Kidzeum occupies a unique niche in Springfield. As a science museum, children of all ages enjoy the exhibits centered around learning about a healthy body, healthy earth and healthy community. Kidzeum also offers many STEAM programs (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math).
Its flagship program, STEAM Residency, began as "we were looking for a way to become more essential to education in the community and to serve as an informal learning space where students can do things and learn content that they don't necessarily get to in a classroom," explained executive director Leah Wilson. STEAM Residency is offered to second graders throughout Springfield School District 186.
Every second-grade class and teacher spend a week at Kidzeum, working part of the time together and part of the time with Kidzeum's educators doing hands-on science in the form of exhibit building in one of three topic areas: human body, pollinators or solar energy.
"They will do research; they will go through the exhibits; they choose objects they want to place in their own exhibits; and they write their own text panels and facts that they think people should know. Then they present that exhibit to their classmates," said Wilson. The partnership with District 186 provides transportation for students and teachers.
A different program open to kids from first to fifth grade is Kidzeum's STEAM Academy, an after-school program that operates four days per week, an expansion of a successful pilot program that was funded in 2019 by the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln's Young Philanthropists Fund. "We were ready to kick it off the very week we closed for COVID," lamented Wilson. However, the program launched in 2022 with transportation and meals provided, thanks to the delayed grant. It continues to be offered in 2023, with each month's activities revolving around a different topic. However, there is no current grant funding to pay for transportation or meals.
"Transportation is a huge barrier, unfortunately," stated Wilson, "which is why we were hoping to get a grant so we could ease those transportation burdens for the after-school program. We're still seeking to do that, but in the meantime, it's exciting that we are now a stop on the Graham School bus route," reducing the barrier for students at that elementary school.
STEAM summer camps are also offered, and for the past two years a partnership with District 186 utilized COVID-relief funds to pay for any student from the school district to attend camp. "It was great for us since we were just launching the camps and not well-known in the community for having summer camps," said Wilson.
While most summer camp activities take place at Kidzeum, last summer one week was spent at Southwind Park for a pollinator camp. Another featured a two-week flight school, with time divided between Southwind and Kidzeum, and one day at Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport, a partner for this program. "They opened up the facility in an amazing way," said Wilson. "When I went to see where the kids were going to be at the airport, I was quite surprised that they had the kind of access that they did. It was a wonderful experience for the students and the airport was fantastic to host them. We're hoping that continues next year as well."
Like many kid-friendly destinations, the staff at Kidzeum strives to make the museum accessible to all children. Continual training ensures that staff are able to provide sensory-friendly accommodations for autistic children and other kids with sensory needs.
The first Sunday of each month from 9-11 a.m., Kidzeum offers sensory-friendly times where noise is reduced or stopped and lights are lowered. "Those times have been popular, and the demand has been increasing for those. We try not just to be aware and accommodating on those days and those specific hours, but we make resources available to anyone at any time they come into the museum," said Wilson. A bin of sensory aids is available at the front desk and includes headphones, sunglasses and fidget toys.
Another program that allows for more access is the Impact Program, offering a discounted yearly membership for anyone enrolled in EBT (formerly known as LINK or food stamps) or WIC for a yearly fee of $30. In addition, anyone with an EBT card or WIC documentation can receive a reduced daily admission fee of $3.
Wilson advised parents to keep an eye out for a video to be released soon by Hip Hop MD containing pointers that will help families enjoy the Kidzeum even more. We can all enjoy Kidzeum, a unique treasure in our community.
Carey Smith is a homeschooling parent to a child who has attended Kidzeum's STEAM Academy for the last two months and highly recommends it for learning, playing and socializing.