Wonderplace is a space that connects themes that are important to the collection here at the National Museum of American History with themes that are universally present in children’s play and learning. We recognize that play is learning for young children and we honor their learning process by providing them with play opportunities that are open-ended and allowing them to explore and learn at their own pace and interest level. We encourage adults to observe what their children are doing in the exhibit space and to help encourage and further learning by asking open-ended questions and joining in with play scenarios. Below are images and descriptions of each themed areas in the exhibit. You will notice that some areas have longer explanations than others because we have included the text from our helpful parenting labels. These labels can also be found on the walls of the exhibit.
Construction and building are important parts of children’s lives. Buildings make up the places we live and learn and children are endlessly fascinated by them. The Construction Area in Wegmans Wonderplace features a sensory wall where children can explore various building materials such as door knobs, light switches, tiles, and bricks. Some materials are accessible for children to touch and manipulate. Other materials are part of the museum’s collection and are housed in glass cases embedded in the wall. These objects may not be touchable but they provide a great opportunity for working on careful looking skills. The Construction Area also features a block area with several different kinds of blocks and a building space.
Blocks are one of the most enduring childhood toys and iconic American buildings inspired these materials. Play researchers call blocks “open ended” toys because they can be used in so many different ways. Playing with these types of toys allows children to use their imagination as they create a wide variety of structures. Block play can also help children develop persistence and important problem-solving skills as they figure out how to put things together to accomplish their goals.
Babies explore blocks using their hands and their mouths. This exploration is an important first step as they begin to learn about materials and objects. As babies are able to sit on their own they will begin to stack blocks and then knock them back down!
Toddlers are developing their motor skills and block building is a great way to encourage this. Letting them play with a variety of sizes, types, and shapes of blocks helps them practice these skills. Toddlers are also beginning to build more complex structures but they still enjoy building tall structures and then watching them fall as they explore cause and effect.
During the preschool years children often use their imagination when building with blocks. From building houses and castles for dolls, to building stables and zoos for animals, blocks become a way to enhance their pretend play. Large blocks that can be used to build spaces big enough for them to get in and play are also fun at this age.
Humans are natural collectors—especially young children. Some people collect objects that have a high monetary value. Some people collect objects that connect them to special memories. Other people collect objects they think are unique or silly. The Collections Cases feature three different collections that help children and adults reflect on the act of collecting. The current collections are Hot Wheels cars, paperweights, and spoons.
Museums are wondrous places for young children to explore and to develop skills that will help them as they go to school later in life. When you visit a museum kids get to see real objects that they don’t usually see in their everyday lives. Museums are also great places to share stories. While many people don’t think to take their very young children to museums they are great places for kids.
The Smithsonian has long believed that museums are great places for kids. In 1900, Secretary Langley created a Children's Room in the original Smithsonian Institution Building to inspire children to study the natural world. With low cases, an aquarium full of colorful fish, and other exciting exhibits, the Children's Room was a place of wonder and learning. Since the Children's Room closed in 1939, individual museums have looked for ways to welcome and include kids. Here at Wonderplace, we are carrying on the Smithsonian tradition by creating a special place where families can learn, explore, and wonder...together!
Exploring a museum with a baby should not be an all-day affair. Choose one or two places to explore and really spend time looking at the objects in that space. It is important that babies hear language, so talk about what you see and what is happening around you as you explore.
Toddlers will want to explore places where they can move and touch. If you are visiting a space where they can’t touch the objects, bring items with you for kids to hold while they are looking at the exhibits in the museum. Talk about what you see and do lots of naming and identification as you explore the space.
Encourage your preschooler to talk to you about what they see as you move through the museum. Ask them simple questions like “What do you see?” or “Can you tell me a story about that?” to encourage language and complex thinking skills. Be sure to help your preschool child link what they see in the museum to something in their everyday life as this helps build flexible thinking skills and the ability to make connections.
The Crawler is designed for children who are not yet walking or just learning to walk. This area features a softer foam floor, a pull-up bar for independent standing and cruising, large mirrors, and age-appropriate toys. The mirrors create an opportunity for our youngest visitors to observe themselves and the world around them. Babies in particular enjoy the opportunity to see their own faces and familiar faces looking back at them in the mirror’s reflection.
