For 40 years, Thinkery has uplifted Austin through providing valuable informal educational experiences and collaborating with community members to inspire curiosity, all while committing deeply to accessibility and inclusivity.
By Tess Harmon, Photos courtesy of Thinkery
Since 1983, Thinkery has elevated Austin’s community as a center for play-based educational experiences, which serve to inspire curiosity and a love for learning. Originally called Austin Children’s Museum, this hub for informal education was founded by a group of parents who ran mobile exhibits out of a station wagon. The museum grew in resources and popularity, eventually moving into its downtown locations in the ’90s. In 2013, Austin’s Children Museum moved to the Meredith Learning Lab in Mueller and rebranded itself as Thinkery due to its commitment to STEAM-based learning, which has become a core component of its mission.
Thinkery’s network includes both a passionate team of committed advocates, as well as the communities it serves and partners with to bring valuable learning experiences to Austin’s youth. According to Shaleiah Fox, Thinkery’s chief advancement officer, Thinkery’s STEAM-based learning programs are not just focused on motivating young people to enter STEAM fields. They are about fostering necessary life skills and a love for learning.
“STEAM-based learning is a foundation through which you can develop what we call durable skills,” Fox says. “Collaboration, communication, compassion, critical thinking, creativity—those are the skill sets people need to be successful in STEAM careers, to be successful in education careers, to be successful in hospitality, public service, you name it. The focus of STEAM moving to Thinkery and incorporating STEAM in an intentional way is to be open-ended. We’re going to be inquiry based, and we are going to nurture those durable skills so that children love learning forever, but then also understand how to creatively problem solve.”
STEAM-based and joyful learning are concepts Thinkery members are deeply dedicated to, as they implement research-backed approaches to education, which are part of national conversations about what formal education should look like. Brooke Turner, the vice president of STEAM learning at Thinkery, has herself witnessed the tangible impact that these programs have had.
“The community’s growing response is resounding in key moments,” Turner says. “For example, during our recent STEAM Learning Institute professional development program for educators, I received feedback from participants that gave me that ‘Aha! We’re making a positive impact!’ moment—they were feeling seen and valued. They were so on board with our approach to learning, an approach that they’ve seen work firsthand. An approach that’s a child-led, playful STEAM learning experience centered around belonging and culturally responsive teaching practices.”
In creating this sense of belonging that is integral to Thinkery’s educational environment, its leaders have developed a strong commitment to ensuring that it provides equitable access and inclusivity, an approach that is built directly into its programs.
“When we are facilitating learning experiences in Thinkery’s family museum or out in schools and community centers across the Greater Austin area, we write down what we hear and see; we check for understanding and accuracy working to recognize biases; and we work to center the voices of those we’re collaborating with, whether they are 3 years old or 80 years old, in our strategic planning, policy advocacy work, with partners, etc.,” Turner says.
Thinkery’s intentional charge to ensure everyone feels a sense of belonging, and has access to everything it has to offer, manifests in its accessibility initiatives. Through the Open Door initiative, Thinkery aims to eliminate financial barriers to museum and education programs. Thinkery offers two designated hours during the week when the museum is free; it offers scholarships to summer camps and its preschool, as well as field trips that offer discounted rates to Title I schools. Last year, the Open Door initiative reached close to 88,000 children, and Thinkery provided 149 scholarships to its summer camps and close to $50,000 in tuition waivers for the preschool.
While Thinkery leaders are keen on expanding these initiatives, they have also recognized that they must meet people in their communities where they’re at. According to Turner, Thinkery’s “strategic approach to community listening organically ensures [they]go to and enter partnership with communities who may not otherwise come into Thinkery’s physical location.”
Most recently, Thinkery broke ground on a shared facility with the Del Valle Independent School District and is building the first Thinkery neighborhood museum that will be freely available to the community during out-of-school hours. Meanwhile, its leaders are also working with Del Valle’s early childhood educators to infuse Thinkery’s learning approach and provide professional development.
“Truly everything we do from a programmatic and guest experience perspective is all about making sure that they have access, and when we think about what the next 40 years looks like, it really is making sure that every child that calls the Greater Austin area home has a Thinkery experience,” Fox says. “We have core values that drive everything we do; we want to be a place of belonging. We want to always play and have fun. Want to be innovative, and we want to collaborate. The way that we make sure that it’s not just about getting people here, but meeting them where they’re at, is through our collaborations and really building a bigger sense of belonging in the community to everything we do at Thinkery.”
Thinkery’s community-forward approach extends to its openness to collaboration, as it partners with organizations in Austin that help elevate local communities through building pathways for youth to have transformative educational experiences. These partnerships include an engineering program with the Boys and Girls Club of Austin and a play-based learning initiative with AVANCE, a nonprofit which supports low-income families with young children. Thinkery also hosts Welcome Days, where partners’ community members can come to the museum for free and explore the resources that Thinkery has to offer.
During these events, Thinkery offers professional development training, scholarships, memberships with flexible pricing models and more. Recently, Thinkery collaborated with the Black Mamas Village on a Welcome Day that also served as a “Back to School Bash,” complete with offerings of back-to-school haircuts, massages for caregivers, backpack giveaways and opportunities for children and caregivers to do STEAM-based activities together—all of which promotes Thinkery’s goal of fostering a verve for learning.
As Austin continues to grow, so does Thinkery’s engagement with different communities. Leaders at Thinkery maintain equitable access as a key component of their mission, even, and especially, as Austin changes.
“What stands out to me as we expand our impact, though, is our awareness that not every community needs or wants the same things,” Turner says. “Our approach to playful learning allows us to meet each community where it is, listen to where it wants to go and collaborate to support that shared goal. In our partnerships, communities feel like we customize experiences just for them, and that’s when we know we’re on to something. That sense of belonging is the whole point. That’s when innovation can really happen.”
For the past 40 years, Thinkery has been a source of growth for the Austin community and an intentional advocate both for children and caregivers. Fox and Turner have positive outlooks on what the next 40 years holds for Thinkery. According to Turner, Thinkery has developed strategic priorities with its community for the next three to five years that aim to “equitably expand access to Thinkery experiences, strengthen Thinkery’s museum as the leading Central Texas family learning hub [and]deepen educational impact through Thinkery’s STEAM Learning Institute.” Fox says she sees a future where children have Thinkery experiences before even entering the door.
“If I were looking at the headlines for Thinkery in 10 years, my hope is it says that it is a place where joyful learning is alive and thriving,” Fox says. “I see a future where there is at least one whole day where Thinkery is free each week, and it’s something that our city is investing in. It’s something that the new corporations that are moving in and taking advantage of our wonderful workforce, that they’re also seeing the importance in giving back philanthropically. [That] every child has a Thinkery experience, that is what I hope for the next 40 years. That’s my personal mandate; that is what drives me, that we are living up to our purpose to put the joy in learning so children can thrive, and that is happening all around Thinkery and beyond in the community.”