Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Talking Back: Janice O'Donnell

Meet Janice O’Donnell, the Museum’s executive director from 1985-2014.

What brought you to the Museum 35 years ago?
I was a young mother in the 1970s and, starting in her infancy, my daughter taught me that children are amazing; that they’re much smarter and more purposeful than most folks give them credit for.  That they are natural learners – curious, experimenting, asking questions, trying new things all the time.  And I wondered – what happens to that? – because most adults aren’t such eager learners.  I thought about children’s experience in school and how it so often deadens their confidence and creativity.  I knew there had to be a better way and began a life-long process of learning about how children learn.


I joined with other parents to create a cooperative school, starting with a preschool and growing over 10 years to go up to fifth grade (although the school didn’t have grades – children learned in their own ways and at their own pace).  And so I continued to learn from children.  I also learned about running a nonprofit organization, from governance to fundraising to HR.  I graduated from the University of Rhode Island and looked for a job where I could put my experience and education to work.  There was an opening at the new Children’s Museum.  The only problem was that it was in Pawtucket and we lived in South County.  But still – a children’s museum!

Exhibit director Randy Harelson and Janice O’Donnell at the
Children's Museum of Rhode Island in Pawtucket, 1986.

What was it like in its earliest years?
When I joined the staff in 1979, the Museum was only two years old, and one of only a few dozen in the country.  It had a staff of six or seven and about 30,000 visits a year.  At first, although I was in charge of PR and membership, I was also everyone’s assistant, which was great because I learned about creating exhibits, managing the frontline, running out-of-school-time programs.  Everyone did everything.  We had a really wonderful boss – the Museum’s first director, Jane Jerry.  She said, “We don’t know what a children’s museum should be and we don’t know what needs Rhode Island’s children’s museum should meet.  Let’s figure that out.”  So I had this amazing opportunity to be part of a small team that hammered out the Museum’s mission, learning frameworks, policies and long-range plan.  When Jane left in 1985 to lead the new children’s museum in Houston, TX, I was honored to be asked to serve as interim director and then, after a national search, to be named executive director.

The Museum’s first and second directors – Jane Jerry and Janice O’Donnell –
celebrating Janice's 25th anniversary in 2004.

What prompted the Museum’s move to Providence, and how has it changed since?
By 1990, the Museum had over 50,000 visits a year and had simply outgrown its 5,000 square foot Victorian house in Pawtucket.  We had lines wrapping around the block!  We knew we needed more space.  The Museum's mission was then, as it is now, to serve all of Rhode Island.  Even though the current location is only five miles away from the original location in Pawtucket, Providence belongs to all Rhode Islanders.  As painful as it was to leave our hometown, we knew that the Museum needed to be in the capital city.  Since moving to Providence in 1997, the Museum has more than tripled its audience, budget, physical space and staff.

Carol Peterson, Janice O’Donnell, then-mayor David Cicilline and Betty Capozzi
burn the Museum’s mortgage in 2009.

You've guided the Museum to become a strong advocate for children's play.  How has the state of play changed over time, and what's your vision for restoring play?
Children’s museums are based on the idea that, naturally, children play and that we can present content in a way that builds on children’s natural proclivity to play.  But children’s free play has declined alarmingly in the past decade or more.  More affluent children are sent to after-school and weekend lessons and organized sports.  Poor kids are in structured out-of-school-time programs.  With high stakes testing, schools emphasize academics and homework has expanded.  The ubiquitous screen claims huge amounts of kids’ time.  Days of free play with neighborhood kids “’til the street lights come on” are over.  That’s a tragedy.  Free play is so critical to children’s social, emotional, physical and cognitive development.  I want to give free play back to kids.  I want to work toward a statewide recess policy that recognizes play as essential.  I want to help ensure play-based kindergarten and pre-K.  And I’m committed to creating safe and healthy neighborhood places for children’s free play.


What do you hope for the Museum's future?
I hope that the Museum continues to put the real needs of children first; that it continues to work closely and collaboratively with other community organizations to ensure collective impact.  Providence Children’s Museum is a leader in the community and nationally in our field because of our integrity and dedication to children and families.  Let’s never falter in that.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Farewell, Janice – A Legacy of Play and Learning

Executive Director Janice O’Donnell – our fearless leader and “priestess of play” – leaves the Museum today, after 35 years of visionary leadership, unwavering passion and tireless commitment to children and families. 

