Leslie Bushara is being honored as a White House Champion of Change for her leadership and commitment to libraries and museums around the United States.
The Children’s Museums of Manhattan (CMOM) aims to inspire the next generation of thinkers, dreamers, and creators. My work at the museum over the past eighteen years has given me incredible opportunities to see firsthand the impact of the museum’s interactive exhibits, educational curricula, and outreach programs on families both within and far beyond the museum walls.
I am particularly moved by the story of a young single mother, Angelica, and her 4-year-old son, Jose, who, after six months participating in our Head Start program, ventured beyond their South Bronx neighborhood for the first time and came to Manhattan to attend a cooking workshop at the museum. For Angelica and Jose this was a day of many firsts—their first trip to Manhattan, their first trip to a museum, and the first time either had tried broccoli! Since then Angelica has become an inspired cook, seeking out healthy recipes to try with Jose.
At CMOM, much of our work is about these first experiences. This is evident in PlayWorks™, CMOM’s early childhood exhibit on preschool readiness and language development that features Alphie, the talking dragon who eats alphabet letters! Alphie was inspired by the museum’s literacy work with young, homeless mothers. The mothers often told me they couldn’t “teach” literacy skills or help their children learn vocabulary. Alphie provides them an unusual, unintimidating way to engage in language play that opens the door to enjoying books.
Building on our experience developing PlayWorks™, CMOM created EatSleepPlay™, an intensive health initiative addressing childhood obesity prevention and aligns with our goals as a Let’s Move! Museum. EatSleepPlay™ employs a series of arts and literacy workshops that make the latest medical and scientific research accessible for families. Our short-term goal is to teach families and educators to make healthy choices; our long-term goal is to inspire a lifetime of healthy decisions.
EatSleepPlay™ is already showing signs of impacting childhood obesity‐prevention efforts and policies at both the local and national levels. The National Institutes of Health advised the museum on EatSleepPlay™ and developed an interactive early childhood health curriculum. In the exhibit, families can step inside a brain, crawl through an intestine, and even get advice about a healthy diet from a talking toilet! Researchers studying thousands of Head Start participants, found that over 90 percent of them made significant shifts in health behaviors and attitudes.
This summer, components of EatSleepPlay™ and PlayWorks™ exhibits will be installed in a public housing Head Start center in East Harlem, creating a first-of-its-kind early learning hub. We aim to deliver early childhood literacy and health programming using the magic of a museum environment.
Weekly visits to the museum have opened up a world of possibilities for a young mother and her son. CMOM provides that opportunity for Angelica, Jose, and thousands of others—to be surprised, to be challenged, to see themselves, their children, and the world in new ways where the lifelong possibilities to learn, change, and discover are endless.
Leslie Bushara is the Deputy Director of Education and Guest Services at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan.