Celebrating Diversity Through Play

As an educational institution, we believe it is essential to visibly welcome and teach about diversity.

by Rebecca Shulman, Peoria Playhouse Children's Museum
Children playing at the Peoria Playhouse Children's Museum
Photo by Jeffery Noble

At the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum, our mission is to help children become explorers and creators of the world. We know that today’s children are tomorrow’s politicians, doctors, engineers, CEOs, architects, designers, artists and more. We help children around the region build the skills they need to be active and empowered creators of a positive future for our community. One of the most critical components of this mission is fostering an appreciation and respect for diversity.

Teaching children empathy, and encouraging them to embrace and celebrate diversity, is challenging but important work. In June 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, journalists, columnists and others began to describe racism itself as a pandemic. With the onset of COVID-19, we learned to address pandemics by both building on the excellent work that has been done throughout the past century (vaccine development, mask-wearing as a tool to prevent germ spread, tracking and communication systems to understand the impact of the disease) and by innovating and increasing efforts to address a rapidly-spreading virus. Similarly, the pandemic of racism has encouraged educational institutions to both continue ongoing work in this area and to create new, often experimental plans to ensure the safety, security and wellbeing of people of color in our community.

Our Ongoing Work

The PlayHouse is a facility of the Peoria Park District, and diversity has long been critical to its work. The Park District’s commitment to diversity includes a strong scholarship program, contracting and purchasing from minority-owned businesses, and numerous programs dedicated to developing a diverse workforce. More recently, the Park District developed “PPD on the Go!,” which brings play out into our communities to ensure all children have access to play in our parks. We are proud of this work, although we acknowledge there is more to do to ensure all children engage regularly in healthy play. 

Since the PlayHouse opened in 2015, we have made the commitment to both economic and cultural diversity central to our work. Our Explorer Program offers $3 admission and $15-$25 memberships to all families who receive food subsidies through the state’s WIC or LINK programs. We make it easy for families to take advantage of this program, requiring minimal paperwork so qualifying families can sign up even if they do not know about it in advance of their visit. 

“Celebrate Peoria” is a program series that showcases the diversity of our region through collaboration with community partners to celebrate and share cultural events and traditions. At the PlayHouse, we have celebrated Dia de los Muertos, Eid al-Fitr, Kwanzaa, Lunar New Year, Rosh Hashanah and more—holidays which some visitors never knew existed before they attended these programs. 

While the PlayHouse has worked with diverse collaborators throughout our community since its inception, the museum never had an official Diversity Committee. Last June, recognizing the crisis of racism and in order to understand the role of a children’s museum in addressing this crisis, we founded one. This committee met for the first time in July 2020 and has been hard at work over the past year on a number of initiatives to that end.

Peoria Playhouse Children's Museum
The Peoria PlayHouse Children's Museum officially re-opened to the public on May 28, 2021. Face masks must be worn by all guests ages two and up. Nellie Photography

Peoria Playhouse Children's Museum

Defining Diversity

Diversity can mean many different things. It is often code for specific initiatives, such as ensuring that a workforce includes people of color. It also can be a thorny subject—when we talk about diversity of thought, where are the boundaries? 

Together, the committee developed a series of statements to help define diversity in the context of the PlayHouse. These statements will be woven into the PlayHouse’s written core values. While this work is still underway, we now have a shared understanding about what we mean when we talk about diversity:

  • The Peoria PlayHouse values internal diversity (internal characteristics that a person is born into or identifies with) which includes race, ethnicity, age, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical ability and mental ability.
  • The Peoria PlayHouse values external diversity (characteristics related to a person, but that a person was not born with) which includes personal interests, education, appearance, citizenship, religious belief, location, class/socioeconomic status and life experiences.
  • The Peoria PlayHouse values worldview diversity (factors that define how a person conceptualizes the world around them) which includes political beliefs, moral compass and outlook on life.
Peoria Playhouse Children's Museum
At the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum, our mission is to help children become explorers and creators of the world. Photo by Jeffery Noble

The PlayHouse values diversity because we believe that what makes us unique as individuals should be celebrated and embraced. We value the sharing of experiences and diverse perspectives because it provides opportunities for personal growth, fosters empathy, and promotes the public good. The PlayHouse is a place where children and adults can come to experience the richness of diversity through play and creativity.

Diversity Programming Initiatives 

As an educational institution, we feel it is essential for the PlayHouse to visibly welcome and teach about diversity. But introducing children under the age of 10 to diversity in a meaningful way while they play is a challenge that children’s museums around the country struggle with. How can we add explicit and meaningful interventions to an everyday PlayHouse visit that help children understand and form connections with the diversity of culture and thought? 

Not surprisingly, we don’t have an answer to this question. However, we have tried a variety of programs over the past year to discover what works. One of the most successful is “Kappas for Kidz,” a partnership with the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, which includes virtual reading and cooking programs. The reading program features a variety of individuals—mostly, but not exclusively Black—reading picture books about children of color. These read-alouds have been shared on Facebook and on the PlayHouse’s YouTube page, with hundreds of viewers enjoying the videos.

The cooking program offers cooking lessons from minority business owners. So far, the PlayHouse has worked with Herreld Webster of Triple Dipple’s Treats & Delicacies and Everley Davis of Big Ev’s Bites; children have learned to make a snack mix and a pie, and how to use edible watercolors to decorate iced cookies. These programs are for everyone—in fact, many of the families who participated in the cooking programs are white. But by featuring Black business owners and their stories, we hope to strengthen the voice and presence of people of color within the PlayHouse and throughout our community.

Peoria Playhouse Children's Museum
The PlayHouse has initiated a number of programs to introduce children to diversity in a meaningful way while they play. Photo by Jeffery Noble

Looking Ahead

We know that simply saying the PlayHouse is for all children is not enough. There is a lot of work we still need to do to reach all children—to let them know that we are here and what we offer, and to actively welcome and engage them in play that helps all children gain the skills they need to be explorers and creators of the world. 

As we finalize our 2021 strategic plan, we are focused on weaving diversity through everything we do, in order to reach children and families where they are. We believe the PlayHouse is a space that can not only help each and every child learn through play, but a space where children come together, play with a diverse group of people, and develop the empathy and compassion for others that will help them create a beautiful future. PM

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