School's out for summer — keep kids learning at museums

School's out for summer — keep kids learning at museums
© Getty Images

It’s summer vacation. The birds are migrating, the grad caps are tossing, and parents are wondering: what am I going to do with my child? 

Due to increasing taxes, cuts in salaries, increasing gas prices, or any other litany of economic reasons, funds are short. Summer break is meant for vacations, that is, if one can afford it. However, every city can be a destination city by being a tourist in your own hometown.  

Visiting attractions like museums, zoos, aquariums, or cultural sites not only mentally engages you and your family, it pumps funds back into your city. Your buck will go further towards your community if shared, well, in your community. So, don’t know what to do with the kids this summer? From an economic perspective, the answer is clear: Take them to a museum.

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Museums have long been bastions of knowledge and repositories for cultural and historical artifacts. They showcase art, literature, natural history, architecture and more. Increasingly, museums are leaders in social experiences and are vibrant places where one can simultaneously connect with friends in the moment and connect with all of humanity through time.

Museum lovers know the power of that first step into an institution: A sense of reverence mixes with undulating excitement as questions arise: What will I learn? What will move me? Who will I be when I leave here? Why support them? To learn, grow, connect, be inspired, and to acknowledge those places that have touched you- and changed you.

Museums are trusted — and relevant       

According to data from a National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage study, even in the age of “fake news,” museums are trusted sources of information — more so than newspapers or media outlets. A visit to a museum is a chance to learn from a knowledgeable voice of reason with a deep well of expertise. Museums, aquariums and zoos are acutely aware of their meaningfulness to an individual and on a global scale. That’s why their information is carefully researched, vetted and presented.

It may also be why museums have over 55 million students visit annually. Classroom learning is augmented on field trips through highly specialized programs, tours, presentations and activities. Field trips aren’t just memorable — they’re important, inspiring and integral parts of a learner’s curriculum. Take a family summer field trip.

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Museums inspire action

The vast majority of zoos, museums and public gardens have interactive exhibits. Visitors have the opportunity to be immersed in a collective installation, get digitally engaged and be part of a makerspace. These opportunities fuel creativity and spark ideas and connections that go beyond the boundaries of a park.

These institutions also afford volunteer opportunities and internships for many people — allowing curious kids and retirees alike the chance to make their own mark, inspire and educate. Additionally, museums are at the forefront of community engagement and, in some cases, leaders in social justice.

Museums are job creators

Your visit has larger, but largely hidden benefits: You are directly supporting job creation, the local tourism industry, informal education and micro economic development. Your local museum employs people, spends money on goods and services to maintain their facility and helps support educational outreach programming to the community. More than 726,000 people are employed or supported by museums in America, and museums directly contribute more than $50 billion to the GDP —annually. 

Museums inspire hope

Museums often have artifacts ensconced in glass, tapestries cordoned off and memorabilia bathed in just the right light and humidity. Despite the often sterile feeling of a room so artfully and carefully curated, interpreters, exhibit panels and graphics allow history to spring to life. People can see through the ropes and back in time: It’s there, at that spot that a person can allow the unerring strength of humans past to envelope them — and let trickles of hope seep in.

From the first cave graffiti 40,000 years ago, humans have been creating and leaving their mark. While languages, technologies and societies were evolving, while time was marching dutifully forward, in those tens of thousands of years there’s remained a constant: creation. Humans, whether making cave paintings or modern influential installations, are not so different. Museums allow people to feel threads of interconnectedness that transcend time.

During summer, go to a museum

Think back to a fond vacation. Likely it involved a visit to a museum, aquarium, garden or zoo. Take a look at those pictures again and think about what you felt and what you remember. Did that visit bring you joy, did you learn something new, did you feel connected to your family or friends? If so, during summer vacation post your pics, visit a local museum or donate to your local nonprofit. Even though the day was fleeting, the impact remains. That’s the power of museums.

Catherine Bartlett is an education specialist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a nonprofit focused on conservation, science and inspiring others to live in harmony with the natural world. She is a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.