Children’s Museums and Nutrition

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Each year, UNICEF releases a report on the State of the World’s Children, and this year, its focus was The Changing Face of Malnutrition. This report highlights the global challenges of undernutrition, hidden hunger, and overweight—challenges recognized by our field, as seen in ACM’s Good to Grow! initiative and our 2010 publication, Healthy Kids, Healthy Museums.

In the nine years since ACM published Healthy Kids, Healthy Museums, the children’s museum field has only grown its role of using play to promote healthy communities around the world. On November 20, World Children’s Day, we’re taking a look at how children’s museums address the issue of healthy nutrition through programming and exhibits. From teaching gardens to grocery store exhibits to partnerships with local universities, the examples below offer just a few highlights of how children’s museums support healthy habits in joyful ways.

Omaha Children’s Museum (NE)’s Kitchen ABCs program teaches young children how to prepare recipes using healthy ingredients. Education staff use recipes that introduce children to ingredients they might not have tried yet, like sunflower butter, spinach, and zucchini. Kids get to pick out their aprons, decorate their own chef’s hat, and use real (kid-sized and kid-friendly) kitchen tools.

An upcoming exhibit at the Children’s Museum of the Arts (New York, NY) called Love Crickets, Save the Planet will foster a new understanding of how our food factors into a larger system. Artists Jude Tallichet and Adam Chad Brody were guided by the belief that it’s vital to expose young people to the idea that bugs are not pests—rather, they are an essential part of our ecosystem and food systems.  

In the summer months, Above & Beyond Children’s Museum (Sheboygan, WI) offers the Eat, Play, Grow program in its garden space every Wednesday, coinciding with the local farmers market one block away. Inside the museum, the permanent Festival Foods Fresh Market exhibit features food toys that align with real foods found at the farmers market.

Good Food for You, a new school outreach program offered by The Magic House, St. Louis Children’s Museum (MO), promotes healthy decision-making through four portable interactive environments: a grocery store, farmers market, restaurant and home kitchen. The program aligns with school health and wellness policies and meets state guidelines for nutrition education grade-level expectations.

The Balanced Diet exhibit at the Museum of Discovery (Little Rock, AR) features a variety of foods, such as fruits, vegetables, candy, fried foods, etc. as weighted blocks. Guests choose the blocks of their choice and place them on a seesaw scale with the goal of balancing it—demonstrating how we need more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains than we do sugary or high fat foods.

In the new Let’s Get Cooking Lab at the Children’s Museum of Eau Claire (WI), kids and their grownups cook real food, using real cooking tools, and prepare it in a real test kitchen. This space is phase one of the museum’s new Eat! Move! Live! exhibit. Phases two and three include the forthcoming Rocket Park and Shape Up fitness trail.

As part of the Kroger Zero Hunger Zero Waste movement, Imagine Children’s Museum (Everett, WA) highlights ways to avoid food waste during events on Earth Day and World Food Day. Activities include dehydrating, canning, re-rooting vegetables, and using refrigerator leftovers to make a “scrap” soup. The museum aims to make its nutrition programs and events fun and engaging, so that families don’t feel they are being judged—instead sending them away with something to think about that may encourage them to change just one thing.

Children’s Museum of Atlanta (GA) offers the Eat a Georgia Rainbow program every Sunday. Visitors join the museum’s Imaginators in a scavenger hunt plus a cold cooking activity, featuring fruits and vegetables that can be harvested in Georgia throughout the year.

At The Teaching Kitchen at the Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus (CO), in-house chefs inspire guests to think differently about food, combining fresh, nutritious ingredients and kid-friendly recipes and tools. Cooking class participants experience an array of recipes centered on a monthly theme, including pear slaw, peach pie pancakes, fall spiced hummus, and strawberry bruschetta.

On the first Friday of every month, San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum (CA) partners with Jimbo’s Naturally Escondido for a hands-on activity introducing children and their families to healthy eating. Each event features a child-friendly recipe with local, seasonal ingredients.

Cincinnati Museum Center (OH) is collaborating with Kent State University and LaSoupe (a local food rescue) on Food for Thought, a three-year National Science Foundation-funded project to use cooking to help families engage their children in conversations about science. The project will focus on serving those living with food insecurity.

Discovery Gateway Children’s Museum (Salt Lake City, UT) provides educational programming around gardening and growing food. The museum aims to help children and their caretakers learn more about the importance of healthy fruits and vegetables, and to grow their own when possible.

The Children’s Museum of the Treasure Coast (Jensen Beach, FL) recently offered its Germs, Germs, Germs outreach program free of charge to all Headstart and Voluntary PreKindergarten classes in its school district. Preschoolers especially love seeing “germs” glow on their hands. Teachers have reported back that, after participating, students pay more attention to washing their hands.

Lynn Meadows Discovery Center (Gulfport, MS) offers monthly programs developed especially for Girl Scouts. Its January program will be a badge workshop focused on nutrition and fitness for Brownie, Juniors, and Cadette Girl Scouts.

The DoSeum (San Antonio, TX)’s onsite preschool, The Littler Doer, teaches preschoolers how to make healthy choices, with a focus on why we want to take care of our bodies and the environment. Learning stays fun and STEAM-oriented with hands-on projects such as taste testing and painting with veggies.

The Learning Garden at The Children’s Museum of Memphis (TN) changes with the season, providing the museum with a fun variety of programming throughout the year. Garden demonstrations include pickling, making organic pesticides from marigolds, composting, and more.

