The new leader of the DuPage Children's Museum in Naperville can talk theories of child development with the best of 'em.
Sarah Orleans can balance budgets with financial folks and keep pace with the technical terms used by anthropologists or environmentalists.
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But she knows that theoretical stuff is not what children's museums are really about.
They're about fun, play, exploration and a sneaky kind of learning by doing that's so disguised within the experience of having a good time that kids don't even know they're building new knowledge.
"Learning is a byproduct of having fun," Orleans said. "It becomes a byproduct of getting children excited about their own ideas, their own creativity."
In the lingo of educational theory, this is called constructivist learning, she said. Kids take blocks or balls or toys or anything they can find and build it into a scene from their imagination, often a much more complex situation than they could explain in words.
"We need more than language, sometimes, to really help us form our thoughts and build ideas," Orleans said.
Orleans, 59, said she knows much of this constructivist learning already is going on at the DuPage Children's Museum at 301 N. Washington St. in Naperville. Since she took over as the museum's president and CEO in February, she said her goal has been to build on these experiences, creating even more events, partnerships and programs for DuPage County-area kids.
"She's seeing that this is going to be a good challenge, a good opportunity for her to make the DuPage Children's Museum even better than it has been," said Orleans' husband, Dave Orleans, a retired naturalist who performs in museums as a children's musician.
Orleans left her job leading the Portland Children's Museum in Oregon as its executive director for eight years to come to DuPage. Before moving to Portland, the New Jersey native co-founded the Garden State Discovery Museum in 1993 using skills she built when studying for bachelor's and master's degrees in anthropology and environmental education.
Orleans said her parents introduced her to science and the outdoors, with her father setting an example in GE's early space program, and her mother training Girl Scout leaders to take troops camping. She's built on those interests throughout her career.
"She's very passionate about children and children's development," Orleans' husband said.
And in that realm, Orleans said the DuPage Children's Museum has a reputation as a "real standout."
"It's really focused on research. That's what makes the DuPage Children's Museum unique and that's what's important to me," she said about the nonprofit museum, which was established in 1987. "It's so much more than a place to come and play."
Yet play will remain at the museum's core as Orleans, 110 staff members and 800 volunteers work to develop a set of new exhibits called AWEsome Energy -- with the AWE standing for air, water and electricity.
One part of the exhibit, AWEsome Electricity, already allows children to flip switches and see what happens, learn about conductivity, assemble a giant circuit and climb on kinetic sculptures.
The air segment is expected to open next summer, but the museum is still raising money for the new exhibit about water. A $240,200 grant awarded in June from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources will help, but Orleans said a total of about $1 million is needed.
The "AWEsome" exhibits are being developed in the museum's new Prototype Shop on the first floor. There, researchers and designers will observe how everyday visitors interact with early versions of the features they plan to install.
Aside from new exhibits and continuing research, Orleans said she already cut the budget from $4.2 million last year to $3.6 million this year, and she aims to expand the museum's Center for Learning.
One Center for Learning project called Math Talk, will create teachable moments in grocery stores, where math-related questions such as "how many vegetables are not green?" will be posted in produce sections and other areas.
Orleans also said she envisions more partnerships with libraries, park districts and social service agencies as she builds on the foundation the museum's previous president and CEO, Susan Broad, established over 22 years.
Orleans "combines a deep passion for our mission of early learning for all children with a 20-year track record of successful organizational leadership," David Carpenter, chairman of the museum's board of directors, said in a news release. "We are confident that Sarah will extend (the museum's) national reputation for excellence developed under Susan Broad, and we're excited to work with her as she builds dynamic partnerships throughout our community."