I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand. Founders of The Magic House, inspired by this ancient Chinese proverb, wanted to create a magical, joyful place where children could learn by doing. They understood that education is not a spectator sport, and that kids respond strongly to hands-on learning experiences that encourage experimentation, creativity and the development of problem-solving skills. So in 1979, they opened the country’s first completely participatory museum designed especially for children.

Now known as The Magic House, St. Louis Children’s Museum, the Kirkwood-based nonprofit has grown from a small, 5,500-square-foot experiment in a quaint Victorian mansion to a nationally known, award-winning educational resource with 55,000 square feet of exhibits. “We serve more than 555,000 visitors annually, and Zagat’s has named us the nation’s top attraction with the most family appeal,” says president Beth Fitzgerald.

Kids love playing with the museum’s interactive exhibits, including an electrically charged ball that makes their hair stand up and a wall that reproduces their shadow in glowing 3-D. Few can pass up a trip down the three-story slide, or a stop at the new Make-It Workshop, where visitors experiment with everything from embroidery to robotics. “More than 55,000 children visit us each year for field trips that support classroom learning and meet state and national education standards,” Fitzgerald says. An additional 25,000 participate in the museum’s outreach programs, based in classrooms, libraries and hospitals. “We’re dedicated to serving as many kids as possible, including those who have the fewest opportunities,” she says. “Title 1 schools are eligible to receive free programming, and about half of all students who visit are admitted at no charge through our education program fund.”

But, unlike many other area cultural attractions, The Magic House doesn’t receive ongoing local, state or federal support, nor is it a United Way agency. “We couldn’t have made it all these years without the many generous individuals and community partners who help us keep our doors open,” Fitzgerald says. A major fundraising gala, the Big Birthday Bash, celebrates the museum’s 35th anniversary. Randy Costas and Melissa Swank co-chair the Sept. 27 event, which takes place at The Magic House. Edward Jones and Bill and Sally Canfield serve as platinum sponsors. “Proceeds support our birthday wish: to provide 35,000 under-served children with free educational programs in 2014, 10,000 more than last year,” Fitzgerald says.

Entering the museum’s 36th year, Fitzgerald and the board and staff have no intention of settling for the status quo. “We’re expanding our professional development programs for teachers and, with support from Boeing St. Louis, strengthening our collaboration with early childhood education agencies,” Fitzgerald says.” I’ve been here from the beginning, and education has always been at the heart of our mission. Seeing the look on a child’s face when she learns something new never loses its thrill. We’ve shown so many kids and families over the years that learning can be an adventure. That’s really something to celebrate!”

Photo courtesy of the Magic House

[Big Birthday Bash, celebrating The Magic House’s 35th birthday, takes place Sept. 27 at The Magic House, St. Louis Children’s Museum, 516 S. Kirkwood Road. Proceeds benefit the museum’s free educational programs. Tickets start at $175 per person. For more information, call 314.288.2516, or visit magichouse.org.]