Dear friends and colleagues:

For 35 years I have had the great privilege of working on behalf of children and families.  I have been so fortunate to do what I love and work toward causes I care passionately about.  The Children’s Museum is a large canvas with an encompassing mission: to inspire and celebrate learning through active play and exploration.  That has allowed us to adapt and change, to experiment, to introduce new ventures that meet the changing needs of families, and to go beyond our walls to ensure ours is truly a resource for all children.

I’m proud of the Museum’s expansion and the $3 million capital campaign that got us to Providence in 1997, and I take great satisfaction in the fact that the Museum is financially strong after so many years of struggle.  I’m proud of our Museum’s national reputation – that we’re seen as leaders in our field for our deep commitment to children and community – and that we are also known locally as collaborative and community-minded.  I love that we design and build our own exhibits using local talent and are creative and artful in our learning environments.  I’m proud that our team is so committed to high-quality learning experiences, so thoughtful in creating exhibits and programs.  And I’m proud that our team is willing to take risks, take on important issues – like our partnership with DCYF serving court-separated families and our play agenda engaging community in important discussion about children’s needs.


I’m especially proud of the Museum’s commitment to inclusion and community.  Ample free admission opportunities means that the fee is not a barrier to visiting the Museum.  All of the Museum’s labels and signage are bilingual (English and Spanish).  But it’s not enough to say Free and en EspaƱol!  A truly inclusive organization must reach out and go into communities where coming to a children’s museum is not necessarily top of mind.  That’s why we work closely with Head Start, Boys and Girls Clubs, the Y, community centers, schools, libraries, the Department of Children, Youth and Families, Providence Parks and Recreation and other city departments – so that the Museum is an integral part of the community.


I’m grateful to our partners – that network of dedicated people who share our vision of a child-friendly community where the needs of families are paramount.  I’m grateful to our generous supporters who make our work possible.  And I am deeply grateful to the skilled, resourceful, talented, smart, committed Museum staff – past and present – for creating a community resource that’s so beloved by so many.


It has truly been an honor to steer the ship that is the Children's Museum for all these years, and to work toward making the world a better place for children and families.  I know I leave the Museum in strong, capable hands.
– Janice


Janice with her grandchildren Liv and Finn, who practically grew up at the Museum.

The Museum staff is profoundly grateful to Janice for guiding, inspiring, empowering and teaching us SO much over the years. We welcome you to comment and share your favorite Janice memories and stories, appreciations and best wishes!

Tributes and well wishes have arrived from near and far!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Water Ways: The Iceberg

This post was contributed by Museum Exhibits Director Robin Meisner

Like an iceberg, Water Ways has a significant portion of its structure below the waterline. Most of what makes the exhibit work is unseen to our visitors, but is essential to the functioning of the hands-on activities.

Below the floor – which was already sloped and drained since the Museum used to be a jewelry factory and Water Ways was the plating room – is the bulk of the infrastructure. In the basement, city water comes into our building through two new giant filters to ensure the Museum’s water is high quality.

Robin shows her love of the new water filters and demonstrates their scale.

Three new distribution pumps recirculate the water in a loop from the play tanks through four filters, five holding tanks and sanitization systems (including a UV sterilizer) and back up to Water Ways. And a mist generator transforms fresh water into mist, which is blown up to the exhibit by a strong fan.

Pumps and filters and tanks, oh my!

Other bits of the “iceberg” are in the exhibit itself (though some are hidden from view), including an ice machine, ice crusher and lots and lots of piping.

So, while most people think of Water Ways as a fantastically wet place to play, it is also a feat of engineering!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Water Ways is NOW OPEN!

Our imaginative new Water Ways exhibit has opened to exuberant splashing, spirited squirting and all-out squeals of delight!

On Thursday, we invited a dozen kids, ages 1 to 12, for a sneak peek and to test things out for us. The initial response: they surged and swirled around the room in a flurry of excitement, enthusiastically trying each activity and rushing on to the next. After a while, they settled in, and kids of all ages (and some grown-ups!) were deeply immersed in interactive water play.


Water is intrinsically fascinating.  The ultimate “loose part,” it naturally invites open-ended play and exploration.  Water play is a mesmerizing sensory experience that fosters creativity, stimulates curiosity and promotes problem solving for all ages and abilities.  It offers children endless possibilities to engage with science – to notice, question, experiment and develop a sense of wonder about the world around them.

Water Ways motivates visitors of all ages to think, ‘What does water do?’ and ‘What can I do with water?’ by inviting them to splash, discover and playfully experience water in ways new and familiar while investigating its properties in different forms – liquid, ice and mist.  Some scenes from the all-new Water Ways...

