TimesOC Check-in: Pretend City Children’s Museum hopes locals will invest in their youngest citizens

Pretend City Children’s Museum
A young shopper eyes the perfect orange at the Trader Joe’s exhibit in Pretend City Children’s Museum in Irvine. The museum has temporarily closed, but they have been continuing their mission by filming storytime videos and making guides for parents in these trying times.
(Courtesy of Pretend City Children’s Museum)

Our leaders remind us that it’s important to check in with each other, even as we’re sheltering at home and practicing responsible social distancing. In this ongoing series, TimesOC checks in with small businesses and nonprofits in Orange County during the coronavirus pandemic.

What: Pretend City Children’s Museum

Where: 29 Hubble, Irvine

When: The museum opened in August 2009, recently celebrating its tenth anniversary.

Background: Founded by Sandy Stone and Alex Airth, Pretend City is a child-size interactive city that allows kids to do activities like working on a farm and shopping at a grocery store, as well as playing pretend in a doctor’s office, gas station, post office, bank and more.

The museum currently employs 42 employees, though approximately half are part time. The current leadership includes Leslie Perovich, chief operating officer; Sue Harrison, chief development officer; and Ana Page, director of education.

Pretend City Children’s Museum
Kids at Pretend City Children’s Museum play in their interactive farm exhibit, where they can plant seeds and pick fruit.
(Courtesy of Pretend City Children’s Museum)

Current Status: They’ve shut down since Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order on March 19 for nonessential businesses to close and for Californians to stay home.

They noticed a decrease in attendance in February, which they initially attributed to the weather but now believe was impacted by coronavirus fears. The first case of coronavirus in Orange County was reported on Jan. 25.

They’ll be closed at least through the end of April (the Irvine school district recently extended their school closure until May 1), though it could be longer.

In the meantime, they’ve extended already-paid memberships for a month, and they’re taking the quiet time to refurbish and deep clean some of their exhibits.

Creative solutions: Though they are closed, they wanted to play a role in supporting families at home by providing distance-learning videos and a sense of routine, especially for their 2,700 members, some of whom are used to coming multiple times a week.

Ms. Cari’s daily storytime, a daily morning program for members, continues on social media. At each interactive exhibit of the museum, there is a Way to Play guide, and Page has been repurposing those activities for families with kids 8 and younger to use at home.

“We also just filmed a video called ‘Magic Milk,’ where you put food coloring in a bowl of milk and dip a Q-tip with dish soap into it to see what happens, the cause and effect,” she says. “Children are entertained and having fun, but they learn science, language, and we teach the parents how to ask open-ended questions ... to promote problem solving and critical thinking.”

Pretend City Children’s Museum
A kid brushes some giant teeth at Pretend City Children’s Museum’s dentist office.
(Courtesy of Pretend City Children’s Museum)

Challenges: “A lot of people don’t realize we are a nonprofit,” says Perovich, referencing their mission to “build better brains” and pointing out that 80% of our brains are developed by age 3, 90% by age 5.

However, about 65% of their revenue comes from the income made from attendance and events. On a busy day, the museum can fit around 700; on an average day, they can have 300 to 350. The closure has been difficult, and while they haven’t had to terminate any of their staff, they’ve had to scale down dramatically.

While there are advocates are lobbying for money from the federal and local governments to support nonprofits, there are still no concrete plans.

What would help: “Cash donations,” Perovich says, bluntly.

On March 18, the museum reached out to their supporters on their mailing list, explaining their financial situation and asking for help.

“People aren’t sure how to support us, but buying memberships as a gift, buying tickets to come back after we’re open, that’s important,” she says. “We forget that those first 5 years are so critical, and we really feel we play a major role in those first 5 years of our community. So that’s been our message: include our youngest citizens.”

Pretend City Children’s Museum
Pretend City Children’s Museum built a short set of stairs in the middle of their space so that young kids could practice their gross and fine motor skills.
(Courtesy of Pretend City Children’s Museum)

Overall Mood: “We’re making sure we address major concerns, but also celebrating all the good things that are happening,” says Harrison. “We recently had 19 out of 20 board members on a Zoom call, so that’s incredible support for us.”

She also talks about how various children’s museums around the nation, who are now all in the same situation, have been sharing ideas during this time of crisis.

“We’ve really come together as a community,” she says. “We’re talking about how we’re taking care of our staff, how we can keep people employed.”

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