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The New Children’s Museum: Where Play, Art and Science Meet

The New Children's Museum building exterior
The New Children’s Museum was built by local architect Rob Quigley and was one of the first green museums in California. The 360-degree window panels allow for natural light and air flow throughout the Museum’s three levels.

By Barbara Zaragoza

Splash paint on a 1954 Dodge pickup truck, jump on mattresses or climb inside an elaborate tree house. Kids don’t often get the opportunity to engage in this kind of unstructured play.

Tomoko Kuta, Deputy Director of The New Children’s Museum, explains, “We don’t live in a world anymore where children can just walk out their front door and spend all day outside.”

The New Children's Museum [1]As a consequence, children’s museums have begun to fill the role of providing free and open play—a vital component to every child’s physical, cognitive and emotional development.

Thirty-five years ago a group of passionate mothers established a traditional children’s museum located at the UTC mall in La Jolla. The fun, interactive toys included a dentist chair and a maze. Within a decade, the Museum had become so popular that it moved into a large warehouse in downtown San Diego. As its success continued, the warehouse was gutted and renovated. Rob Quigley—architect of the Tijuana River Estuary Visitor Center and the San Diego Public Library, among others—designed the new 3-story, 50,000 square foot museum building.

Toddlers painting in the Tot Studio
The Tot Studio is designed for the Museum’s youngest visitors. The creative space features rotating hands-on learning experiences to nurture lifelong developmental skills.

Since its re-opening in 2008, The New Children’s Museum has touted being one of the first “green” museums in California. Their large entryways face the bay, allowing air to flow into the Museum and provide a natural cooling system. The building even has an elevator tower that acts as a cooling tower and exhausts hot air. The majority of gallery spaces are naturally lit during the day, and the Museum’s light fixtures are powered by rooftop photovoltaic panels.

Kids paint a vintage Dodge truck
The vintage 1950s Dodge Truck, affectionately named “Flower Truck,” serves as a canvas for children (and adults) to express themselves through paint.

Alongside the Museum’s innovative design, the exhibitions team have created a different kind of vision: commissioning contemporary artists who build installations specifically for kids. Many of the installations at the Museum integrate art with concepts in science, history, and other relevant fields to provide children with hands-on challenges that stretch both their creativity and their abilities to innovate.

Think, Play and Create at the New Children’s Museum

Many generous donors help make the New Children’s Museum’s work possible, including San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E). In particular, the company supports activities that connect science and discovery with environmental stewardship.

Within the Innovators Lab, the Museum hires professional engineers, artists and architects who give kids various design challenges. Children fuse creativity and problem solving by experimenting with tools such as 3-D computers and lathes. They also get tasks that explore real-world issues. For example, SDG&E supported the Museum’s “Solar Car Design Challenge” during their 2018 Clean Air Weekend when children worked at the Innovators Lab to design and build solar-powered model cars. In the process, they learned about the importance of renewable energy and keeping our air clean.

The Innovators LAB
The Innovators LAB is a collaborative makerspace that teams artists with architects and engineers to create design challenges that nurture creativity, problem solving and skill building.

In addition, SDG&E has provided grants for the Museum’s Garden Project [3] that educates children on environmental responsibility. The Museum hired artist Isabel “Izzy” Halpern to construct a sculpture in the shape of an electric car made entirely of reclaimed cords and wires. Kids could hop behind the wheel and have fun while learning about clean energy vehicles. The sculpture was inspired by the company’s Power Your Drive [4] program, which builds electric vehicle charging stations throughout the region.  SDG&E hopes to teach kids early the role electric vehicles play in improving our air quality and minimizing pollution.

Garden with a wire car sculpture
The Garden Project, with support from partner SDG&E, gives children and families the opportunity to explore environmental topics such as conservation, sustainability and climate action.

The merging of the arts, science and sustainability makes The New Children’s Museum a space where kids learn to think and create while enjoying the pleasures of free play. “Every major city needs a good strong children’s museum,” Kuta explains. “Our children’s museum, I think, fills the need for open play, free play, which is really important for kids’ development. And SDG&E’s support helps make all of this possible.”