BY BETH DEDMAN
Dozens of children climb in, on and around the brightly-colored comic book version of New York City. The kids may not realize that while they are having fun, they are also exercising the executive functions of their developing minds.
The Children’s Museum of Manhattan opened their latest exhibit Feb. 14, which is designed to encourage children to practice self-control, mental flexibility and working memory.
The 1,500 square foot exhibit, Superpowered Metropolis: Early Learning City™, features the adventures of Zip, Zap and Zoom, three pigeons who encourage children to train the “superpowers” of their minds by carrying out missions in a comic book-inspired New York City. The missions include navigating the subway system, making music with found instruments, exploring the pigeons’ headquarters and learning through experimentation.
“In the Early Learning City, grown-ups and kids can hit the road together and learn. We want them to feel empowered to help these kids’ brains and EMF skills are like superpowers for the brain,” said Lizzy Martin, director of exhibition development and museum planning.
Martin has overseen the development of the exhibit for the past couple of years, beginning the project because of a study that showed that executive function skills spike in children between ages 0-5, Martin said.
Martin wanted pigeons to be a main component of the exhibit because children see pigeons everywhere, which would help the kids remember the learning exercises they experienced at the museum everywhere they go in the city. With help from the Bezos Family Foundation and their early learning program, Vroom, they were able to bring Martin’s vision to life.
The museum consulted artists and illustrators from Marvel comics for the design of the super-pigeons and their NYC world, Martin said.
The exhibit includes the Treehouse Headquarters of the pigeons, a Supercharged NYC Train Table, Musical Subway Car, Whimsical Wind Blowing Fountain, Superpowered Phone Booth, Baby Central Station and the Pigeon Mobile, all of which encourage the kids in hands-on exercises that work their brain.
The only digital component of the exhibit is the three computers with digital Brain Building Games designed by NYU’s CREATE Lab.
“Executive functions are not about making a child an executive, it’s about giving them control over themselves,” Martin said.
All of the missions and signs in the Early Learning City are translated in both English and Spanish.
“This is a wonderful thing for the children, especially when it’s cold outside,” said Joan Worrell, a nanny for two little boys. “We love the whimsical fountain. I’ve never seen anything like that before and it’s a wonderful experience. We come here all the time, so when they said they were opening something new down here- this is just awesome.”
Children can also utilize the museum’s maker spaces to create the costume elements of each pigeon as a tangible reminder of the lessons they learned at the museum, Martin said.
Darsana Sabar is a member of the CMOM and brings her three kids to the museum a lot when they are not in school.
“I love all of the new sensory stuff they have: the smells, and the sounds and the baby area. It’s nice that it’s here because museums don’t always have baby spaces,” Sabar said. “It’s very imaginative. I don’t know where these super hero pigeons came from but my kid loves it. It’s also very New York City-themed and fun, which seems kind of silly because we’re in New York City but my kids love it.”
Elements of the exhibit will be incorporated in homeless shelters around the city so that kids experiencing homelessness can also expand the capacity of their executive functions, said Leslie Bushara, Children’s Museum of Manhattan’s Deputy Director of Education and Exhibitions. They will also be invited to special events where they can come to the main exhibit in the museum.
The museum is visited annually by 350,000 people with some 50,000 people enjoying free or reduced admission.
“CMOM’s founding mission is to serve as a valued resource for all families and community partners. Superpowered Metropolis is the latest of the Museum’s immersive, imaginative exhibits which are deeply anchored in research and playful experiences,” Bushara said.
The museum also recently unveiled the Inside Art exhibit, which allows children to touch and immerse themselves in real art pieces while also providing artists a creative space to develop their artwork and answer questions about their process.
The center of the exhibit is a creative community art space where children and parents can create their own artwork.
“There are these small moments that make up the fabric of childhood,” Bushara said. “Parents and kids have these moments here and we get to have a part in that. Our goal is to help the parents get inspired and excited to parent. It’s like experiencing ordinary things with your child but then seeing how special they are and having those moments together.”