By Christian Leonard
When Anne McCurdy first took her children to Kidspace about 35 years ago, the Pasadena children’s museum was located in the McKinley School gym. It was a fun experience — McCurdy recalled that her youngsters’ curiosity was piqued by an ant farm — but the museum’s power to fascinate was somewhat affected by its size, a mere 13,500 square feet.
This summer, Anne and daughter Kelly McCurdy returned to Kidspace at an eventful time for the institution that strives to entertain while it educates. Just as Kelly has grown up — she watched her own daughters spend a recent morning in the museum courtyard, chasing bubbles — so, too, has the museum.
Kidspace is celebrating its 40th anniversary, having been founded by members of Caltech and the Junior League of Pasadena in 1979. And since 2004, it has roosted at Brookside Park, where it boasts more than two acres of outdoor exhibits for visitors to explore.
“Now that I have grandchildren, bringing them to this, I didn’t realize what they had done here,” Anne McCurdy said. “And the first time we came here, I was just shocked by the facility [and] the enormity of it.”
Kelly McCurdy’s children, Anima, 6, and Mariam Murade, 4, have experienced much of the park, having first visited it a few years ago. At first they frequented the reading area, later moving on to play in the Physics Forest and at “Trike Tracks,” a road-like driving area for tricycles, which has become one of their favorite activities.
“Our experience evolves as the kids get older. … The museum never gets old. Unlike [with] other museums and institutions, I always look forward to coming here,” McCurdy said. “The kids never seem to tire of the activities, it’s a nice mix of indoor, outdoor, physical play [and] also educational opportunities for learning. Really, there’s just so much to do.”
That is a description that perhaps reflects what J.J. Leissing, chief programs officer at Kidspace, believes is the backbone of what the museum does. Its mission statement is “Nurturing the potential of all children through kid-driven experiences, inspiring them to become joyful, active learners.”
The mission is “at the core of all of the things that you’re going to see us offer as an institution, but I think just getting to walk around and see the families actually experiencing the mission in real practice is, for me, the thing that’s the most profound and the most exciting element of what we do,” Leissing said. “Because you’ll hear it and see it in terms of the types of questions the families may be asking their children, or the children may be expressing to their families — just having these kinds of ‘Aha!’ moments is, I think, the thing that’s most exciting.”
Those moments can occur at such exhibits as the Physics Forest, which allows children to experience firsthand the power of kinetic energy and air pressure, and at an early childhood learning center and a dig site where kids can pretend to excavate fossils.
Part of Leissing’s role is to help plan events to celebrate Kidspace’s 40th anniversary, including the “40 Days of Fun!” program, now winding down, that has invited guests to take part in weekly thematic environments and activities. The themes have included the outdoors, water play and even slime. One of Leissing’s fond memories of the program, in fact, was watching Kidspace CEO Michael Shanklin volunteer recently to have slime poured over him.
“The ‘40 Days of Fun!’ came to be because we wanted our guests to experience the 40th anniversary in a fun, tangible way, and so we just figured, ‘Let’s just have fun and give them things that are going to be really cool, interactive experiences that will help create these unique memories as part of their visit,’” Leissing said.
Francine Wong, a visitor at the museum, explained that Kidspace and its recent celebratory programs have provided fun experiences for her children, who she said love playing in water.
“It’s been just easy,” she added. “Everything is really easy here. I think that they have a lot of things for a lot of kids … so I feel like it’s a place where I can bring [my children] and they can just kind of be.”
The museum has seen impressive growth in its 40 years, according to Leissing. A recent fundraising campaign brought in $13 million, used to renovate and enhance exhibits. Kidspace celebrated its 5 millionth visitor in 2017 and has had more than 370,000 guests in just the last year.
Part of what continues to attract their family to Kidspace, Anne and Kelly McCurdy said, is the staff, whom they have seen riding tricycles with the children and assisting kids in the engineering workshop.
“I think the most important thing is that they are genuinely interested in the children and have a real connection with the kids,” Anne McCurdy said.
Kidspace’s staff includes special program coordinator Anne Pierce, who said she works directly with children, “when I’m lucky enough to.” She explained that the themes selected for “40 Days of Fun!” were chosen because they’re things children enjoy exploring.
“When you make something relevant and you make something fun, it’s definitely a pathway to learning,” she said.
The current and final theme — bubbles — of “40 Days of Fun!” will remain until this Friday, Aug. 16, with children able to watch bubble shows and play in a bubble pit. But the 40th anniversary celebration will continue in the following months, according to Leissing, including a special event for adults in September and a new Halloween event.
Because the museum has existed for four decades, Leissing explained, some of its guests who visited Kidspace as children — Kelly McCurdy, for example — have by now taken their own kids to experience the exhibits.
“It’s really neat to see the memories that it sparks and the shared learning experiences that now parents can have with their children,” she said.
As for the future, Leissing’s greatest hope is a simple one.
“I would just love to see another really great 40 years to support the community, grow the great programs and offerings … and continuing to be a really important entity for Pasadena and Southern California families,” she said.