and docents are content specialists and facilitate guided inquiry with objects.
Opal School (Photo credit: Opal School)

In the US, museum preschools are both well established and expanding. The Museum School at Fort Worth Museum of Nature and History (TX) has been operating for more than 60 years; the John Michael Kohler Arts Center Preschool has operated for almost 50 years; and the RMSC Preschool at the Rochester Museum and Science Center has operated for 40 years. Well-integrated into the museums, these preschools help deliver missions to grow science learners, nature explorers, and art lovers; they are often a response to community priorities around literacy and school readiness. Frequently they support a museum’s strategy for learning across the lifespan. Along with other preschools, pre-K and childcare progarsm, they are part of the early childhood infrastructure in their communities. At the same time, museum preschools are growing. Perhaps 10 more preschools have opened in the last 5 years and no doubt, more are being planned.

While there is no standard model for a museum preschool, most share several characteristics. They enroll children two-to-five years of age and sometimes children from six weeks through eight years. They are distinct from most preschool classes, workshops, and programs many museums offer to young children accompanied by adults. Rather children attend these half-day and full day programs by themselves following a regular schedule.

Museum preschools share much with their non-museum counterparts. They serve as a preschool option by both accommodating family childcare needs as well as by providing enriching play and learning experiences that focus on the child’s social, emotional, physical, cognitive and language development. Some preschool classrooms are age-based and others are mixed age. Some follow a preschool tradition of part-day sessions (2 or 2–1/2 hours) and part-week schedules (Monday-Wednesday-Friday or Tuesday-Thursday). Others are full day, full-week, and year round. Museum preschools typically have licensed and certified teachers, successfully meet local and state licensure, and often carry the added distinction of being accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).
Lincoln Nursery School at deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park (Photo Credit LNS)

Museum preschools follow, borrow, and are inspired by current and popular early learning philosophies, principles, and practices. They may select from and combine Montessori philosophy, Reggio-inspired practice, the High Scope Curriculum, or the project approach. Some also incorporate their museum’s learning interests such as inquiry or family learning. As in preschool programs of all kinds, teachers and assistants plan activities and projects around themes and topics that children explore in small groups, through stories, building and making, in dramatic play, and free play, and on field trips to the museum and library.

Reflecting current best practices in early learning, the curriculum ranges from play-based to emergent to academic. Yet, even though some museum preschools are more structured and more academic than others, museum preschools enjoy a relatively easy mix of informal and formal learning approaches and environments. The social, object-based exploration, and contextualized learning that characterizes informal learning environments and experiences is well suited to how young children learn. It is typical of learning environments and classrooms planned with children in mind. If early childhood education programs are not generally under the radar of accountability pressures of testing and standards, they are frequently deliberate ways of sidestepping those pressures making more room for informal and potentially innovative learning approaches.

Museum preschools also fit into the larger educational ecosystem of their communities. They are STEM, STEAM and even SHTEAM focused; language and literacy based; and often interdisciplinary. Some like the Hundred Acre School at the Heritage Museum and Gardens (Sandwich, MA) are in partnership with the local school district. Opal School of the Portland Children’s Museum is both a beginning school for children ages 3–6 and a public charter school of the Portland Public Schools for grades K–5. My Nature Preschool at Tamarack Nature Center (White Bear Lake, MN) is a partnership of the county park system, the local school district, and a local preschool. Many preschools are providing valuable field learning experiences for preservice teachers at area colleges and universities.
There is strong evidence that high-quality early childhood programs help develop children’s language, critical thinking, and social skills and are part of the solution to our nation’s opportunity gap. The object rich, language rich, social environments of museum preschools can and do serve as models for high-quality early childhood education. Many of them are serving children from wide-ranging backgrounds and providing scholarship support.

Stepping Stones Museum for Children’s and its partners Literacy How, Norwalk Community College, and Norwalk Housing Authority have developed a language- and literacy-based preschool to help close the achievement gap in Connecticut. Now in its fourth year, the Early Language and Literacy Initiative (ELLI) Lab School and Pre-Kindergarten Model Classrooms is a comprehensive program serving children 3 – 5 years and their families. It applies research to successful programmatic and classroom practices and integrates it into the professional training of early childhood educators across Southwestern Connecticut.

Like museum schools, museum preschools offer new opportunities for learning in museums, sometimes contributing and sometimes changing their local learning landscapes. The broad range of institutions that offer preschools, the recent growth spurt, and even the long-standing tradition of museum preschools, provide a strong platform for growth and change. Expanded partnerships, research, innovative learning strategies, and a fresh look at the relationship between informal and formal learning are just some of the possible contributions museum preschools seem to be ready to make. 

Museum Preschools  
Children’s Museums
Discovery Kids Preschool at Discovery Center of the Southern Tier (Binghamton, NY) 
Early Childhood Institute at Miami Children’s Museum (Miami, FL)
Early Explorations Preschool at Great Explorations (St Petersburg, FL)  
ELLI (Early Language and Literacy Initiative) Lab School and ELLI Pre-Kindergarten Model Classrooms at Stepping Stones Museum for Children (Norwalk, CT) 
Eureka! Nursery at Eureka! National Children’s Museum (Halifax, UK)
Hands On Preschool at Hands On Children’s Museum (Olympia, WA)
Museum Explorers’ Preschool at the Children’s Museum of Skagit County (Burlington, WA) 
Museum Preschool at Young At Art ( Davies, FL)
Opal School of the Portland Children’s Museum (Portland, OR)
Preschool Alternative at The Family Museum (Bettendorf, IA)
Preschool Powered by Play at the Children’s Museum of Tacoma (Tacoma, WA)
The Children’s Museum Preschool at The Children’s Museum (Indianapolis, IN)
The New Children’s Museum Preschool at The New Children’s Museum (West Hartford, CT)
The Preschool at A.C. Gilbert Discovery Village (Salem, OR)
The Thinkery at The San Louis Obispo Children’s Museum (San Louis Obispo, CA)
Woodbury School at The Strong, National Museum of Play  (Rochester, NY)

History and Nature
Museum School at Fort Worth Museum of Nature and History (Fort Worth, TX)
Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center (SEEC) at The Smithsonian  (Washington, D.C.)    
Tallahassee Museum Preschool at the Tallahassee Museum (Tallahassee, FL)
The Hundred Acre School at the Heritage Museum and Gardens (Sandwich, MA)

 Science Centers and Museums
RMSC Preschool at Rochester Museum and Science Center (Rochester, NY)
SCI Preschool at Science Center of Iowa (Des Moines, IA) 

Art Museums
ArtStart at the Parkersburg Art Center (Parkersburg, WV) 
Art, Nature, and Me at Stamford Museum and Nature Center (Stamford, CT)
John Michael Kohler Arts Center Preschool at the Kohler Art Center (Sheboygan, WI)
Lincoln Nursery School at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum (Lincoln, MA)

Nature Centers
My Nature School at Tamarack Nature Center (White Bear Lake, MN)
Nature Preschools at Massachusetts Audubon (Arcadia, MA; Boston Nature Center, MA & Drumm Farm, MA)

Preschool at the Buffalo Zoo (Buffalo, NY)
St. Louis Zoo Preschool at The St. Louise Zoo (St. Louis, MO)
Toledo School Preschool at the Toledo Zoo (Toledo, OH)

Related Museum Notes Posts 
Connecting Contexts for Early Learning 
Children in Museums
The Dance: Informal and Formal Learning

This post borrowed from a 2011 article, Science at Play Museum Preschools, in Hand To Hand


  1. Another preschool, Prairie Dog Preschool at Sunset Zoo in Manhattan, KS ( was mentioned by Karen Walker Schlageck.

  2. Readers have pointed out more museum preschools to me and I am delighted to add them here.
    • The Artful Living Preschool at the Massillon Museum in Massillon OH:
    • Polliwog Preschool and Proton Preschool, both of the Pacific Science Center (Seattle, WA):

  3. One more museum preschool for the list:
    • Orlando Science center Preschool at the Orlando Science Center ( (Orlando, FL)