The ABCs of ECE

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
~ Nelson Mandela

As the Week of the Young Child comes to a close, we sat down with Wendy Blackwell, the National Children’s Museum’s Vice President of Visitor Experience, to learn how she and the Museum have worked to make young children a focus and priority.

Why is it so important to focus on early childhood education (ECE)?
ECE sets kids up from the very beginning and prepares them for the rest of their lives. In addition to the academic benefits, it’s a critical time where children learn the fundamental skills needed for success – how to listen, how to interact with others, how to speak in public. Without that foundation, it’s like building a house on sand.

Do you think enough attention is given to ECE?
There can never be too much attention given! Resources today make it possible for parents to empower their children to learn more than ever before.

How does the National Children’s Museum focus on ECE?
Young children have needs regardless of their backgrounds or socioeconomic status, and NCM should and will continue to offer programs that support all children and families. Our 3 & Under gallery directly supports the development of our youngest visitors, catering to children as young as six months. Additionally, we are in the process of developing programs that support the needs of military children and special needs children. We also recognize the importance of empowering teachers to better support their students – in addition to recommended reading lists and other resources, the Museum plans to offer a certificate program for teachers that provides training on family literacy.

What inspired you to pursue your current career?
I began working with young children while employed by a school district in Baltimore, where I developed and designed the Transition Academy, an educational program for failing middle school students about to enter high school. The program, piloted at Port Discovery Children’s Museum, won the 2002 Promising Practice Award presented by MetLife Foundation and Association of Children’s Museums. My experiences working in the school district and with Port Discovery led me to working in museums ever since!

Faces of NCM!

Photo credit: Adam David Kissick

Photo credit: Adam David Kissick

We’re excited to introduce Faces of NCM, a recurring column designed to give you a behind-the-scenes look at the inner (and sometimes outer!) workings of the National Children’s Museum. In our inaugural post, we’re profiling Veronica Szalus, NCM’s exhibit director. Veronica has worked on many projects with NCM, including exhibit design and fabrication at the Capital Children’s Museum as well as project conceptualization, exhibit development and art direction for the newly opened National Children’s Museum.

You’ve been with the Museum for a long time. Tell us about your position and what you do.

I’m responsible for developing the look and feel of our exhibits. I also work with our education team to make sure our exhibits relate closely to our visitors’ programmatic experience.

What’s your favorite part about your job?

Working with wonderful people, and having an opportunity to think creatively about our space. Also, designing ways to interpret educational content is very exciting!

What types of experiences led you to where you are today?
I’m also an installation artist and have always been interested in art. I started as a jewelry designer and then went to Pratt to study industrial design. Industrial design is a field that relates to consumer goods, and I had an opportunity to do a lot of work with space design, which I grew to love. From that point on, I sought out opportunities where I could combine looking at art and space – installation and exhibit design became the natural manifestation of what I love to do.

Back to NCM, you, of course, played a heavy role in designing our 3 & Under gallery. Who’s your favorite Sesame Street character?

Big Bird! Although Oscar’s pretty alright too.

What should NCM visitors look forward to?

Definitely the integration of exhibits and programs. Our exhibits have a lot of richness and depth, and truly immerse visitors into different micro environments, like Our World‘s world culture and civic engagement components. But we also look to take that experience one step further, using programs (like our roaming actors) and educators on the floor to serve as a platform for providing additional interaction with our exhibits.

Do you have a favorite children’s book?
I love The Lorax by Dr. Seuss.

What’s your favorite vegetable?

Fresh farm lima beans.

If you could be any animal, what would it be?

Perhaps a dolphin; I love the ocean. And there’s an awful lot of unchartered oceanic territory to explore!