On a frigid Saturday afternoon, parents toting children in diapers and pigtails sought refuge at the Boston Children’s Museum, a stimulating playground of science, culture, and mystery.
Most pulled out credit cards and paid the $14 admission. But Amanda DiBattista flashed an EBT card at the check-in counter and got in for $2.
DiBattista, who receives government subsidies with the card to supplement her income, would not have been able to get such a saving a year ago. But museum officials are hoping a new program offering deep discounts to low-income residents on food and cash assistance will attract a demographic that has largely stayed away.
“This is amazing,’’ said DiBattista, a day-care teacher who lives in Peabody. “It helps.”
Museums including Children’s regularly shave costs to ease the burden on cash-strapped families. But when officials started digging, they discovered that the old set of discounts did little to attract the people they were intended to benefit. The state is now watching the Children’s Museum experiment and hoping other museums and cultural institutions will follow suit.
The Children’s Museum quietly began offering the savings in August and is now launching a campaign to get word out. The museum bought ads on buses serving low-income areas of the city, and officials have been handing out fliers at local centers, churches, and community meetings.
Since the EBT program started five months ago, more than 1,160 visitors — some of whom say they would not have otherwise visited — have used the EBT discount. More than 30 percent of them are from low-income communities in Boston and others live in more affluent Boston neighborhoods and suburbs, according to museum figures.
Museum and state officials are quick to point out that the blue EBT cards, which resemble credit cards, are not swiped at the check-in counters and that no money is withdrawn. Patrons show their card with an ID and pay cash.
The idea emerged after representatives of the museum met with residents in Mattapan, Roxbury, and Dorchester last year, trying to find out why so few low-income residents visited the facility.
The residents expressed deep interest in visiting the museum, but too many said they could not afford existing discounts, such as a half-price deal offered to people with library cards.
“We had to confront the fact that these individuals are not able to pay the admissions, and that they are not even able to pay for the half admissions with a library card,’’ said museum president Carole Charnow. “We needed a pass that was a green light to them to say that ‘this museum is yours and you can come to the museum. You can afford to come here.’ ”
The museum offers substantial discounts during off hours, but some residents said they had to work evenings or that they were afraid to return to their homes late at night when the discounts were available, Charnow said.
After a series of focus groups and surveys, Charnow said the museum decided to launch the EBT program, which gives card holders the flexibility to visit whenever they desire. The museum worked with state agencies that administer food and cash benefits through EBT cards.
One in 8 Massachusetts residents receive cash benefits or supplemental nutrition assistance, according to state figures. While EBT cards are permitted at farmers’ markets, their use is heavily restricted to essentials.
State health and human services officials say they are hoping to encourage other cultural institutions to offer the EBT discount.
DiBattista and her 6-year-old daughter, Amelia, drove all the way from Peabody to Congress Street for a Saturday afternoon at the museum. If she had used her library card and got in for half price, it would have cost $14. With the EBT card program, she and Amelia paid a total of $4.
Wearing a white, long-sleeve T-shirt with a colorful star on the front, Amelia crawled into a giant, three-story contraption the museum calls “The Climb.” It looks like something from a faraway story land with a staircase that resemble floating carpets and walls like fishing nets.
“I can’t wait for her to get to the bubbles,’’ said Amanda. “The last time she was here she was just 3.”
Meghan Irons can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at MeghanIrons.