Marbles Kids Museum: Success for the Next Generation

The following is an interview with Hardin Engelhardt (H), Education & Evaluation Specialist at Marbles Kids Museum, conducted by Meg Buckingham (M), senior marketing & communications officer for the Foundation.  

M: Hardin, can you tell me a little more about Marbles Kids Museum, and why our readers should care about your mission?

H: Ok! We are a children’s museum in Downtown Raleigh, and our mission is to inspire imagination, discovery and learning through extraordinary adventures in play and larger than life IMAX experiences. Much of our work supports school readiness.  Young children learn best through play and parents are their children’s first teacher. Families have play experiences at the museum that can be replicated at home to foster learning.  Through play, children develop language, literacy, math, and problem solving skills that equip kids to succeed at school and life. We also strive to make Marbles a place that is welcoming and accessible to all families in our community.  We bring together the diversity that is the Triangle so that everyone can take advantage of the rich play opportunities and learning experiences available at the museum.

Children are our future, so the more able we are to strengthen families and foster children’s development and contribute to their social, emotional, intellectual and physical growth the stronger their future will be, and in turn the stronger our future will be as a community.

Marbles has access to kids and families before they enter the school system. Studies show that the achievement gap starts way before kindergarten, beginning as a vocabulary gap.  Children from families with more resources are exposed to 30 million more words than children growing up in families with fewer resources. If we can close that word gap, which is really an experience gap, we are setting children up for success – reading on grade-level by 3rd grade, graduating from high school and successfully entering work force. Children are exposed to all kinds of new experiences at Marbles that provide the context or catalyst for them to be exposed to language and words through play, that then puts them on that path to being successful in school. Any dollars we invest in early learning are dollars we save later in special education, mental health services and more.

M: Do you think that your partnership with the Foundation this year has helped you make a greater impact?

H: Absolutely! Our project was a capacity building one – we wanted to build our team’s capacity to foster children’s literacy and language development through play. We had not had the funding in place prior to our grant to develop and implement that kind of training, and by equipping our team members with training to foster literacy through play,  we are able to better serve our children and families and help kids build vocabulary, content knowledge, and problem-solving skills through play and interactions with our staff. Because of the training we put in place through this project, our staff are engaging in more meaningful play interactions that foster language development.  They are also modeling for parents how to engage in more impactful play beyond the museum.

The grant from the Foundation not only helped us with this training, but also enabled us to strengthen existing partnerships and launch new collaborations with other organizations. Marbles is a very collaborative organization.  What’s exciting about projects like this is the collective impact we are able to have, by working with other partners like WCPSS, Wake County Smart Start, Wake Up and Read, and Motheread. When we all work together and coordinate efforts, we are able to reach more families and have a greater impact on children, families, and our community.

M: So, if I’m passionate about programs like yours for children, and want to get involved, how do I do that?

H: There are lots of ways to support the work that we do! We have a robust volunteer program with many hands-on ways to get involved – through direct contact with guests, playing with children and families, or behind the scenes by supporting program development, or assisting with special programs. Folks can also support us financially.  Marbles is a nonprofit.  We depend on financial support beyond admission fees to enable us to do all that we do. Our admission is one of the lowest in the country. That $5 admission fee does not cover the full cost of a visit, so we rely on support from donors, foundations and corporate partners to keep the museum accessible for everyone, so that more people are able to play here more often. Our Play Free program, supported by funding from individuals, grants, and corporate partners,  provides free visits for families who may not otherwise be able to visit the museum and free visits for Title 1 preschool groups.  Donations help us make sure that all children and families get to enjoy the museum and learn through play.

M:  Hardin, go ahead and get on your soapbox for a moment. What would you say is the single biggest issue affecting children today that you would like our readers to learn more, get passionate, about?  

H: I think the research is very clear about the critical importance of early childhood education. Investing in ensuring our children have the cognitive, social, emotional and physical tools they need to succeed in school right from the start is the wisest investment we can make. The financial benefits are multiplied in terms of cost savings later on, but also for maximizing children’s potential from the very beginning. Whether that’s ensuring that more children have more access to high quality early childhood programs, or ensuring that children and families have more play experiences like they do here at Marbles. Any support at that early age, benefits not only the children and families, but our community’s future as well.

The Foundation’s Capacity Building Partnerships grant helped Marbles create an archive of early literacy training videos and materials for ongoing use in staff training. Marbles currently has 12 videos in use that demonstrate to staff how to make each guest interaction as impactful as possible in fostering literacy through purposeful play interactions that build vocabulary, offer open-ended questions, and spark conversations that enhance learning. Team members have increased confidence in facilitating play interactions, especially in behaviors that support early literacy, enhancing the overall quality of visits for guests.