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Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013 12:01 am

Having fun saving the world

Springfield’s Kidzeum promotes “health and wellness”

Artist’s rendering of the Kidzeum, to ocupy now-empty buildings on Adams Street in downtown Springfield.


If we are to believe the hype – and of course we are meant to believe it – the proposed Kidzeum of Health and Science will save the earth, rescue our children from disease and invigorate the local tourism economy. I assume the staff will rest on the seventh day.

Springfield got into the children’s museum racket a little late. The first one opened back East in 1899, and there are already hundreds around the country. Whether they meet a need is debatable, but there’s no question they meet a demand. Parents once saw their main responsibility to be instructing the young – in manners, in morals, hygiene and the rest; today they believe it’s their job to entertain them. The lower classes (rich and poor) entertain their kids with mindless trash; the middle class – believing that the goal of life is not self-determined adulthood but college acceptance – entertain them with mind-improving trash.

The Kidzeum, say its backers, is “vital” for our youth because its exhibits willhelp educate, promote awareness, and address the following critical issues affecting the health and wellness of youth today and of future generations” – obesity and its diseases, air pollution and our failure to recycle food scraps.

I hope they have an exhibit that explains the difference between health and wellness, but there are more fundamental problems with this do-gooder manifesto. The notion that learning must be made FUN!!! is like a snake you can’t kill no matter how many times you stomp on it. Never mind that learning is interesting and satisfying while fun is merely trivial, or that all kids learn about when they’re having fun is how to have fun, or that the focus of fun is the learner and not the world being learned about or….. oh, never mind. 

“Imagine the excitement and the comments from children” say Kidzeum backers, “after spending a day full of fun, laughter and learning.” Imagine the exhaustion and curses from the parents after a visit that left their little liceballs chewing the upholstery in the car on the way home. Architect’s renderings of the interior suggest that visiting it would be like being trapped inside a pinball game. 

The pedagogical concepts that are being peddled to the project’s backers by their consultants have been in use since the glaciers melted at Springfield’s other children’s museum, the Play Museum in the basement of the Illinois State Museum. There kids are promised they can “load a Jeep for an expedition,” crawl through a cave or excavate a Mastodont skeleton. Of course, they get to do none of those things. They only get to pretend they are doing those things, using props provided by the museum in which all the imagining has already been done, leaving the child to do – well, not much of anything. Preschoolers are said to enjoy it, but what they enjoy is pretty much what they get at a McDonald’s PlayPlace, without everything being quite so sticky.

Parents looking for interesting things to do with young children, especially when it’s raining or cold out, could stay home. The typical middle class home is itself a mini-Kidzeum. If the kids are bored in these – and they are, Lord, they are – it’s because manufactured experience is inherently unsatisfying to the young mind, no matter where they encounter it. If a parent wants her kids to eat better, helping them plant a home garden, and how to store and cook the results, is worth a hundred visits to one of these mall-ified drop-in day care centers. A parent who frets about too much food and yard waste going into landfills could start a compose pile with the kids’ help. 

A couple of weeks ago I watched a mother and her pre-teen daughter tour a series of displays in which objects from around the world were made available to touch and smell, objects that most kids have never seen and whose origins and purpose remain a mystery to most Americans. The displays were colorfully designed to attract the eye and were crammed with information, but most of the educating was being done by mom. She explained what the objects were, and how they might be used, and things were weighed, counted, compared. 

You could call it “interactive educational experiences that promote learning” about health and nutrition of the sort that the Kidzeum promises. Or you could call it shopping for the family meals for the week in the local supermarket.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.


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