Walking into Pretend City Children’s Museum in Irvine as an adult makes you feel like you are walking into the mind of a child, so much so that you can’t help but wonder how spectacular it must look to the children it was designed for. Despite the name, the Children’s Museum isn’t a museum in the traditional sense. It is a place of learning, yes, but a place of learning through activity and interaction, full of exhibits where kids can get a hands-on experience with whatever concept the display challenges them to explore. It is discretely educational, created for young minds to learn, maybe without fully realizing it, while engaging in fun, social exercises and adventures.
As you walk through the warehouse in which the museum is currently housed, it is hard not to be blown away by the attention to detail put into the creation of the museum’s world. It is called “Pretend City” for a reason, as the entire space is specifically designed to represent some of the best-known places in Orange County, scaled down to match the size of a young child. The welcome booth matches the clock tower and brick work of Irvine’s own Civic Center. You can see the local Irvine fire and police stations modeled in the miniature stations in the museum’s own city center, which is a youthful take on the Orange Plaza fountain and Circle. There is a bank, a doctor and dentist office, a gas station, an amphitheater and many other interactive worlds for children to learn in and explore. The museum even has its own scaled-down Trader Joe’s, the interior and displays created by actual Trader Joe’s fabricators to look almost identical to your local store.
It is hard not to be blown away not only by the museum’s design, but by the clear enjoyment of every child in their own paths of exploration through the exhibits. There is a lot of fun to be had within Pretend City’s walls. And with about 100,000 children (about 250,000 guests total) visiting annually since the museum opened 10 years ago, you can tell that the trip is a fun experience for everyone. Still, the museum’s primary objective is to “Build Better Brains,” and every aspect of the museum has a purpose, and each space comes with its own learning objectives. Some are inherently academic, like the bank, which promotes math skills, or the marina, which provides the building blocks of physics. The dentist and doctor offices promote personal health, while also making children comfortable with visiting these types of places in the real world. The museum’s art studio challenges children on a creative level, allowing them to create whatever their minds imagine with the supplies provided.
Still, other areas of the space are informative in a cultural way, thanks to the museum’s “Developing and Discovering Diversity” program. Pretend City does quite a lot of work to ensure that every culture, ethnicity and way of life are included within their walls. The museum’s miniature café switches up its menu to represent a new place every few months. Currently, it’s Hawaiian, with not only Hawaiian food choices for the kids to “cook,” but pictures and phrases posted on all the walls to help them with language and a deeper cultural understanding. The museum’s “home” section also represents a new real-life family every month. This month’s family is The Thomassons, a Swedish-speaking, vegan family. The walls in the home’s bedroom are repainted and redesigned to match the interests of the children, and visitors are able to start to understand that even though a family may not look or act exactly like theirs, they are a family, nonetheless. The museum also celebrates every holiday imaginable. In fact, in the month of March, they have had 18 events within 31 days, a rather remarkable feat.
Pretend City’s focus on child development goes further than this. Their “Good to Go from Head to Toe” initiative at the museum educates parents about healthy child development and the importance of regular developmental checkups, which they provide free to interested participants every month, one of the few places in the area to do such checkups. Many of the museum’s sections are designed to push this development further, providing young children with the tools to develop motor skills, communication skills and problem solving. In addition to this developmental focus, the museum also provides regular health screenings for purposes like dental, hearing and vision.
Pretend City ensures that it is a place for all children, be that from a standpoint of culture, language or ability. For families with children who have autism, the museum puts on Family Autism Nights. The event is free, so there is no obligation for families on days when they may arrive and realize that it might just not be the night for them. In addition, the entire museum is made to be more autism-friendly, with dimmed down lights and softer music so as to not over-stimulate any of their visitors.
Pretend City has been in the same place since its opening a decade ago, but thanks to some help from the city of Irvine, it may soon be finding a new home. The museum is currently in an exclusive negotiating agreement with the city to receive a new, permanent location within the Great Park. With a much larger space that includes areas for both indoor and outdoor exhibits, the move would be a well-deserved expansion. The museum is currently in the middle of their 90-day review process with the city, so it may be some time before the move officially happens, but soon enough, Pretend City may be re-opening its doors somewhere new. This move would open huge potential for an even bigger, brighter future for the museum, much like the futures they work to provide every child that walks through their doors.