What can parks learn from museums?

Over the last few weeks I have been fortunate enough to spend a week camping at Grover Hot Springs, travel by train to the California State Rail Road Museum, and visit the new Exploratorium on the waterfront in San Francisco. My excuse has been summer with my sons.  And a great summer it has been!

Exploring color
Exploring color

Anyone with kids knows it can be a challenge to keep them entertained. They can only take so much looking at nature, or big steam trains, before they have you running screaming for the door. I vaguely remember it as a kid also — I loved the museums in London. The Science Museum, Natural History Museum and Geology Museum. And if you could find a button to press and make something move you were mesmerized! But mostly it was traipsing around looking at “exhibits” as your parents read out words from the display panels.

Fortunately museums have moved on and become interactive. The Exploratorium, has taken it to a whole knew level. I managed to spend five hours in it with my six year old son enthralled by the countless exhibits. Learning about constellations. color, sound, termites, waves, fog and so much more.  The Exploratorium has been pioneering this kind of interactive learning for decades.

Digging in the dirt
Digging in the dirt

Contrast that to California State Parks that have changed little for decades. We had a wonderful time at Grover Hot Springs, don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place for creative play. But somehow you always feel you are breaking the rules. Wading around in creeks as you dam them up  (is it bad for the fish?), climbing rocks (are we off trail?), painting pine cones (will the paint despoil them?), and we simply daren’t make a tree fort even though there are countless downed sticks.  I know enough about habitat and endangered species to understand why this makes sense, in theory. But there has to be a way to find a better balance.

The California State Railroad Museum has made minor inroads. Hidden away in a corner of the second floor is a play area where kids can build and play with Thomas the Tank Engine model trains. It’s where you will find the smart parents and toddlers catching a break before they head back to the “don’t touch” exhibits downstairs.

I believe its time, way past time, to introduce more interactivity into our state parks. We need places where we encourage kids to dam streams, to dig for worms, to climb trees, to build forts, to pick plants and make collages, and to get thoroughly immersed in the park experience.  The best museums have figured this out. As State Parks considers its futures under the Parks Forward initiative, its time to catch up.


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