Step Into The Magic Of The Cayton Children’s Museum

Picture a place that invokes the wholesome art of imaginative play so effectively, it has the power to flip some of your most fixed perceptions on their head. Santa Monica’s new Cayton Children’s Museum is proof that such a place exists — and from the young to the young-at-heart, those who step into this portal of learning may step out seeing things a little differently.

Started as the Zimmer Children’s Museum on Wilshire Boulevard and grown through philanthropy, the vibrant learning lab has now bloomed into its permanent perch on the southeast corner of the city’s iconic Third Street Promenade. Just blocks from the Fairmont Miramar, the Cayton Children’s Museum offers 20,000 square feet of immersive experiences both whimsical and wise.

This isn’t one of those “seen-one, seen-them-all” children’s museums with a magnetized wall and infinity mirror tunnel. Sure, the Cayton has these things too, but like all of the museum’s attractions, they’re thoughtfully imbued with a deeper purpose. Deviating from the STEM-based structures of classic children’s museums, this institution is a horse of its own color, brimming with opportunities for self-discovery while focusing on core values like teamwork, community, and empathy.

The result is enough to put a twinkle in the eye of even the staunchest constituents of adulthood, as the joy flowing through the Cayton’s eclectic chambers is inescapably contagious. From the moment visitors walk through its front doors, the feeling starts to sink in that this creative hub is their oyster. Five interconnected central areas await exploration, each one purveying a distinct interactive exhibit meant to inspire a greater understanding of the surrounding world, as well as one’s place in it.

Take the “Let’s Help” exhibit, for instance, which features a series of repurposed vehicles and props representing first responder techniques across land, air, and water. Fueled by their imaginations, kids can step into the shoes of everyday heroes like firefighters, rescue pilots, and Coast Guard troops as they practice helping community members in need.

Other essential civil roles are available to sample, too. There’s an opportunity for kids to dress up, tool up, and try out the role of veterinarian in the Animal Hospital. They can also get a taste of waiting tables in the Café, which brings a fun focus to restaurant-related skills, the diversity of dishes, and the importance of family gatherings.

To emphasize what is possible with teamwork, the Cayton’s “Together We” wing was designed around the rewards of collaborative play. While dynamic exhibits like the ultimate sandbox, the human-size bubble maker, and the Rube Goldberg-inspired ball machine can certainly be experienced solo, their effect (and satisfaction) is greatly amplified when visitors interact with them together.

Perhaps this sector’s most compelling attraction is the Teamwork Waterworks table, a tiered platform with multiple points of access allowing children and adults alike to manipulate water into droplets, rivers, and waves. In order to achieve the most consistent flow of water, this communication-based activity is dependent on what others are doing upstream. When efforts are combined in joining individual droplets, the result is a river, meant to demonstrate how unified efforts can lead to a force for change.

Another main component of the Cayton experience is the power of perspective, and it’s this angle that the “Reach For” exhibit aims to provide. Suspended from the museum’s ceiling is the Courage Climber, a sprawling canopied realm of colorful nets meant for climbers of all abilities to explore and observe their environment from a different point of view. The elevated course also offers sinking circles, lookout perches, a flexible tunnel, and a rocky valley.

Back on ground level, a Plexi Dome has other opportunities to explore unique, possibly unconsidered vantages, reminding those who enter that seeing something in a different perspective can bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood.

Considering its dedication to the development of lifelong skills, it’s little wonder that the Cayton also includes an area for reflection, introspection, and sometimes, unexpected connections. The “Reflect On” exhibit offers a number of singular endeavors to inspire just that. In one space, set up as a flourishing scene of nature, being calm and quiet causes digital butterflies to flutter back into view from their hiding places. A concept museum curators call “counter-intuitively intuitive,” this room reminds its inhabitants that sometimes stillness is necessary to discover meaningful opportunities.

The next room over contains the Hello Booth, a motley assortment of wall-mounted telephones plugged into an elastic network of imagination. Modeled after Japan’s Telephone of the Wind, this space encourages participants to make a call to reach anywhere or anyone they desire, whether it be Superman or a beloved dog who has since passed.

Last but certainly not least of the Cayton’s main exhibits is the “Launch Your” wing, centered around an area for babies and toddlers to safely crawl, climb, and gain awareness of their surroundings. Chock-full of textures, this area lets the museum’s youngest visitors have their first touches of the world around them. Spangled across the ceiling, the Skyscape installation ties the exhibit together, offering a colorful spectacle of moving sculptures to stimulate developing minds gazing upwards.

The Cayton also boasts its own Thespian theater, multipurpose rooms (perfect for birthday parties), a calendar of special programs, and a pair of art studios, one of which lets younger guests crawl through vegan paint with sponges and brushes to create joyous live renderings of splashy art.

In a place so full of singular experiences, it may be impossible to grasp the museum’s ambitious message in just one visit. But even so, it only takes a few hours to yield a profound discovery, or even rediscovery, of an individual’s power to be kind and compassionate to themselves and those around them.

To quote Albert Einstein (and the unofficial Cayton mantra), “Play is the highest form of research.” It’s this notion that drives the museum’s curriculums of self-exploration, and the lessons that emerge illustrate the Cayton’s mission to cultivate better people, and ultimately, a better world.

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