It’s Time to Play

It’s a new day for play in Buffalo at Explore & More — The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Children’s Museum

By Nancy Cardillo

Photos by Joe Cascio, courtesy of Explore & More — The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Children’s Museum.
Photos by Joe Cascio, courtesy of Explore & More — The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Children’s Museum.

When you think of your favorite way to play as a child, what comes to mind? Board games? Kickball in the street? Playing dress-up in the basement?

Playing is an important part of childhood and, believe it or not, our ability to play begins at a very early age. Babies who are just a few months old who smile back at dad’s goofy faces and mom’s silly noises are demonstrating one of the first forms of play.

But playing isn’t just a form of entertainment — it is a critical part of development. Ninety percent of our brain development happens before the age of 5, and one of the most important ways children learn is through play. Playing not only encourages children to use their imaginations and express their creativity, it also helps develop the whole child: socially, emotionally, cognitively, physically and academically.

Bringing accessible play experiences to improve school readiness.

A 2014 study by the Institute of Museum and Library Services concluded that kindergartners who visited museums showed higher achievement scores by third grade, regardless of socioeconomic status, than those who do not.

Explore & More — The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Children’s Museum, recently opened its brand-new facility at the base of Main Street in downtown Buffalo, on the historic footprint of the terminus of the Erie Canal in the heart of Canalside’s bustling boardwalk. But the museum has been bringing the power of play to children and their families for 25 years, since its humble beginnings in a 500-square-foot school basement in East Aurora. The museum eventually grew to 6,000 square feet and served more than 60,000 children and their families each year for two decades.

“Explore & More was started by a visionary group of educators, designers, parents and fabricators in East Aurora who recognized the importance of play for healthy development,” says Jeannine Weber Kahabka, director of marketing and public relations for the museum. “Their desire was to provide high-quality, play-based learning for children and their goal was to eventually be more centrally located in downtown Buffalo.”

In 2017, construction began on the museum’s new, 43,000-square-foot Canalside facility; it would be the first place-based children’s museum of its kind, with educational play zones that tell many of Buffalo’s unique stories and highlight the region’s history, geography, culture, agriculture, architecture, athletics, industry and innovation — all through hands-on exhibits that celebrate the power and benefits of play.

“Children learn through play and by doing. They are naturally curious explorers. So, by offering accessible, child-led play experiences, our museum is working to help improve school readiness for all children.”

Amelia Blake, manager of learning and education.

“Children learn through play and by doing,” says Amelia Blake, manager of learning and education. “They are naturally curious explorers. So, by offering accessible, child-led play experiences, our museum is working to help improve school readiness for all children.”

The museum offers four stories of fun to explore, including seven play zones and three educational play studios filled with thoughtfully-crafted exhibits to help children and adults develop a deeper sense of the world, the community and our place in it.

The seven play zones are:

• Being Good Neighbors: Visitors can learn about the diverse mix of cultures and families that make up Buffalo–Niagara’s neighborhoods.

• Moving Water: Visitors can follow the waterways (including a two-story waterfall and replica Erie Canal) through time as they carry boats, move people and power Buffalo.

• Playing Together: Families can run, move, play and dress up to see what it feels like to be a part of the sports teams that make Buffalo great.

• Lighting Buffalo’s Imagination: Museum guests can explore the ideas and innovations that fueled Buffalo’s prosperity and continue to power new ideas through wonder, discovery and imagination.

• Building Buffalo: Visitors will be inspired by Buffalo’s storied architectural history while working together to construct their own great structures out of different building materials.

• Farm to Fork: Drawing on Buffalo’s rich agricultural history, on this farm you can plant, grow, and harvest crops, as well as care for a milking cow and chickens.

• Rooftop Terrace: This outdoor play zone has a barn feature, a windmill, wind and music instruments, along with various plantings to soak up the sunshine.

Additional hands-on learning spaces include the Tinkering Tank, Cooking Galley and Art Studio.

Centrally located, the museum is now accessible to more than 225,000 children under the age of 15 in a 50-mile radius of the museum. It is fully wheelchair accessible and features visual, social, communicative, sensory and behavioral supports  including quiet kits, sensory-friendly rooms and a universal changing table to serve those with special needs.

Special programs play into curiosity.

Explore & More also offers a wide range of fun, engaging and educational programming daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and seasonally, as well as on school holidays and breaks.

“We have something new and exciting happening every day in the museum,” says Kahabka. “Program topics can include subjects ranging from STEM activities, art, music, culture and cooking to learning more about ourselves, our health, and our region.”

There’s “Au-some Evenings,” a program designed to meet the specific needs of children on the autism spectrum; “Super Sundays,” featuring monthly themed programming and activities; “HomeSchool,” weekly homeschool-specific programming tied in to monthly themes and that meet NYS state academic standards; “School Break Weeks and Fearless Family Play Day,” a full day of fun and engaging healthy activities throughout the museum’s play zones and educational studios the first Saturday of each month and presented by BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York (BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York members receive $1 off admission.)

“Play is good for the entire body, including brain development and physical health,” says Cait Zulewski, director of corporate relations for BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York. “The Fearless Family Play Day program is focused on physical health for the whole family, and designed so they can have fun together by engaging in physical activity that is approachable and enjoyable.”

For more information about Explore & More — The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Children’s Museum, including hours, directions, admission fees, membership and birthday and rental options, visit exploreandmore.org, email info@exploreandmore.org or call 716-655-5131.

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