Chicagoans are fortunate to have access to some of the finest museums in the world right here in our hometown.
However, the reality is that not all Chicago-area families are able to visit local gems like the Art Institute or the Adler Planetarium as often as they would like due to tight budgets, busy schedules or even less-than-ideal winter weather conditions.
The good news is that when families can't make an actual trip to their favorite museum, kids can still benefit from these valuable local resources-virtually.
Increasingly, cultural and educational institutions are offering interactive online activities on their Web sites for would-be visitors. Whether the site offers games, podcasts or problem-solving exercises, these activities provide an introduction to the collections and exhibits at the actual museum. This is a great way to prepare kids for an upcoming museum visit. Moreover, these resources also provide a valuable educational alternative when an excursion to see the real thing just isn't possible.
The Art Institute of Chicago is at the forefront of using online interactive resources to reach a targeted audience. The Art Institute introduced the Curious Corner feature on its Web site last May.
"This online program evolved from an initiative in the '90s to add interactive computers for kids in the actual museum," says Carolina Kaufman, coordinator of Educational Technology Programs for the Art Institute. "The idea is to educate young people about the museum's collection through play and discovery. These activities get kids excited about art while also focusing on developing specific skills."
Curious Corner is designed for children age 3-12. Kids are encouraged to explore the site with a parent, peer or even a teacher. However, the activities can also be an independent learning experience for older kids. Users can access the storytime feature to read about pieces in the museum's collection. In the section of the site titled "Play with Art," the user gets to play the role of artist while creating a mask inspired by various animal traits. Kids can then print and color their creation.
Visitors to the Art Institute can also access Curious Corner at kiosks in the new Crown Family Room in the Ryan Education Center. "It is our hope that visitors will want to go visit the artwork after they have used the interactive materials," Kaufman says, adding that this initiative has been very popular with users and the Art Institute plans to expand on its online interactive offerings in the future.
Several other Chicago museums have similar interactive online offerings for kids of all ages.
The Field Museum has collaborated with a kid-oriented social networking site called Kidscom.com to create an interactive game called Animal Adventure. Young users learn about biodiversity in the Illinois wetlands by collecting pictures of animals, creating puzzles and then voting on solutions that might save endangered habitats.
On the Museum of Science and Industry Web site, kids can learn about basic science principles through interactive games. For example, players can collect spare robot parts from various locations throughout the museum and then construct a simple machine.
The Adler Planetarium Web site offers interactive space trivia games and Teencasts that feature local students talking about science and conducting experiments.
Finally, although the Freedom Museum has closed its physical doors, virtual visitors can still learn valuable information about basic freedoms and human rights through online activities based on real-life court cases on the Freedom Project Web site.
Caitlin Murray Giles is a full-time mother of three and part-time freelance writer living in Wicker Park.
See more of Caitlin's stories here.