May is Mental Health Month, and after two months of sheltering in place, transitioning to online home schooling, and coping with all of the issues associated with a pandemic, we are more aware than ever of the importance of caring for our individual and community’s mental health.
At Neighborhood North, we applaud the nurses, doctors, and essential workers who have cared for our sick these past months. You are invaluable, and we thank you. As we prepare to slowly open back up, we must regard health as a community issue and not just an individual one. This shift in perspective is especially true with regards to mental health. Community and individual mental health are often linked, and museums have a positive impact on empathy and social supports, which influence mental health and community fabric.
Children’s museum exhibits can be used to help individuals or communities understand or recover from challenging situations or trauma, such as gun violence or a pandemic. Children’s museums across the globe have been creating digital content to help children and families process the stress of these uncertain times in creative and meaningful ways through Museums at Home. A local example of children’s museums helping to promote healing and mental health is the XOXO: A Project about Love & Forgiveness mobile exhibit from the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum that was used to help bring understanding and healing for the community after the Tree of Life shooting last year.
However, museum spaces can do more than react to crisis, but can actually promote better mental and social health. For those who ask: “What do children’s museums and mental health have in common?”, we would answer, “more than you might think.” For those who are lucky enough to have a children’s museum in their communities, you may be aware of the important role they play not only in educating children but also in meeting a variety of family and community needs. In the Webinar: Mental Health in Third Spaces, Ascend The Aspen Institute (Nov 19, 2019), the potential of children’s museums and other “third spaces” to help meet the emotional and mental health needs of children and families is explored. Mental health services can be hard to access for many families, especially in communities with fewer resources, and increasing access through children’s museums is one way to help build the health and well-being of our communities.
In fact, access to museums is so important, that studies indicate that not having these resources available creates an inequitable curiosity gap that impacts both learning and flourishing. Research done by Wilkening Consulting noted that when public health practitioners evaluate when children are flourishing, they assess three things: curiosity, perseverance, and emotional control. They found that in the U.S., only 40% of school-age children assess as flourishing. This extends to adults as well, with one-third of adults reporting that they do not participate in any informal learning activities, thus receive none of the benefits. There are many external barriers that are largely rooted in inequitable social structures that make it harder for children and adults to feed their curiosity over their lifetime and thus thrive with resilience. Evidence also suggests that this curiosity gap actually promotes inequality and reinforces systemic problems and other societal challenges. Expanding availability and proximity to informal learning activities through children’s museums is one way to decrease the curiosity gap and increase flourishing in children and adults, promoting better health for our communities.
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Honoring Fred Rogers, creator of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, "Won't You Be My Neighbor Day" is on March 20th. Neighborhood North will dedicate the full week of March 20-25 to exploring emotions through mask-making in the Maker Space, followed by stage or puppet show performances.