Published Monday, October 7, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 3:04 pm
World-Herald editorial: Child’s play is so important

Look down the list of Nebraska’s best-attended tourist attractions during 2012, and it’s no surprise to see that the top spot is held by the Henry Doorly Zoo, followed by lakes and recreational areas.

Then comes the first museum on the Nebraska Tourism Commission’s list: the Omaha Children’s Museum. Last year, the museum hosted more than 253,000 visitors.

That’s a remarkable number of boys and girls who romped through the museum’s aptly named Wiggle Room for toddlers, petted farm-animal statues in the Rainbow Farm, applied paint brush to paper in the Creative Arts Center, squealed as an air pump whooshed colorful plastic balls into the air at the Charlie Campbell Science and Technology Center or viewed the other permanent and special exhibits.

As Nebraska’s most-attended museum, this Omaha facility, which has been at its location at 20th Street and St. Mary’s Avenue since 1989, is worth a closer look for its importance as a community asset, its recent forays in exploring cooperative work with the rest of the state and the lessons it provides about worthwhile practices for a nonprofit.

>> Community asset. Omaha is often rightly touted as a great place to raise a family, and the museum (which has won local and national honors in recent years for its quality and leadership) is an important asset in that regard.

Lindy Hoyer, the museum’s executive director, notes that the museum partners with 13 schools, including in Council Bluffs, and last year hosted more than 1,700 schoolchildren.

On the tourism front, the museum participates in joint promotional campaigns under the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau. Some 23 percent of the museum’s visitors last year were from out of state.

Nebraska is developing a national reputation for its focus on early childhood development, and the Children’s Museum takes a strong interest in the issue. David Cota, a banker and member of the museum’s executive committee, notes that “the power of play as a facilitator of learning” is regarded as a crucial part of a child’s intellectual and emotional growth.

>> Outreach. The museum last year launched a new permanent exhibit — complete with impressive interactive technology — called Fantastic Future Me, in which children explore career options. Gallup provided valuable help with the project, which will be traveling the state under the auspices of the Nebraska Educational Savings Trust, the state’s college savings plan overseen by Treasurer Don Stenberg.

The museum also is working with the University of Nebraska and the Nebraska Farm Bureau, among others, to develop projects to help children understand farming, including the remarkable variety of occupations in the farm science sector.

>> Nonprofit practices. Omaha has a wide array of successful nonprofits, and each has its own needs and circumstances; what works for one won’t necessarily work for another. But many practices at the Omaha Children’s Museum are worth highlighting.

>> Beyond the status quo. Museum’s leaders regularly evaluate and refine programs. Part of the process is acknowledging projects that didn’t pan out as hoped.

>> Emphasis on quality. When an organization consistently aims for high quality, Hoyer says, it promotes the public’s positive expectations. As a result, she says, the public views an organization such as a children’s museum not as a nicety but a necessity.

>> Partnerships. The museum partners with more than 60 Omaha-area organizations and businesses. The museum has the option to buy generic displays but instead chooses in many cases to develop its own exhibits in partnership with local companies.

>> Volunteers. Over the course of the year, the museum (with 27 full-time staff members and 36 part-time ones) is aided by 210 volunteers, many from local companies that want to continue participating in the museum’s projects.

It’s worth understanding Nebraska’s most-attended museum. The leaders, staff and supporters of Omaha Children’s Museum indeed are setting the bar high.

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