This Portrait Gallery is special because all of its portraits feature children. Children love to learn about themselves and people who are like them, so showing them that children are a part of history can play a big role in igniting an interest in history learning. These portraits are all reproductions and they represent a wide variety of places, faces, and times.
History is the story of people—famous and not so famous—including kids! For years portraits have been an important way of recording our history and the people who make it. From the very formal portraits taken of the very rich many years ago, to the “selfies” of today, portraits tell the stories of families and the culture of the times in which they were taken.
Babies love faces and spend a great deal of time studying them and imitating them. Show your baby the faces in the portraits. Point out the parts of the face on the portrait first, and then on both your face and on theirs. It is through this careful study of faces that babies start to learn about emotions as well so talk about how the people in the portraits might be feeling.
As toddlers, children begin to recognize themselves in mirrors and photos and are able to identify body parts on themselves and others. Look in the mirror and ask your child whom they see. Ask them to point to hands, legs, arms, tummies, and other body parts in the portraits and on themselves.
Preschoolers are now able to create their own self-portraits and to identify family members and friends in photos. In addition, they are now able to create stories about the photos they see. Ask your child to tell you a story about one of the portraits and who they think is in the portrait. When you get home, ask your child to draw their own portrait.
There are a lot of reasons why you might need to take a break from playing. When you do, you can head to the cozy bench in the back of the exhibit or snuggle up in the big beanbag chair with a good book. The objects on display in this area are all antique nursing and feeding implements that can help us think about how changes in technology affect every aspect of our lives—including how we feed our babies.
Play experiences featuring animals and food are two of the most appealing and relatable for children. While many children today only see food in the grocery store, the farm plays an important role in American history and in our lives today. Farms, animals, and tools have fascinated children throughout the ages and these toys remain popular. The farm stand here gives your child the opportunity to develop important skills in counting, identification, and pretend play as they grow.
Babies will enjoy looking at the animals and the food in this area. Show them the chickens, cows, and other animals in the object cases and make the sounds these animals make. Share a book about these animals when you get home or while you are here and talk about the animals they see here. Do the same with the foods—talking about the colors, shapes, and textures of the various foods as they touch them.
Toddlers are learning language at an astounding rate so it is important that you talk to them about everything they see. Ask your child to tell you what kinds of food and animals they see and to describe them. Toddlers are also learning to classify things into groups. Encourage your child to sort the vegetables and to compare the different fruits and vegetables using words.
Pretend play is a big part of the life of a preschooler and this area is a great place to encourage that pretending! Have your child go do the shopping or check you out at the market. Pretend you live on the farm and have your child tell you a story about what they do all day. When you get home look at some books about life on a farm or go visit a farm in your own community and talk about what you saw here at the museum!
Young children enjoy “playing house” because it allows them to explore themes and concepts that are familiar to them while stepping outside their traditional roles. For example, in our mini kitchen kids become the chefs and serve their adults at the breakfast bar. If you think this kitchen looks familiar it may be because it was modeled after a very famous piece in our collection—Julia Child’s kitchen.
Young children are physical learners and need to be able to run, climb, and move during the day. This movement not only helps develop important motor skills, but also contributes to developing problem solving skills, grit, and determination as they work to navigate the various heights and structures.
Babies quickly move from sitting to crawling to walking and need opportunities to practice and test these skills. Giving babies the chance to explore on their own and encouraging them to try new skills is important in making them feel safe and competent.
It often seems like toddlers never sit still as they use their developing skills to explore the world around them! Toddlers love to climb in, on, and over all sorts of things and allowing them to do this is important in helping them feel confident in their abilities. Let your toddler try to climb while staying close but don’t hover over them so they learn how to trust their own bodies.
We often expect preschool-aged children to be able to sit longer but they need to move just as much as toddlers. Preschoolers love to test their own abilities and to try new experiences as they refine their skills and figure out how to navigate the world. When watching preschoolers, adults often worry that the children will get hurt or take unnecessary risks. Preschoolers need the chance to develop skills throughout their lives and they will rarely attempt an activity that makes them feel unsafe.