I am worried about children.


As an advocate for children, as a physician and as a mother, I am worried about the impact of our "new" normal for school this fall. Families are facing overwhelming stress and impossible choices; even parents who are fortunate to still have stable jobs and homes are scrambling to ensure their children will have appropriate learning experiences.


Parents were disappointed in the spring virtual experience, understandably so, and as a result have demanded more rigor. Schools have responded, the structure is there. But is it too much? Are we considering the whole child in this new approach? Are we considering what is a developmentally appropriate amount of time for a child to attend to one task? Are we considering the number of children who are experiencing toxic levels of stress at home?


Play must be included in the formula for successful navigation of this unprecedented time. We have to allow children the opportunity to express themselves through play.


The impact on children will be one of the most important and consequential outcomes of the pandemic. We need to make sure they experience developmentally appropriate learning.


Kansas is fortunate to be home to a nationally recognized leader in the children’s museum field, the Kansas Children’s Discovery Center. The Discovery Center has been making meaningful, impactful change in Kansas children’s lives since it opened eight years ago.


The Discovery Center is an inclusive place meeting children where they are. They have implemented programming for medically fragile children and for families with children on the autism spectrum (my therapy dog Lucy and I are part of these sessions called Puzzle Pieces). It houses the only certified outdoor classroom in the area and also has a mobile museum taking programming to all corners of Kansas. The Discovery Center was among the first two museums nationally to provide programming for children of incarcerated mothers and the only one that provides the experience free of charge.  Play is learning, and it is critical to the healthy social, emotional, and cognitive development of children.


One-third of museums across the country are expected to close their doors permanently. This data is from the latest survey conducted by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), to measure COVID-19’s impact on the industry. There are more than 300 children’s museums in the world serving millions of families. Children’s museums are nonprofit educational and cultural institutions that serve children by providing exhibits and programs that stimulate curiosity and motivate learning. They are joyful spaces for learning and play. All children’s museums function as local destinations, educational laboratories, community resources and advocates for children.


The Discovery Center is committed to being a resource for all children and although it closed its doors on March 13 due to concerns about coronavirus, the Discovery Center has continued to serve as a community anchor and resource and has provided free tailored online educational content. This content includes Discovery at Home, an online educational video series, that gives families tools to explore science, art, nature, physical activity, and more. Some activities are presented in Spanish and others are specially designed for children on the Autism Spectrum. Videos have collectively received over 350,000 views.


The Discovery Center has also brought learning into homes by delivering at-home learning kits to local families, including over 500 free activity bags for at-risk children. The Discovery Kindergarten and Discovery Baby programs pivoted online, connected incoming kindergarten students and first-time parents with expert advice. This is just a small sample of the services they continue to provide despite having been closed for months. Their outdoor space is now open with restricted numbers of visitors but at this time, the length of closure for the indoors portion of the museum is unknown.


The Discovery Center is unique as a non-profit children’s museum in that it receives no ongoing tax funding — not from the city, county, state or federal governments. They rely on admissions, memberships, sponsorships and donations to remain open to serve the families of Kansas.


The financial impact of the pandemic is dire. Children’s museums hold an important place for children in the best of times but in these times of extreme stress on children, and mostly online school, they are even more important. We need to support and value our children’s museums to help children during this difficult and stressful period in their lives and also so that museums will be viable after the pandemic and can be a resource to help children heal.


Ximena M. Garcia, M.D., is a retired physician who lives in Topeka.