Transforming the size and shape of billowing mist and water domes by turning valves that regulate the rush of water.


The mist dome is a water dome with mist pumped inside so that the surface tension of the water traps the mist. When the water surface is broken, the mist wafts out in captivating clouds.


Sending balls, boats, and other loose parts and spiraling and twisting through vortexes  – whirling "water tornadoes," as kids describe them – and figuring out how to change the way the water moves.


Connecting pipe pieces to form fountains that funnel the flow of mist and water.


Investigating, scooping and sculpting crushed ice using a variety of tools.


Painting watery designs on a large slate wall.


Building mazes and damming water cascading downstream with blocks and sandbags.


Scooping and pouring water at toddler-height troughs and squirting and squeegeeing in an expanded play area especially for the Museum’s smallest visitors.


And droplet-shaped labels offer adults prompts and ways to play, encouraging them to notice and appreciate the learning that happens as children splash and explore.

Don’t miss out on the exhibit that visitors declare is “Super duper fun,” “Wicked awesome,” and “Splashtastic!” – come experience the all-new Water Ways for yourselves!

And see the posts below for a peek at the process of creating Water Ways.

Water Ways is supported in part by The Norman & Rosalie Fain Family Foundation and June Rockwell Levy Foundation.
All photos copyright Providence Children’s Museum and may only be used with permission.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Water Ways: The Final Surge

Members of our exhibit crew have whirled around Water Ways this week in a flood of activity, putting the finishing touches on our incredible new exhibit…

Crew member James and exhibit designer Chris making final adjustments to the tanks.

Graphic designer Valerie and Chris hanging gorgeous labels – lines of water poetry and vibrant images
of kids’ inspiring water play.

Dave Marchetti – the animal guy! – reinstalling our fish tanks.

Crew members Zach and Ian completing the artful entry waves, while James and Chris ready the smock wall.

Exhibits director Robin and researcher Suzy concocting pearlescent potions to swirl inside the “portholes”…

that are part of the wall Zach finalizes to separate the ice play table from the tank area.

James installing the toddler-height squeegee wall.

Plus LOADS of colorful loose parts!

It's been nearly two years of planning, designing, prototyping, fabricating and just plain hard work by the exhibits team and our partners, and it was well worth it. Join us to celebrate the opening of the amazing new Water Ways all weekend long, beginning Saturday at 9:00 AM!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Water Ways: A Flurry of Activity

So much has happened in Water Ways in the last two weeks!

Artists Peter Geisser and Mika Seeger installed a stunning ceramic mural that will be a focal point of the exhibit – stay tuned for a peek at their process of making the mural as well as the finished product.


Chris (Museum exhibit designer & fabricator) and Nick (Museum exhibit technician) built and installed a new zigzag tank in the toddler play area.


Our team of water engineers connected the water system they installed in our basement to the tanks.


And then we finally had WATER – something rather important for a water exhibit!

AND mist!
A vortex and spigot wall in the toddler area.

An entryway made of colorful translucent waves plus vinyl swooshes added to the windows complement the look, feel and flow of the space.


Crew member James installed the slate painting wall – a repurposed chalkboard salvaged from an old schoolhouse.


And Chris and Nick mounted a high-up waterfall that will provide a constant gentle shower into the tank below.


Just ONE WEEK to go!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Water Ways: Going with the Flow

The process of reinventing Water Ways continues!

Water exhibit specialist Tom Lindsay arrived from the West Coast to help install the interactive water components that he designed and fabricated – which meant working with water engineers to drill through the floor to the basement, which houses the new water filtration and mechanical systems.

Tom and Chris (exhibit designer & fabricator) work on the vortex tank in the toddler area.

Robin (exhibits director) and Chris (exhibit designer & fabricator) survey the tanks and components.

A core from the floor – check out all of the layers, which meant some serious drilling!

Crew member Robin installed the “wind wall” – a panel of silvery objects that shift and shimmer like the surface of water in response to currents of air. They’re fishing lures, actually – nearly 2,000 of them!


The team created some walls to subdivide the environment into its various components…

Chris created the frame for a divider that will
contain one of the activities in the toddler play area.
Crew member Zach worked on the wall that will
separate the ice play table from the tank area.

After welding together an intricate ice table and stools, Chris smoothed them out before sending them off to be powder coated – they'll be a lovely purplish blue next time we see them.


Robin and Valerie (graphic designer) made some final decisions about images of water play that will occupy two walls of the exhibit, then hung paper prototypes in the space to determine size and layout of the images and artful lines of water poetry.


Much more to come!