Women of Industry: Gilpin battles arrested development in kids

Deborah Gilpin’s career has been based on a simple premise: too many parents of children under three years of age are missing opportunities for critical brain development in their children.

Gilpin, president and CEO of Madison Children’s Museum, is being honored with a Women of Industry award because her outreach gives economically disadvantaged parents of very young children enriching learning opportunities. Unfortunately, some parents don’t realize the vital connection between those learning activities — many of them involving physical activity — and future cognitive performance.

Gilpin, however, knows that research into early childhood development demonstrates that very young children learn through their bodies, and later on it converts to brain strength that allows them to think clearly and in context. She wants new parents to know that, too, and understand that in an age where computing machines are driving too much inactivity, the children’s museum offers programming to arrest any arrested development. 

“Some of the data shows that 90 percent of a child’s brain is wired up, the neuro networks are laid in during the first three years, and so anything we can do to enrich their experience during that time period is connecting all the parts of the brain, across the two sides,” Gilpin explains. “Later on, we prune these down, so it’s really important to initially put that in while the child is in such a fast-growing period. The variety of activities and things we expose them to in that time frame is really critical, and what it provides is the context for later on to help with judgment and decisions and critical-thinking skills.”

She cites an international study of young children in Russia who basically were “swaddled” for their first two years. They never left their cribs, so they didn’t crawl around and use their bodies. What researchers learned is that when these children were older, they could never learn some of the basics,” Gilpin explains. “They couldn’t learn to read because there is a large, connecting band of tissue in the brain that was not connected. So when we crawl or when we reach one arm across the middle, we help make the two sides work together. When you’re that young, what you’re doing is using your physical body and that becomes the networks that the intellectual capacity comes from later on. So in the third grade, when they couldn’t read, it’s because the physical stuff hadn’t happened.”

Programmatic response

Gilpin and her staff have designed a first-time parent program that is getting better-than-expected results and, based on feedback received from the outside, it has a real opportunity to become a state or national model. As she’s worked in museums for the past 30 years, she has heard people saying: “I’ll take my baby to the children’s museum when she’s 3 years old because there’s probably nothing in there for them yet.” This not only means that young children were not benefitting from the enriched learning environment of a children’s museum, but also that parents are not connecting to a network of resources and support.

“Basically, I said to my staff, ‘Let’s find a way to crack this.’”

Crack it they did. There are roughly 6,000 babies born in Madison every year and the museum staff logically felt that a fair proportion of those are first-borns. The program they designed gets the ball rolling at birth to 18 months because by that time, children are walking. The staff also knew that when parents bring their children for a visit, at any age, they realize there is a lot for a child to do. In reaching out to the community, they focused on underserved communities and enlisted the help of local health care systems to find families with very young children.

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“We thought that 500 families would take part, but in the end we had 2,000 families in less than a year, and they are continuing on that pace because they have visited and they have chosen to join when they age-out,” Gilpin says. “What I love about it is that we did not target a general public of families. We focused on neighborhoods with lower-income families that may not have a friend who has already visited the museum. We worked hard to get into those neighborhoods, and now we’re seeing these wonderful clusters of neighborhoods that never used to visit.”

According to Gilpin, for every dollar invested in a young child, you later save $14 in remedial services and training, incarceration, and other social costs.

Gilpin says the potential for this to become a national model is high because the museum is getting calls from other museums around the country — children’s museums in particular — with questions about progress and what has been learned. Museum staff has been asked to present and share the story at an international conference, and Gilpin fully expects wide adoption.

“Children’s museums, we really play well in the sandbox together, and so we share our data and our outcomes liberally.”

The result is that children’s museums now are becoming a place where people go for their kids to play, avoid isolation, and make social connections. The Madison Children’s Museum serves 220,000 visitors annually with hands-on, interactive exhibits and programs. First-time parents connect at the Children’s Museum, exchange phone numbers, and help spread the word.

“Those children’s museums have become that hub, that community hub for children, because we’ve recognized their value for a long time.”

Read the rest of our 2017 Women of Industry features:

  • Christine Beatty, senior center and senior services director for the Madison Senior Center
  • Teri Bruns, vice president of global partner solutions for VMware

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