EVERETT — John Olcese and his 2-year-old daughter have an antidote for crummy days (read rain and more rain).
Soggy? Dreary? The Imagine Children’s Museum in Everett is just five minutes away, Olcese said.
The remedy is even better now that the museum’s new wing has opened, doubling its size. “It’s Awwwe-some,” Olcese said.
Daughter Anderson, clad in an orange, Halloween-themed dress, was too engrossed in exploring the spreading branches of the Woodland Gallery exhibit to comment.
The nonprofit museum cut the ribbon last month on the $25-million addition. From a replica of the Mount Pilchuck Fire Lookout to the skeleton of a gray whale, there’s something for kids and parents — an art room, a tool and tinker room, a mock tugboat and other hands-on play stations.
Besides fun, visits also offer a hidden benefit.
Your mom knew it, you know it and now research confirms it — a trip to a museum or children’s museum is a surefire way to lift your mood and recharge your spirits.
Museum visits are moving up the stress-reliever chart, along with mindfulness and exercise, as a balm for parents, kids — anyone.
“Studies show a 30-minute visit to a museum reduces stress and lowers cortisol, a stress hormone,” Katherine Cotter, a postdoctoral fellow in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Daily Herald. The positive effects can linger for hours, Cotter said.
Milla Titova, an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington, studies happiness and well-being. Seeing the Grand Canyon or a national park isn’t the only kind of experience that can kindle awe, Titova said. Connecting to the things people make, whether that’s art or industry or “a mind-blowing theory of physics” can lift your spirits and boost happiness, Titova said.
“Their faces light up”
Joni Kaiser, a mother of 4-year-old twins, Solene and Sebastian, hasn’t boned up on the research, but she can offer anecdotal evidence.
“When we say we’re going to visit the children’s museum, their faces light up,” said Kaiser, an Edmonds resident. “It’s nice to see them enjoying themselves, seeing them play.”
“I take a mental break as well,” she added.
Want further proof? “I don’t see anybody there yelling at their child,” Kaiser said of museum time.
Imagine’s new building and 12 new exhibits only enhance its appeal. “I remember them saying they were going to expand, but I didn’t know how wonderful it would be,” Kaiser said.
“It’s an investment in mental health,” said Gretchen Wilson-Prangley, the new deputy director at Imagine.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the museum closed. All but seven of its 60-some employees were laid off. Still, Imagine offered free virtual programs and activity kits for children that didn’t require an internet connection.
Construction of the three-story building had commenced before the pandemic. Despite uncertainty, the museum board pressed forward with the project and the $25-million fundraising campaign to finance it.
Donations poured in, Wilson-Prangley said.
The construction site at Wall Street and Hoyt Avenue became a symbol of hope, Wilson-Prangley said.
In June 2021, the museum reopened after a 15-month hiatus. The new 33,000-square-foot wing, which adds an outdoor rooftop play area, made its debut this October.
“With the expansion, visitors can easily spend two days here,” Wilson-Prangley said.
Imagine hopes to broaden its appeal around the state and plans a campaign to target families in Bellingham, Wenatchee, Spokane and beyond.
The museum is in talks with area hotels, including Hotel Indigo at the Port of Everett, to offer advantageous rates to visitors, Wilson-Prangley said.
For local businesses hoping to attract workers and their families, the children’s museum is a major selling point, according to a Gonzaga University study
In 2017, the children’s museum contributed an estimated $5.5 million in economic value to the city of Everett and Snohomish and King counties, the study said.
“Our expanded facility will increase hands-on exhibits and programs that foster 21st century learning skills and experiences that help strengthen children’s intellectual, social, emotional and physical development,” said Nancy Johnson, the museum’s executive director. “This is especially important as children recover from the learning losses and other challenges from the pandemic.”
“Way too full”
The origins of the Imagine Children’s Museum date to a grassroots effort in the late 1980s.
By 1993, supporters had assembled a tiny version that was housed in a leased space at the Marysville Town Center mall. A year later, the museum moved to the Culmback Building on Everett Avenue.
In 2004, it relocated to its current home, a 30,000-square-foot building at 1502 Wall Street that was purchased with a $1-million donation from philanthropists John and IdaMae Schack. (The Schack Art Center bears their name because of their support and devotion to the arts.)
At the time, it was hoped the children’s museum would one day serve 60,000 people a year, executive director Johnson said.
In 2015, it welcomed more than 150,000. By 2018, its annual tally of guests was nearly a quarter million, Johnson said.
“It was way too full,” said Johnson. Lines snaked around the building. There were days when it was very, very crowded, she said.
Now, there’s plenty of room. Visitors enter through the new wing where they’re greeted by the Woodland Exhibit, showcasing Puget Sound’s natural features and history.
A network of fully enclosed rope bridges that stretch between “trees” take center stage. (Yes, that is “Big Foot” reclining in a hammock above your head.)
The second floor celebrates the Salish Sea. The skeleton of a gray whale along with a salt water aquarium call attention to the region’s marine life. In a nod to the ocean-going cargo industry, kids can captain a tugboat, rev the engine and, through the magic of video, watch the crew prepare to shove off.
The Port of Everett donated $100,000 toward the exhibit that includes a forklift and package terminal. An art room and a tinker room, where kids can learn how to use real tools, round out the display.
The focus on Snohomish County and Everett is by design. “It gives children a window on where they live and creates a sense of belonging,” Wilson-Prangley said.
Ready for a break?
The third floor Great Room offers seating for up to 420 people and a snack track. But be careful, there’s a mural of a street and shops that’s so lifelike, you might bump your nose trying to go for a stroll.
On a recent morning, Samantha Grant and son Ben, who’d moved here from California, visited for the first time.
“It’s the best children’s museum I’ve ever seen,” Grant said, shepherding her excited toddler. “There are so many hands-on stations and places for him to climb. Most children’s museums I’ve seen are geared toward older kids,” Grant said.
Executive director Johnson said the decision to expand wasn’t about accommodating a specific number.
“We know our attendance is going to grow and we’re ready for that,” she said.
“We wanted to create a space that’s conducive to playful learning, ” Johnson said. “One of the things we learned when we were so packed was that it’s harder for playful learning to take place. We want this to be a space that has room for that.”
“Play is not frivolous”
Play enhances brain structure and promotes learning. “Play is not frivolous,” says the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“Arts heal,” said Lakeya Omogun, assistant professor of language, literacy and culture at the University of Washington. A museum visit can offer a window into other cultures and can inspire creativity, foster cooperation and banish feelings of isolation, she said.
“Music, art, dance, play can really help to overcome anxiety and depression,” said Omogun, who works with Nigerian immigrant youth.
The museum’s commitment to health and well-being is evidenced by its support of programs for children and families gripped by hardship.
Churches, school districts and nonprofits such as the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA and Dream Big, which supports the children of incarcerated people, help identify kids and families in need, Johnson said.
“By partnering together, we can give the families what they need, not what we think they need,” she said.
Donations and full-price entrance fees support the museum’s healing role.
Families challenged by job loss, addiction, incarceration, and illness or death can take advantage of free or reduced-fee visits. Grandparents raising kids, families with children on the autism spectrum, and others have access to dedicated play times and workshops. Kids enjoy the time and caretakers make valuable connections, Johnson said.
Above all, the museum’s staff pitches in, Johnson said. “They’re empathetic, understanding, kind and non-judgemental. So many times that’s all somebody’s looking for when they’re going through a really difficult time.”