Heather Allen wasn’t surprised to see hand sanitizer and one-way foot traffic directions when she visited the newly reopened Discovery Museum in Acton with her two preschoolers.
What was a little bit unexpected, though, was how unfazed her children were by the changes.
“We’ve only been going to playgrounds and outdoor activities. They were excited to be somewhere,” said the Chelmsford resident. “They showed no signs of being nervous. They’ve been to the museum so many times in the past, and they know their way around.”
Both of her children gravitated immediately to their old favorites: her 3-year-old to the train room and her 7-year-old to the crafts center.
Barely had the state’s mandatory shutdown of nonessential businesses and gathering places begun in March when Discovery Museum staff started thinking of ways to bring its trademark blend of STEAM-oriented learning and fun to children stuck at home.
In the weeks that followed, the museum team developed curriculum resources for teachers, do-it-yourself home experiments and online projects for kids, and hard-copy activity guides distributed through local food pantries and school systems.
But all along, CEO Neil Gordon and his staff kept their sights firmly set on the goal of reopening as soon as possible. And finally, with the state’s Phase 3 plan well underway, the museum has reopened its doors, first with two weeks of members-only days and now, from July 28 through Aug. 23, with free admission for all visitors.
“We knew we wanted to do something special when we reopened,” Gordon said. “This pandemic has created both emotional stress and financial strain for families. With our reopening, we wanted to give kids a sense of normalcy, a chance to be somewhere they’ve always been, but at the same time we recognized that there might be parents who weren’t sure about spending the money, especially if they might not feel comfortable once they got here.”
Free To Play — as the museum is calling the monthlong free admission initiative underwritten by several corporate sponsors — is a way to give back to the community, which Gordon said has been “remarkably supportive and generous for 38 years.”
The museum staff began planning a reopening strategy by sending out a survey to members and past visitors. The survey revealed that many parents trusted the museum to come up with measures that would provide a clean, safe place for children to learn and play.
One anonymous survey respondent wrote about the desire to find a “clean and stress-free environment ... the kids have already had enough coronavirus stress, the thing I want least is to continue that stress in a fun place.”
New measures now in place include mask requirements, expanded cleaning and disinfecting, building and gallery capacity limits, one-way flows, and some areas restricted to one family group at a time.
Admissions are organized into three daily time blocks, with plenty of scrubbing the exhibits down between blocks. A small number of exhibits that cannot realistically be sanitized, like one involving a sand table, are temporarily closed.
“I thought everything was very well-marked and well run,” observed Melissa Davison, also of Chelmsford, who attended a preview day with her 7-year-old. “You could see the staff communicating with each other, adjusting and tweaking as people came through.”
Despite the profusion of hand sanitizing stations and decals indicating the flow of foot traffic, “I don’t think she thought it was any different,” Davison said about her daughter. “She was definitely excited to be back.”
The staff has noticed some unexpected benefits to the new setup as well, said Nina Sabettini, director of Visitor Services & Operations. “Parents seem more engaged with their kids.”
Whereas once parents may have just released their children to run to favorite old exhibits, with the new restrictions parents are keeping closer tabs on what their kids are doing.
“They’re showing kids the signs saying how many people can be in each space at once, and when they come across an exhibit that has to be closed for now, they’re encouraging the kids to try something they might not normally do when they’re here,” Sabettini said.
Moreover, many exhibit spaces are restricted to one family group at a time, so families are sticking closer together than they may have in the past.
Perhaps the Discovery Museum’s greatest advantage in reopening is the fact that so many of its attractions are sited on the 4.5-acre grounds, enticing kids to be outdoors.
The Discovery Treehouse and Discovery Woods nature playscape, the trike track, the da Vinci moveable bridge, lawn games, orienteering, and trail route information for the Great Hill Conservation Land surrounding the museum all provide ways for kids to learn and explore in a low-contagion environment.
It was the chance to be outdoors, learning and playing, that made 6-year-old Travis Malieckal of Concord feel right at home. “I played giant checkers outside. I missed the museum and it felt cool to be back,” he said.
In a discreet aside, his mother remarked that the game was actually chess and not checkers. But there’s time for Travis to learn the difference. There’s time for him to learn all sorts of things at the museum, now that it is once again open and ready to welcome creative, curious children eager to learn and explore.
Discovery Museum, 177 Main St., Acton. 978-264-4200; discoveryacton.org. Reservations required. Open 9:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. Closed Mondays.
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.