Good nutrition, healthy portions, and natural food elements run through three exhibits at Exploration Place (Wichita, KS): Kansas Kids Connect (focused on farm-to-table concepts), Where Kids Rule (a three-story castle with a Produce Department and Seafood Department), and Explore Kansas (which introduces visitors to food production).

At Virginia Discovery Museum (Charlottesville), children tend to crops in the Discovery Farm exhibit, then share what they have prepared with caregivers in Little C’ville Panera Café. By working in tandem, these two exhibits allow children from diverse backgrounds to learn the value of healthy food choices.

COSI (Columbus, OH) supports healthy nutrition learning through the annual COSI Science Festival, which includes hands-on partner events such as “STEM on the Urban Farm,” “Science in the Kitchen,” and “Be a Gardener.”

One of the museum staff’s favorite moments this year at Kansas Children’s Discovery Center (Topeka) was when children independently harvested vegetables from the outdoor garden and brought them into the museum’s grocery store exhibit. All by themselves, children created connections between how food is grown and consumed!

Port Discovery Children’s Museum (Baltimore, MD) offers the Healthy Habits afterschool program in partnership with the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Over five weeks, students explore healthy eating, activities, and topics through interactive lessons and guided play.

The Kids Can Cook! summer camp at Mt. Pleasant Discovery Museum (MI) teaches children ages five to ten how to safely prepare a healthy breakfast, snack, and lunch on their own, while learning about healthy alternatives and balanced plates.

Imagine Nation, A Museum Early Learning Center (Bristol, CT) believes the full experience of food and its preparation is key to developing healthy mindful children (as part of the museum’s Reggio Emilia approach). Each year, children in the museum’s early learning school prepare side dishes for the museum’s annual Day of Thanks luncheon around Thanksgiving.

Southern California Children’s Museum (Pasadena) hosts Fun Foodie Fridays, a weekly food and nutrition class that teaches children how to make nutritious snacks, using many ingredients from SCCM’s small onsite garden. Kids love making and eating the snacks, and grownups love that they learn about nutrition along the way! SCCM also partners with its local Whole Foods to educate families about healthy eating.

During one recent program in the Learning Garden at London Children’s Museum (Ontario, Canada), visitors harvested fresh herbs to make pesto. One child was hesitant to taste pesto at first, but was extremely engaged in the process of making it. Once his own batch was ready, he was more than happy to try it. By giving children control and ownership over the food being prepared, they often become more motivated and excited to eat it.

In Aunt Sugar’s Farm at Mid-Michigan Children’s Museum (Saginaw), visitors can pick fruits and veggies and “cook” them in the kitchen. The gallery lets children discover the farm-to-table pathway as they use their imaginations to role-play as farmers, chefs, and anything in-between.

The Children’s Museum of South Dakota (Brookings) is launching a year-round farm-to-table experience in collaboration with Missouri River Energy Services, the Electric Power Research Institute, and South Dakota State University (SDSU). The project features a high-tech “farm-in-a-box” inside a 40-foot container, where produce will grow vertically without soil. SDSU graduate students will harvest the produce, which will be used in the museum’s café as well as distributed to local organizations working to reduce food insecurity.

ImagineU Children’s Museum (Visalia, CA) is located in California’s Central Valley, a known agriculture community. The farmer’s market, orchard, cattle, and dairy exhibits help educate kids on the food process from start to finish, through play. The museum also hosts different nonprofits that bring a hands-on gardening experience into the museum.

As part of its early childhood programming, Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh (PA) offers two regular programs focusing on nutrition and wellness: Wellness Wednesdays (a monthly program in partnership with WIC) and Young Sprouts (a weekly garden program). The museum has also partnered with a local after-school program to offer weekly cooking programming for middle school girls. (Photo Credit: Megan McGinley)

EcoTarium (Worcester, MA) incorporates nutrition-focused efforts into its Countdown to Kindergarten partnership with the Worcester Public School District, such as teaching preschoolers how to pack healthy snacks and navigate the school cafeteria. The museum works with the school district nursing team, as well as several dental groups, to teach kids about the importance of eating healthy foods and brushing their teeth. 

DISCOVERY Children’s Museum (Las Vegas, NV) offers the kindergarten program Let’s Eat! Food and Nutrition. Lessons include how the digestive system works and how to use the USDA’s nutrition guide, MyPlate.

In partnership with The Creative Kitchen and Bean Sprouts, Kidspace Children’s Museum (Pasadena, CA) hosted the first-ever Kids Food Festival on the West Coast in August! This interactive weekend included hands-on cooking classes and exhibitors of all-natural products. Kidspace wanted to be a resource for families looking for opportunities to figure out how to balance their busy family lives with school, exercise, eating their greens, and finding time to play.

Louisiana Children’s Museum (New Orleans) is developing camps and programs themed around food to complement permanent exhibits such as Follow That Food. This December, LCM’s second “Community” camp will explore the question: “How do we grow, prepare, and share food in a community?”

Says Sierra Torres from Louisiana Children’s Museum, “Children are natural explorers and have an innate curiosity for the world around them. It is our job in the museum to answer these questions and help children connect the dots so that they can have a more holistic view of the food system and therefore, can make informed decisions about what they are putting in their bodies.”

These principles are put in action throughout the children’s museum field—where healthy nutrition is learned through play.  

The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) champions children’s museums worldwide. Follow ACM on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.