“I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.”
George Benson and then Whitney Houston may have made these lyrics famous, but singer-songwriter Linda Creed wrote them about remaining strong through life’s trials and passing that strength on to the next generation. This message still rings true, and the importance of preparing today’s children for the challenges awaiting them–especially in this increasingly complex and technologically advanced world–has never been greater. Thinkery, with a mission to “create innovative learning experiences that equip and inspire the next generation of creative problem solvers,” plays a significant role in teaching children well as they prepare to lead the way.
Founded in 1983 by a group of passionate and dedicated parents and educators, Austin Children’s Museum grew out of a desire to provide children with unique educational and cultural opportunities. During its first few years, the museum operated not out of a building but out of a station wagon as the team took their show on the road to schools, public libraries, and city parks.
In 1987, the museum began offering activities and programs out of its first permanent location on West 5th Street. As Austin grew, so too did the museum’s populace, and in 1997 the museum relocated— thanks to a generous expansion campaign—to its second, significantly larger home in Austin’s Warehouse District. Continued growth led to one more move in 2013 to the museum’s current 40,000-square-foot facility in the Mueller community. Along with this transition, Austin Children’s Museum became Thinkery, a “creative community with a passion for lifelong learning and discovery.”
Thinkery was built and continues to grow on the foundational blocks of inclusivity, respect, innovation, cooperation, collaboration, and creativity, learning through play, learning throughout life, and maintaining a standard of excellence. These beliefs and values guide Thinkery’s STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) exhibits and programming, allowing children to have fun while developing problem-solving and critical thinking skills through purposeful play, exploration, and trial and error.
Younger children enjoy chugging engines along wooden tracks in Train Town; quiet reading or guided storytime in Story Nook; learning about nutrition, healthy food choices, and local food sources in Fresh! Farmers’ Market; moving their bodies in Move! Studio; and expanding and improving sensory and early motor skills in Bloom, a garden-themed area specifically designed for Thinkery’s youngest learners. Older children welcome the opportunity to direct their own stop motion animation movies in Innovators’ Workshop; create and build using new materials and tools in Spark Shop; manipulate colors, light, and shadows in Light Lab; and investigate connections between water and sound in Currents. The annual rotating feature gallery, which was home to Earth, Wind, and Inspire for nearly three years, transitioned over Memorial Day weekend to showcase the new Notion of Motion exhibit. Finally, Our Backyard invites the young—and the young at heart—to completely immerse themselves in creative play. This accessible playground allows children to safely explore while feeling like they are on an adventure.
As part of a larger learning community, Thinkery is committed to uniting, supporting, and harnessing the unique assets of families and homes, teachers and schools, nonprofit organizations, and resource groups. Thinkery invests in education both on and off the premises, sometimes by teaching parents and caregivers how to guide children’s learning or simply connecting parents and caregivers with one another, and other times by sharing educational resources and innovative learning techniques throughout the community. “The strategic direction for the museum is finding ways to take our programming beyond our four walls,” explained Director of Marketing and Communications Jeff Dellinger. “We’re focusing on community partnerships and taking STEAM activities into communities beyond our own.”
Through Thinkery’s EdExchange program, educators become the students. They begin with collaborative, hands-on, professional development workshops to prepare to deliver STEAM-based education in their professional environments. After implementing what they have learned during the workshops, participants exchange ideas and share what worked well in classroom and real-world settings. EdExchange is offered at no cost and primarily geared toward educators working with elementary-aged students in Title I schools and/or in low-income areas.
A partnership with The Center for Applied Cognitive Science at The University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Psychology— takes STEAM education a step further. This cooperative effort aims to build best practices into Thinkery exhibits and improve the community’s understanding of how children learn. In early 2021, a generous Museum and Library Sciences grant led to the opening of Thinkery Connect Headquarters. This epicenter for research, learning, and implementation includes a Research Hub, where visitors participate in studies designed to evaluate learning and visitor experiences. There is also an Exhibit Prototyping Zone, where visitors examine, experience, and provide feedback on exhibits before researchers deem them ready for the general museum population. And finally, the Community Resource Nook, where caregivers and educators gather information about local child learning and development resources. Through Thinkery Connect, the process of designing and creating exhibits and programming is always evolving with the goal of constantly improving.
Visit Austin’s Thinkery
In addition to its general admission hours and regular programming, Thinkery offers a wide variety of popular spring break and summer camps. Thinkery is also available for school field trips and private parties and is home to its own research-focused, play-based Little Thinkers Preschool.
In an effort to ensure access to its resources across all socio-economic groups, Thinkery’s Open Door Initiative provides subsidized museum admission, camp scholarships, and field trips. Thinkery also offers completely free Community Nights, held each Sunday afternoon, to allow all children the opportunity to explore everything the museum has to offer, regardless of a family’s ability to pay.
As today’s young people become tomorrow’s adults, society will likely reap the benefits of resources like Thinkery . . . places and people prioritizing teaching children well and preparing them to lead the way.