Children’s Discovery Museum expands outdoor learning environment

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Museum Doubles Entire Exhibit Space and Connects Kids to Nature

San Jose, CA – Childhood has moved indoors in less than one generation. Increased screen time and parents’ concerns about the potential dangers of exploring natural places are contributing to children’s disconnect with nature. Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose is aiming to reverse this trend with “Bill’s Backyard: Bridge to Nature,” a 27,500 sq. ft. outdoor expansion that doubles the museum’s current exhibit space and connects kids to the natural world. Slated to open June 2017, it will feature ten exhibit areas that bring science and environmental education to life for the more than 400,000 children, families and teachers that visit the venerable 26-year-old museum each year. “Bill’s Backyard” will demonstrate solutions that can be used at home: rain water harvesting, solar energy, and drought-tolerant gardens.

Research shows a direct connection between daily exposure to nature and children’s emotional and cognitive well-being.1 Children who are allowed to play outside freely build essential skills like critical thinking, problem- solving, creativity, risk-taking, and cooperation.

They also tend to be fitter and are healthier overall and more likely to support the environment as adults.  “Bill’s Backyard” is not a playground or a nature park. The innovative design is a hybrid with familiar features from both, so parents feel comfortable allowing their children to explore while gaining confidence in their children’s ability to navigate the natural world.

“This project is about supporting the healthy development of all children in our community and building parental awareness of the importance of children engaging with nature. But, we also know that children from low- income neighborhoods in the museum’s urban setting have fewer opportunities to explore natural places,” said Marilee Jennings, executive director of Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, and that ethnically diverse families are underrepresented in national parks and other outdoor recreational activities. Our goal as a trusted educational partner is to bridge these gaps.”

According to a recent report commissioned by Santa Clara County Open Space Authority, 75% of families within a 5-mile radius of the museum represent some of the most underserved families in Santa Clara County, with significant barriers to accessing nature. While the Bay Area is home to many nature preserves, trails and protected lands, the lack of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity amongst visitors indicates that a “bridge to nature” is needed.

Children’s participation in organized sports has increased over the past 20 years, and while that’s valuable, research shows it doesn’t provide the same benefits as outdoor creative play,” said Jennings. “As leaders in early childhood education and STEAM learning, the museum’s intention is to support the development of critical skills needed for children to be successful, help the next generation acquire environmental and sustainability behaviors, and role model for adults planet-friendly systems that help us adapt to a changing environment,” said Jennings. “When we accomplish these three goals, I will feel that we have succeeded.”

Imagine watching kids at play in “Bill’s Backyard: Bridge to Nature,” and realizing that:

today’s plant waterer is tomorrow’s drought management expert

today’s insect lover is tomorrow’s environmental steward

today’s composter is tomorrow’s environmental engineer

today’s dirt digger is tomorrow’s healthy soils leader

today’s tomato harvester is tomorrow’s innovative farmer

today’s rock sculptor is tomorrow’s artist-in-residence