Five Questions With: Janice O’Donnell

Executive director of the Providence Children’s Museum and recent recipient of the Rhode Island Foundation’s Initiative for Nonprofit Excellence Award for Leadership talks about the nonprofit and its growth. More

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Five Questions With: Janice O’Donnell

"The museum has been a strong advocate for children’s play for several years. We hold community conversations about issues around children’s play, discussing topics such as the value of acceptable risk-taking and the importance of outdoor play, and have screened documentaries that illustrate the value of play. "
Posted 7/11/14

Janice O’Donnell, executive director of Providence Children’s Museum since 1985, won the Rhode Island Foundation’s 2014 Initiative for Nonprofit Excellence Award for Leadership. O’Donnell joined the museum in 1979 and in 1997 oversaw completion of a $3 million capital campaign for the expansion and relocation of the museum to Providence’s Jewelry District. Today, the organization has more than 160,000 visitors annually, an operating budget of $2 million and 40 staff members. Here she discusses the museum’s innovative programming and goals for the future.

PBN: You’ve served the museum for 35 years, leading as executive director since 1985. What parts of your vision for the museum’s future have come to fruition?

O’DONNELL: In 35 years, the museum has seen a lot of changes – and growth! When I joined the staff in 1979, the museum had only been open for two years. We were located in a Victorian house in Pawtucket and had about 35,000 visitors a year. By the late 1980s, the museum was welcoming more than 50,000 visitors a year, attracting national and local support, and had become a leader in the rapidly developing children’s museum movement.

We were also outgrowing our 5,000-square-foot building. It had always been our vision to be a resource for families statewide, which came to fruition with our move to Providence in 1997. We tripled the physical size of the museum and now have more than 160,000 visitors a year – from every city and town in the state as well as nearby Massachusetts and Connecticut.

We also wanted the museum’s audience to be as socio-economically diverse as our state is – and we’ve accomplished that by developing strong relationships with the communities least often served by cultural organizations. We have a longstanding partnership with Children’s Friend Head Start that involves not only the children in their classrooms, but introduces their families to the museum and provides them with free passes to return as often as they like. Our collaboration with the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families serves children in state care and their families who have been separated because of neglect or abuse. So, the dream of the museum being much more than a nice thing to do on a rainy day has certainly come true.

My current dream is that children’s free, self-directed play will regain value in public policy and places. We want to ensure that recess is returned to schools, that children have welcoming places to play on their own, that parents and policy makers realize the importance of child-directed play to kids’ healthy development – physically, cognitively, emotionally and socially. We need to reduce time kids spend in front screens and in adult-led activities and let kids just play.

PBN: In one program running this summer, kids can get behind the wheel of a fire truck, sit atop a digger, or meet ambulance operators. How does it relate to the museum’s mission?

O’DONNELL: “Real” is important to kids. Their world is full of toys, models, videos, computer simulations. Figuring out what is real and what is pretend is an important part of their cognitive development at a number of stages. I think that’s why “Wheels at Work” is such a perennial favorite – we’ve been presenting some version of this summer series for more than 20 years.

There’s a lot more happening at the museum this summer: great outdoor fun in our Children’s Garden including making giant bubbles, building water channels, messing around with mud, investigating the world of worms; building with Imagination Playground – huge blue foam blocks, wheels, tubes, and spools; creative activities in Discovery Studio. There’s something different every day.

PBN: What was the value in linking the PlayCorps summer program to Providence parks, creative exploration, and the summer meals program? How many kids are participating?

O’DONNELL: The museum has been a strong advocate for children’s play for several years. We hold community conversations about issues around children’s play, discussing topics such as the value of acceptable risk-taking and the importance of outdoor play, and have screened documentaries that illustrate the value of play.

We created a listserv – PlayWatch – where parents, educators and others weigh in and share resources and articles about play. We’ve hosted workshops with “playworkers” from England where playwork, the art of supporting children’s play without directing it, is a respected profession. And we bring play activities to city neighborhoods. The museum’s play advocacy efforts are a major reason that Providence was just named a “Playful City” by national non-profit KaBOOM! for the third consecutive year.

PlayCorps is another example of the museum’s commitment to working in partnership to provide opportunities for free play. It’s a collaboration with the Partnership for Providence Parks, the city of Providence’s Healthy Communities Office and Parks Department, and the museum.

The museum’s primary role has been to train and guide PlayCorps members in supporting children’s free play. PlayCorps teams of two or three are in five neighborhood parks this summer, weekdays when free summer lunches are provided, with the goal of making the parks more welcoming. It’s a pilot program in the early stages, but they’re seeing more than 200 kids every day. We hope to demonstrate that this model can enliven our parks and build community, as well as help to restore children’s free play.

PBN: Why do you focus on children aged 1 to 11?

O’DONNELL: Children’s museums, including ours, are a response to children’s need for experiential learning – for hands-on experiences, for pursuing their own interests. The learning connections that kids make when they are posing their own problems and exploring what they’re curious about are so much stronger than when information is fed to them, especially in the early school years. The museum provides those developmentally appropriate hands-on experiences.

Also, the museum is one of the few places where adults and kids explore and discover together, and a perfect place for parents to learn about how their own children play and explore the world because the kids are free to follow their own interests and inclinations. We focus on children, but also on adults who care for children. That’s why advocating for time and space for children’s free play and other child-centered issues is absolutely part of our mission and our work.

PBN: What are the projections for growth in people served and programs offered, and how do you plan to handle it?

O’DONNELL: In terms of visitors, we already have an impressive market share: nearly half of all Rhode Island children visit the museum at least once a year. We have a significant visitation from Massachusetts as well. We’ve seen steady growth in audience over the past several years.

The child population isn’t increasing, but I think 160,000 to 165,000 visits a year is sustainable as long as we keep providing new offerings and maintain high quality in terms of exhibits, programs and visitor services.

We’re committed to doing just that. We’re excited to open a new water exhibit next fall – a complete makeover of our extremely popular Water Ways exhibit. We’re adding new experiences like ice and mist, swirling vortices, and an expanded area for toddlers’ water play.

I think there’s a lot of room for growth in our outreach efforts, and partnerships will make it possible. Our program with DCYF bringing court-separated families together at the museum is growing with the addition of a second location – Nina’s House, where families play and learn together in a homelike setting. We have a team onsite at Providence Boys & Girls Club Southside Clubhouse providing after-school and summer programming and next year we’ll have a similar partnership with Highlander Charter School.

Working in partnership means that it’s not up to just one organization to supply the resources. In a shared effort, the effects of the programs go deeper, become part of the culture of other organizations, and, therefore, are more sustainable.

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