Where Learning is Child’s Play

 In Education, Just Causes

Children @ Play Museum

Carole Dawn Emerson often refers to herself as a “Director of Play” and it’s clear to see that the title suits her well as she looks right at home sitting on a child-sized chair surrounded by interactive exhibits, toys, blocks, and art supplies. As director of the Outer Banks Children at Play Museum, Emerson says her job – no, her mission really – is to provide a place where children learn through play. Her rule: Please touch.  Nothing within the walls of the museum is off limits for exploration and Emerson wouldn’t have it any other way.

From a humble beginning in 2007 that began when former museum director Alyssa Hannon would cart around cardboard boxes to places where children gathered, this children’s museum has come a long way in serving the region’s youngest residents and visitors. Emerson is clear on the message she hopes to send to every child and parent who walks through the door.

“Play is the highest form of learning for children,” says Emerson, who came on board just over a year ago and has a background in education and non-profit management.

“When I grew up, we got on our bicycles and rode to a place where we created our own forts. Not a lot of children in this day and age get to do that. Now kids are taught to not only get the right answer, but they are so pressured to get the right answer that there is very little time to create.”


Team building, problem solving, negotiating, thinking outside of the box – those are all things children learn through play, Emerson says. “It’s being taken away from this generation.” The museum aims to be a place where that will all be given back to our children.
With everything from a teddy bear hospital to a grocery store mock-up, there are abundant opportunities at the museum for children from birth to 12 years to learn without even realizing that is what they are doing. There is also a replica of a Carolina skiff for children to explore the lifestyle and economy of the many Outer Bankers who make their living on the water. 

CAP-bldg“We encourage parents here to put down their cell phones and iPads and get on the ground, build with the Legos, and reconnect with their children in that way. During the process of creating and building, children are building important neuro-pathways,” said Emerson.
The museum was incorporated in 2009 and was originally located on the east side of the bypass. It could accommodate up to 40 people at a time. When Hurricane Sandy flooded the building, everything was lost.

But out of bad things, good things can come, and so it was with Children at Play. Two and a half years ago, the museum found a new, bigger home at its current location at Buccaneer’s Walk in Kitty Hawk. Even with a capacity of 120 people, it is quickly outgrowing the space.  Approximately 85 percent of its users are local residents during the off-season, but that figure flips during the busy, tourist season. Last year, a total of 11,000 people visited the museum.

Emerson says a large focus of the museum is for it to be a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) facility.
“We’ve been here long enough to find out what the community wants and needs and really to be able to meet those needs in a much better way. We don’t want to duplicate what is already being done so well in the community,” says Emerson.


Carole Emerson at play with museum visitors at the Outer Banks Brewing Station’s Brew & Arts Mondays.

Children at Play’s mission and good works are not just confined to the building. It sponsors free Movies on the Sound during the summer for the whole family and routinely holds special programing within the community and schools. The museum sponsors the Windmill Art Shows at the Nags Head event site, as well as the annual Santa and the Train at the Outer Banks Brewing Station.

Science Thursdays and Arts and Literacy Friday are popular events at the museum. And it has joined with the Dare County Arts Council to provide art therapy for special needs children. Some use the facility as a designated safe place for reunification between children and parents who need a secure location.  

CAP-girls-groceriesEmerson says that the Children at Play museum is successful because of the support of the community and local businesses. “I have never been in a community where everyone pulls together like they do in this one.”

Recently, the museum garnered a $2,500 grant from the Outer Banks Seafood Festival’s Board of Directors. Grant money will be used to create an interactive exhibit, “Fish to Plate,” devoted to the challenges and economic impact of the local seafood industry.

Still, Emerson sees opportunity for growth. She envisions an outdoor children’s garden, an engineering lab, and an expansion of the square footage of the museum.

“Really I believe this could be a destination, and we could use four times the space. We have a desperate need for a meeting space and a science lab with low sinks.”

But regardless of space or resources, it’s clear that the Outer Banks Children at Play Museum will continue to be a place where our youngest citizens can play….and learn along the way. ♦

Michelle Wagner
Author: Michelle Wagner

Michelle Wagner is the editor at Three Dog Ink and has been living and writing on the Outer Banks for more than 15 years. Contact Michelle

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