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“Children are little people that are new to our world, and we have the chance to really shape them in a way that’s going to help them have the skills they need to have a full, happy life,” says museum executive director Julie van Blarcom. “That’s what children’s museums are all about.” Photo by Laura CollinsThere’s a place where kids can climb a rock wall, paddle down a river, hoof it with a troupe of Irish dancers and explore the stratosphere. And it’s closer than you think. It’s the Delaware Children’s Museum, and it’s the newest family attraction on the Riverfront.

The $12 million-plus project, opened in April, is the culmination of a 16-year effort to establish a children’s museum in Delaware. The facility features six interactive exhibits based on math, science, technology, healthcare and business. There’s also a traveling exhibit. The theme of all: stewardship, whether it applies to preserving the environment or maintaining good health.

The museum is a hybrid of two well-known Philadelphia institutions—the Franklin Institute and the Please Touch Museum—but with a character all its own. Says executive director Julie van Blarcom, “We’re actually more interactive than Please Touch.”

Educators have long recognized the importance of smart play in children’s learning. In contrast to the so-called drill-and-kill of the classroom, museum learning is spontaneous, individualized and—most important—fun.

“Kids learn in a playful manner just as we do when we’re engaged,” says DCM board member Roberta M. Golinkoff, a professor of education at the University of Delaware and author of “Play=Learning.” “That’s why children’s museums are so great. They spark curiosity, creativity and wonder.”

The museum also lets adults observe their children playing, learning and discovering what fascinates them. The experience becomes more beneficial when the adult questions the child and reinforces his new language, Golinkoff says.

The DCM is a boon to the Riverfront because it draws families who might not otherwise visit the area. And the area is an exciting one, home to the new Russell W. Peterson Wildlife Refuge (one of the few urban wildlife refuges in the country), the Kalmar Nyckel replica tall ship and the Wilmington Blue Rocks minor league baseball team, as well as many good stores and restaurants.

“We’ve always seen families as a very important dimension of the Riverfront,” says Michael S. Purzycki, executive director of the Riverfront Development Corporation. “We knew the real demand generator down there was going to be the fulfillment of the children’s museum because it really has the capacity to attract over 100,000 people.”

Children’s museums date back to 1899. Recently, they have become proven engines of economic activity. Of the 130 museums that opened their doors in the 1990s, one quarter have served as catalysts of urban revitalization, according to the Association of Children’s Museums in Washington.

A feasibility study by the DCM in 2005 showed that the 37,000-square-foot facility would generate 70 jobs with $2.7 million in compensation and another $5.6 million in annual business activity. The facility is expected to draw 135,000 to 150,000 visitors a year.

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The idea for a children’s museum in Wilmington surfaced in the early 1990s when a group of dedicated parents set up a storefront museum on Market Street. “It wasn’t what we have today, but the concept was the same—interactive, informal learning for kids,” says Van Blarcom.

That incarnation closed in 1994, but the dream lived on with a new group of parents. The group scouted a new location, settling on the current one. The museum now occupies half the space of a former night spot, which gives it space to expand.

Its potential for generating economic activity is already evident. In its first seven weeks it drew more than 30,000 visitors. During the July heat wave, more than 700 people visited each day.

Van Blarcom, who often chats with parents and kids on the museum floor, makes sure she informs visitors of other Riverfront attractions. “Restaurants have said their business has increased 25 percent since we opened,” she says. “That’s a very positive factor.”

The DCM stands to gain more patrons as development on the riverfront continues. The recently completed 155,000-square-foot Star Building will draw a pool of prospective patrons.

“A big part of the mix is just having people down here working, so there could be 500 to 600 people working there,” Purzycki says.

What these patrons will discover lining the museum’s soothing pastel-colored walls is a collection of interactive play areas designed to delight both child and adult. The exhibits were planned by drawing on the best of museums from around the country. DCM’s offerings reflect the interests of the local community, such as financial and environmental literacy.

Most impressive is The Stratosphere, a climbing structure that is 30 feet in diamater (and partially wheelchair-accessible). Other attractions are The Power of Me, which teaches kids how their bodies work and includes an Operation-style game that allows organs to be removed; the DuPont-sponsored ECOnnect, a kid-sized eco-house built entirely of recycled and reclaimed materials; the Structures construction projects; the Studio D art area; Bank on It, which teaches money smarts; Training Wheels for toddlers; and Earth Balloon, a traveling exhibit that teaches kids about geography, climate and other cultures.

Van Blarcom knows what an important contribution the DCM makes to the city, but the kids will always come first.

“Children are so wonderful,” she says. “They’re little people that are new to our world, and we have the chance to really shape them in a way that’s going to help them have the skills they need to have a full, happy life. That’s really what children’s museums are all about.”

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