Like most museums, the interior of the long corridor that houses the Westchester Children’s Museum is lined with works of art and eye-catching displays. But unlike the strict hands-off policies of typical museums, visitors to the Children’s Museum are encouraged – if not expected – to manipulate, deconstruct and reassemble each exhibit.
“This is a place where we want kids to just experiment and interact,” said Tracy Kay, executive director of the Westchester Children’s Museum.
From creating a winding roller coaster from an assortment of multishaped parts to constructing an elaborate three-dimensional design that will hover within a vertical wind tunnel, visitors to the museum are encouraged to learn by doing.
“We encourage kids to take chances with some of these things, because you learn from your mistakes much more than you learn from getting it right the first time,” he said.
Boasting a panoramic view of the Long Island Sound, the museum resides in a former bathhouse and changing area for Playland in Rye.
“When you look at the overall plan for Playland, we’re like one of the anchor stores in the mall,” Kay said.
In 2013, after 13 years of operating various programs out of 16 different facilities, the Westchester Children’s Museum was approved for a lease by the county’s contracts board to have access to its own space at 100 Playland Parkway.
After seasonal openings in the summers of 2014 and 2015, the museum completed an approximately $500,000 infrastructure buildout of the 6,500-square-foot eastern portion of the bathhouse. These infrastructure updates, including plumbing and heating, allowed the museum to remain open year-round. Nearly 20,000 guests have visited the museum since its opening on March 9.
“It’s just been great to see that after all these years of planning, that people are enjoying the museum the way we thought they would,” Kay said.
Though the museum now has a long-term building to call home, off-site programs are still an important part of its mission. Through its Museum Without Walls program, the Children’s Museum partners with a variety of organizations throughout the county, including community centers, schools, libraries and child care centers, to deliver a range of educational programs from reading and discussing Mother Goose rhymes to building model solar cars to children in need
“If you look at Westchester, some people say, ‘Does Westchester have a need?’ and there are some extreme pockets of need in Westchester,” Kay said. “It’s even more extreme when you look at the upper end versus the lower end of the scale.”
Since the program began in 2010, the museum has partnered with 50 organizations, including Regeneron and the Greyston Foundation, and engaged more 20,000 children.
The museum purposely purchases exhibits than can be transported to their off-site visits, including a set of Keva Planks, small, uniform building planks that are stacked to create wooden structures.
“If you remember things from your school experience, it’s likely the field trips, the things outside of the normal,” he said. “I’d like this to become normal.”
What visitors see at the Children’s Museum today is only the first phase of what it will one day become. Officials are working to raise funds to back the next phase of the buildout, one that will include renovating the remainder of the bathhouse’s 12,000 square feet, as well as investing another $1.2 million in infrastructure improvements, including air conditioning and additional restrooms.
The expansion will also feature a Climber, a multistory maze that is part jungle gym, part climbing tree that will wind its way through the length of the museum.
“It’s a different way to transport yourself through the museum,” he said.
Once the second phase is finished, focus will shift to the third and final phase of the project, which will include a constructing an 84-seat performance theater adjoining the existing bathhouse. That addition is “probably a couple of years down the line,” Kay said.
The renovations will also include adding office and administrative space to the building’s interior, something that will surely rouse the museum’s staff who now work out of a trailer on the north side of the building.
“There is a game plan, and it all comes together with how much money is raised by when and what makes sense,” he said.
Once completed, the museum will encompass 22,000 square feet, with about 18,000 of that total footprint dedicated to exhibit space.
To date, private donors, most of whom are families or individuals, have contributed more than $10 million to the Westchester Children’s Museum.
“Money comes from anywhere we can find it,” Kay said.
Donations have seen an increase since the museum’s opening earlier this year.
“They’re not knocking our doors down, but a lot more people are asking us how can they get involved and how can they help,” he said.