On Tuesday, July 25th, just a few days before Toronto’s first and only children’s museum closed its doors to its pop-up location at 45 Strachan Avenue, ULI Toronto members and non-members received an intimate behind-the-scenes tour of the space. Located in downtown Toronto by Liberty Village in a 20,000 square foot building donated by a condo developer, children aged 6 and under came to the Children’s Discovery Centre (CDC) for “open play” and stimulating informal learning experiences. A children’s museum is unlike a conventional museum. Highly interactive and equipped with 10 Discovery Zones, CDC fosters a creative, unstructured, and educational environment.
The CDC was founded by Jeanhy Shim (CEO & Founder), who is also currently the President of Housing Lab Toronto, an independent housing research company. Supported by her advisory board, curators, consultants, architects, and dedicated team of early childhood development professionals, Shim was able to open the city’s first children’s museum. What started as Shim’s “midlife crisis passion project” inspired by a visit to the Bay Area Discovery Museum in San Francisco with her nieces, she saw an opportunity to respond to the growing urban baby boom that was starting to occur in urban neighbourhoods of Toronto, along with the growing demand for family-friendly and children-focused amenities in the city.
The free tour was made possible by a generous donation from developer Pinnacle International and the tour commenced with remarks by Anson Kwok, Pinnacle’s VP Sales & Marketing. The tour group congregated in the centre of the facility facing the Make Believe stage where Shim introduced herself, the CDC, and spoke about the importance of having a children’s museum in Toronto. Shim asked herself 13 years ago when she visited the Bay Area Discovery Museum, “Why doesn’t Toronto have a place like this?”. There are over 200 children’s museums in North America and Toronto only opened its first in May 2015.
The group started its tour in Imagination Station, where Shim encouraged the adults to play with the larger-than-life building blocks and the magnetized felt construction tile system to enable creativity and collaboration. The group then made its way to the Campground, where a large adult-sized canoe sat in the middle of the room, enabling children to experience an Ontario wilderness campsite. Next was the Mini City, where bikes, trikes, scooters, and wagons were parked at one end. Mini City is exactly what it sounds like — a kid-sized version of a downtown Toronto neighbourhood, equipped with a “construction zone” containing a gravel pit, pylons, shovels, and toy trucks. The Art Hive demonstrated the creative mind of a child with art displayed along the walls. Shim indicated that the art supplies made available were limited and rotated every day to encourage children to use their imaginations to create with what they were given. Going back through the Make Believe area, the group walked to the Boom Room where children learned to make music from instruments from around the world and household objects. The Pet Vet, a child-sized replica of a veterinary office meant to teach children about sympathy and kindness, was a fan favourite. Eat Street is where children mimic the actions they see at home with a toy grocery store and mini kitchens.
The tour closed off as the group went to Maya’s Storyland and First Discoveries. Maya’s Storyland is a reading room equipped with reading forts and hammock chairs inspired by Shim’s 7-year-old daughter. First Discoveries was designed for infants to encourage motor development with foam blocks and climbing structures. As the group sat inside First Discoveries, City of Toronto Councillor Mike Layton accompanied by his 6 month old daughter Pheobe, made closing remarks to Shim and the group. Adam Vaughan, Member of Parliament for Spadina-Fort York, also joined the group and made closing remarks. Shim thanked both the group and special guests, Vaughan and Layton, as they were both early supporters of the initiative.
There is no denying that the CDC demonstrates an emerging need for more family and children-oriented amenities in the dense new communities of Toronto as more young professionals choose to stay within the downtown core to raise families. Shim described this as a city-building exercise. With the growing population of Toronto and an approximately 55% increase since 2006 of young families with babies living downtown, this growing demand for family-friendly services, and amenities for children needs to be addressed. Shim stated that approximately 40% of the CDC’s visitors came from within 4 kilometres of the site, indicating that the urban baby boom is materializing. However, amenities and lifestyle experiences are not only required for young families living in downtown Toronto as Shim stated that approximately 40% of CDC’s visitors came from the 905 area.
What was originally intended to be a 4 month term and later extended to 14 months, the CDC grassroots pilot project came to a close on July 31, 2016. With plans to re-open in a permanent location within downtown Toronto, Shim and her team continue to explore opportunities for a new home. Shim introduced the idea of the CDC potentially moving to a “community hub.” Community hubs have been a hot topic in Ontario as the government invests more to expand child care and create spaces for child and family programs for community use.