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Explore & More Children’s Museum at Canalside is about access

All the jubilant stories about the revived waterfront can’t mask the deep-rooted problem of poverty that lingers in Buffalo. There are few reminders of just how far the city has to go than the annual snapshot of poverty by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The numbers are stark. Nearly half of Buffalo’s children live in poverty, a greater percentage than all but two of the country’s big cities.

But don’t discount what’s happening on the waterfront as simply window dressing on a deeply troubled city.

A project that got a significant boost last week to build a new children’s museum at Canalside can seem, at a glance, far removed from the stark poverty that isolates entire communities.

But those behind the project to move Explore & More Children’s Museum from a leafy street in East Aurora to a four-story building overlooking a reconstructed canal downtown believe that the museum can be a space to bring all of the region’s children together – middle class or poor.

“When you think about Western New York, what matters most are our children,” said Barbara Park Leggett, director of waterfront expansion for Explore & More. The museum has raised $7 million toward building an expanded museum. Last week, Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. committed a new Canalside site and $9 million to the new building.

Providing all children with the opportunity for the type of informal learning they get at a museum of play isn’t just about fun. It’s the type of experience that researchers say can boost academic performance.

“Those out-of-school enrichment opportunities are often not available to kids whose families are trying to make ends meet,” said Shelley Kimelberg, an urban sociologist who is doing work for Explore & More to identify barriers that prevent some children from ever stepping inside the museum.

In other words, Kimelberg said, some families have time and money to take their children to extra learning experiences outside the classroom – from music classes to camps. But those opportunities aren’t available to all children across the economic spectrum. That’s where cultural institutions – art museums and zoos and children’s museums – can step in.

An expanded Explore & More, built in a more central location and with exhibits grounded in the region’s history and culture, would create a new space for children from all backgrounds to interact. “It’s really important to think about this not as just a place for kids to go and play, but also an important anchor in the community that says, ‘Hey, we welcome families, we welcome a very diverse population, and we see ourselves as really building the new Buffalo,’ ” Kimelberg said.

The move downtown – to a location more accessible by public transportation – is just one step that Explore & More is taking to expand its mission of play-based learning to more children. It already offers free admission to those who qualify for the WIC nutrition program. “People won’t be locked out of the museum because of cost and socioeconomics,” said Matt Davison, president of Explore & More’s board.

Building a new children’s museum isn’t going to be a panacea to solve child poverty in Buffalo. But it can be a part of giving all children greater access to the type of experiences that can boost learning and change lives.